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Fault Lines: Contemporary Abstraction by Artists from South Asia

Through April 10, 2022

This spring, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is presenting Fault Lines: Contemporary Abstraction by Artists from South Asia, an exhibition that features the work of Tanya Goel, Sheela Gowda, Priya Ravish Mehra, Prabhavathi Meppyail, Nasreen Mohamedi, and Zarina – six female artists all originally from South Asia who have practiced throughout the world and share an abiding preoccupation with abstraction. With materials that range from cow dung to copper wire and handmade paper, these artists create works in different media—including paintings, sculptures, textiles and works on paper—to explore ideas of memory, home, and belonging.

Among the artists included in Fault Lines is Tanya Goel (born in 1985 in New Delhi; active in New Delhi), who has produced a site-specific drawing for this presentation, titled Index V, 2015/2020. Made by applying natural brick and ultramarine pigment to the gallery wall using a basic tool of measurement, a snap line, this work was inspired by Delhi’s monsoon rains and the concept of geologic time, with Goel’s ordered lines and corresponding curve correlating to global changes in sea levels over centuries. In notation in x, y, z, 2015, the artist has employed a textured grid of handmade pigments made from architectural debris. These pigments are marked with varying inscriptions, that identify the geographical coordinates of the found elements, and can be interpreted as a blueprint of a rapidly changing landscape.

Installed nearby is a selection of works on paper in ink and pencil by Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990, born in Karachi; active in Baroda [current Vadora]) that depict suspended forms and intersecting planes composed of precisely ruled lines. Mohamedi’s work has been distinguished for its emphasis on minimalism as opposed to the figurative style that influenced much of Indian modern art in the twentieth century.

Sheela Gowda (born 1957 in Bhadravati; active in Bangalore) is best known for sculptures and installations made from locally sourced materials, many of which carry social and religious associations. Her earliest work in the exhibition, Mortar Line, 1996, is a sculpture of bricks made from cow dung as well as kumkuma powder– a red pigment commonly applied to the forehead to mark the channel through which humanity can connect with the Divine. Meanwhile, Gowda’s monumental sculpture, A Blanket and the Sky, 2004, offers a commentary on the makeshift housing structures that typify many impoverished communities across India. Viewers are invited to look inside the sculpture; its lower opening revealing a wrinkled blanket on the floor while the upper opening presents a cityscape illuminated by pierced holes that mimic the stars in a night sky.

Fault Lines also marks the first time that the work of the late Priya Ravish Mehra (1961-2018, born in New Delhi; active in New Delhi), has been shown in the United States. Regarded as a weaver, she specialized in the traditional Indian darning technique called rafoogari, frequently used to mend torn textiles, which finds its origins in the town of Najibabad, northeast of Delhi, where the artist has ancestral roots. For Mehra, the mending in her work is both a physical and spiritual process intended, in her own words “to repair the corroded fabric of life.”

Zarina (born 1937, Aligarh; active in New York) is a printmaker recognized for her handmade works on paper and use of subtle line patterns. In 1959, Zarina was exiled from India as Muslim families were uprooted in the wake of the 1947 Partition that divided British India into the nations of India and Pakistan, an experience of displacement that continues to preoccupy her work. Her featured series of woodcuts is titled These Cities Blotted into the Wilderness (Adrienne Rich after Ghalib), depicting aerial maps of borders that have been under threat due to political conflict including Sarajevo, Beirut, Ahmedabad, Grozny, Srebrenica, Kabul, Jenin, Baghdad, and New York. Each map is marked in English and the artist’s native language of Urdu. In line, text, and image, Zarina draws out the ways in which war rips apart people, land, and languages.

A unique work by Prabhavati Meppayil (born in 1965 in Najibabad; active in Bangalore) features sixteen panels made from rows of copper wire that appear and then disappear beneath built up layers of gesso. Born to a family of goldsmiths, Meppayil’s sensibility is rooted in the artisanal craft that is an integral part of her life and work in her home city of Bangalore.

Amanda Sroka, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art, who has been traveling throughout the region for research as part of a sustained collaboration with the museum’s department of South Asian Art, said: “These works reveal the power of the line as they speak to the fault lines of our fractured and divided existence - the boundaries between tradition and modernity, the powerful and the powerless, presence and absence. Shown together, the line becomes a map of, and a metaphor for, geological, political, and psychological landscapes.”

Alter Gallery 276

Amanda Sroka, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art

This exhibition has been made possible with support from the museum’s endowment, through the Daniel W. Dietrich II Fund for Excellence in Contemporary Art.

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