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Across the Threshold of India – Photographs by Martha Strawn

March 31, 2022 – November 12, 2022
Robert K. Black and J. Ormond Sanderson Gallery

Light Shaft, in a passageway in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, 1986.

Sarasvati, Hindu goddess of the arts and knowledge, surrounds and permeates the mysteries of spice, taste, and art in Indian culture. One practice in honoring her spiritual foundation is to sanctify the space between physical and spiritual existence by the creation of evanescent drawings, which are typically made of rice flour carefully sprinkled on the ground in transitional spaces to create intricate patterns. Martha Strawn, visual ecologist and photographer, has documented  the practice of making these “threshold drawings” (kolam or rangoli), and presents them at NC State’s Gregg Museum of Art & Design in Across the Threshold of India—Photographs by Martha Strawn. 

The designs have captivated her for over thirty years, resulting in image after image of these special diagrams drawn on the actual thresholds of Indian homes. They are usually created by the women of the family, and serve to symbolize the separation of secular and sacred spaces, and as a protection from evil, ill will or bad luck. The designs, often based on natural forms, may be used to separate rooms within a house, a home from the street, or a business from the bustle of the surrounding world. The patterns, which are often quite intricate, can often be found in other examples of Indian vernacular art such as tapestries, rugs, cloth, and architecture. The exhibition will include a selection of Strawn’s photographs enhanced with examples of Indian culture and design from the Gregg’s permanent collection.

“To discover and live in the immediacy of an ancient practice of art, life, and religion has been a truly humbling yet remarkable gift,” Strawn says in the preface to her book. In addition to photography, Strawn has engaged in extensive research based on interviews with the women who make these diagrams, documenting Indian culture over a period of over thirty years. 

Threshold designs may be created to mark a wide range of life’s mileposts, such as fertility rituals, weddings, births, or deaths. Patterns and techniques are passed down through generations, from grandmother to granddaughter and vary from region to region. As Strawn has noted, “These diagrams are magical and mysterious in their complexity and in their simplicity.”

Martha Strawn, a Professor of Art Emerita at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte,
co-founded The Light Factory Contemporary Museum of Photography and Film, was a Fullbright fellow to India, and a National Endowment for the Arts fellow in photography. Her photographs have been exhibited worldwide, and in addition to the book, Across the Threshold of India: Art, Women and Culture, she is the author of Alligators: Prehistoric Presence in the American Landscape (1977), and (with Yi-Fu Tuan) Religion: From Place to Placelessness (2009).