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Memories of Zarina Hashmi

Also available in:  Chinese

Portrait of the artist. Photo by Ram Rahman. Courtesy Luhring Augustine, New York. 

Capturing a time

BY HG MASTERS

In 2011, Zarina Hashmi was one of four artists selected to represent India at the 54th Venice Biennale, in the country’s first national pavilion. When the curator, poet, and theorist Ranjit Hoskote wrote about his curatorial premise for the pavilion as a laboratory for studying the concept of the nation, he cited Sunil Khilnani’s passage from The Idea of India (1998): “ultimately, the viability—and most importantly, the point—of India’s democracy will rest on its capacity to sustain internal diversity.” At Venice, Zarina exhibited her suite of 36 abstracted woodblock prints, Home is a Foreign Place (1999), dedicated to memories of the place she was born, along with a hanging strand of gilded lightbulbs, Noor (2008), and Blinding Light (2010), a gold-leaf-covered sheet of paper. For Hoskote, Zarina’s art “emerges from the quest of a subjectivity profoundly shaped by the trauma of the 1947 Partition of British India. In a profound sense, it embodies India’s birth moment, when Independence and Partition occurred together, producing lifelong questions of identity and belonging for South Asian Muslims.”

Born in 1937, Zarina grew up in Aligarh, the daughter of a history professor at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Sheikh Abdur Rashid, whose family came from Punjab. As she recounted to Samir S. Patel in ArtAsiaPacific Issue 54 (Jul/Aug 2007): “Culturally, in Aligarh, we were Muslims, but we considered ourselves Indians.” She was ten years old when British India was partitioned on August 15, 1947, into the states of India and Pakistan, splitting the Punjab region in half. In a 2017 presentation at the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University, she recollected hearing mobs outside her house before she fled with her sister and mother in a truck to Delhi, where they stayed in a refugee camp run by an uncle. Though she saw roads strewn with dead bodies on the way, she counted her family fortunate compared to the millions who were displaced or killed in sectarian clashes. For Zarina, “the pain of Partition came much later,” as she witnessed the promise of a secular, pluralistic India collapse through recurring communal riots and pogroms against Muslims during her lifetime.

With an interest in becoming an architect, she studied mathematics at AMU. In 1958 she married a young Indian foreign-service officer, Saad Hashmi, and his work took them abroad, first to Bangkok, where she first learned woodblock printing. Meanwhile, her family moved to Karachi in 1959. After a stint back in Delhi, the Hashmis’ peripatetic lifestyle took them to Paris, where Zarina studied intaglio printing with Stanley William Hayter at Atelier 17 from 1963–67, and in 1974, she went on her own to Tokyo where she was an apprentice to master woodblock printmaker Toshi Yoshida.

Moon, from Home is a Foreign Place, 1999, portfolio of 36 woodcuts with Urdu text printed in black on Kozo paper, mounted on Somerset paper, 41 × 33 cm each. Photo by Farzad Owrang. Copyright the artist. Courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

She came to know many of India’s modernists, including Nasreen Mohamedi and Tyeb Mehta in the early 1960s; Krishna Reddy, SH Raza, and Akbar Padamsee in Paris; and many more when she lived in Delhi between 1968 and 1974. During that time, she exhibited at Gallery Chanakya and Kunika-Chemould Art Centre in New Delhi, and the Pundole Art Gallery in Bombay (now Mumbai). A 1970 issue of the Baroda-based magazine Vrishchik, edited by artists Gulammohammed Sheikh and Bhupen Khakhar, features her print Cage (1970), depicting vertical planks of wood arranged like a cube. It evokes a line from the magazine’s editorial, “Against Communalism,” which decries mass murders, communal riots, and the imprisonment of South Vietnamese captives “like animals in ‘tiger-cages.’”

Finally, in 1975, Zarina moved to New York, where she would live for the next four decades. She taught at the Feminist Art Institute for ten years and was involved with editing a 1979 issue of Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics, on “Third World Women: The Politics of Being Other.” She later told curator and art historian Sadia Shirazi in 2018 that she didn’t want to continue working with the publication because “feminism for me was about equal pay for equal work—not about burning bras,” and because there weren’t any other people of color involved, although she did befriend artist Howardena Pindell through the journal. In 1980, Zarina co-curated “Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists of the United States” with fellow artists Ana Mendieta and Kazuko Miyamoto, at A.I.R. Gallery.

In an online conversation organized by Gallery Espace on May 6, 2020, photographer Ram Rahman recalled their visits in New York in the 1970s, when they each lived in abandoned downtown lofts and used to browse stores on Canal Street for plexiglass forms that she could use. At the time, Zarina was making sculptures in cast paper that featured repeating, architectural forms, like Corners (1980), rows of trapezoidal indents, or squares, as in Pools (1980). “Her work was never abstract,” Rahman said. “It was minimal, but it always had a reference to a text, poem, or architecture.” Zarina’s encounter with Eva Hesse’s abstract but corporeal sculptures at a 1973 retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum left a lasting impression; she was deeply moved by the works, and thought of Hesse, who had escaped Nazi Germany as a child, as “a kindred spirit . . . also born in a foreign country and [who had] suffered a sense of loss.” Just as Hesse’s use of latex, resin, and polyester evokes the human form, for Zarina, “Paper is like skin, it can be stained, pierced, and molded and it still has the capability of breathing and aging.”

Language and poetry were always important to Zarina’s practice. In Father’s House 1898–1994 (1994), a print created after her father’s death that year, she annotated the outline of her family home in Aligarh with Urdu phases. As she told Samir Patel: “My childhood was very language-bound because everything revolved around Urdu culture, poetry, and literature.” In Home is a Foreign Place (1997), each of the starkly geometric woodcuts features the Urdu word for the print’s subject; Home represents the floorplan of the Aligarh house, while Moon traces a radius of all the waxing and waning phases. She wrote in Conversation with My Self, published by Gallery Espace in 2011: “I chose Urdu not for the beauty of the calligraphy or the exoticism of its aesthetics. I was placing my work in a historical moment, capturing a time when one wrote and read in Urdu.”

Father’s House 1898–1994, 1994, etching printed in black on Arches Cover buff paper, chine colle on handmade Nepalese paper, 76 × 56 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Zarina herself felt that “poetry and the word can sometimes be more significant than images . . . I think in words and then make the image.” Curator Roobina Karode, who organized “Zarina: A Life in Nine Lines | Across Decades – Borders – Geographies” (2020) at New Delhi’s Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, observed that Zarina’s is a rare practice where “poetry and geometry come together so beautifully.” Likewise, Ram Rahman proposed that while Urdu speakers can appreciate another layer of her art, “the work in its visual purity actually moved people to understand the depth of what she was talking about—even without connecting to the allusive, ephemeral use of the words.” For scholar Aamir Mufti, writing in the catalogue for Zarina’s 2012 retrospective “Paper Like Skin” at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim in New York, “the insertion of single words and phrases open up the possibility of exploring [a] complex zone of mutual translatability in our conflicted world.”

Atlas of My World, 2001, portfolio of six woodcuts with Urdu text printed in black on Kozo paper, 65 × 50 cm each. Photo by Farzad Owrang.
Copyright the artist. Courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

As someone whose life stretched across many continents, she wrote in a terse sentence that resonates literally and metaphysically that “maps became a necessity to chart my route and find my destination.” Zarina extended her personal geography with Atlas of My World (2001), six woodcuts showing her countries of residence across North America, Western Europe, Southeast Asia, Japan, and the divided Subcontinent. A later series, Cities I Called Home (2010), comprises five woodblock prints of maps of Aligarh, Bangkok, Delhi, Paris, and New York. As art historian Vazira Zamindar observed in a 2017 symposium at the Asian/Pacific/American Institute, Zarina’s maps “draw upon all the power wielded by cartographic lines, as well as their ghouls, their shadows.” For Zamindar, the artist’s depictions of roads and borderlines are imbued with the ideas and emotions bound up with displacement and dispossession that are the hallmarks of minorities living in the modern nation-state. As Zarina reflected in 2017: “Where is home? In one’s imagination. Like [Federico García] Lorca’s saying that all great art has an edge of melancholy.”

One of her most iconic works, Dividing Line (2001), is a woodblock print of a jagged line that streaks like a lightning bolt across the page. Aamir Mufti described the work as “a gesture of staggering economy.” Zarina herself wrote: “The first border I drew was the border between India and Pakistan, the dividing line that split families, homes, and the fabric of life of millions of people.” If it doesn’t portray any exact locations on the border, but rather the hurried chaos and tragic void Partition created, her print is a personal, psychic cartography: “I didn’t have to look at the map; that line is drawn on my heart.”

Dividing Line, 2001, woodcut on Indian handmade paper,  mounted on Arches Cover white paper, 65 × 50 cm. Courtesy the artist.

As Zarina reflected more on her life and career, the exilic sense of loss—of her home, her family, her country, her language—was amplified by her practice but also ameliorated by her Sufi beliefs. As she noted at the end of Conversation with My Self: “My work has been about memory but eventually everything has to go, nothing lasts forever . . . I am preparing myself to encounter the Blinding Light and leave the Darkness of the Soul behind.”

Photo of the artist working while chatting on the phone in her New York studio. Courtesy the artist and Yukari Edamitsu.

Zarina (1937–2020)

BY SARAH BURNEY

Zarina began her day by peeling and eating the seven almonds she had soaked in water overnight.

She hated eggs but ate them regularly for breakfast.

“Good protein.”

With a slice of brioche.

And tea of course. That Renu brought from India.

Only Renu’s tea.

Found writing emails tedious but never left one unanswered.

Wanted to make art, read, and look at art.

Knew exactly how her paper was made.

Carved her own blocks.

Didn’t believe in test prints.

“Don’t assume you’ll get it wrong.”

Called watercolor monotypes “squashed paintings.”

Rarely listened to music.

Met minimalism at Fatehpur Sikri.

Never forgot the texture of a ruin.

Took the ceiling furrier hooks in her Chelsea apartment down herself when she moved in in 1976.

Was tidy.

Organized.

Never wanted an off-site studio.

Overused her label maker.

Grew bamboo in water, in a square vase filled with clear glass beads.

Had Trader Joe’s orchids that blossomed annually.

Would ask if you were hungry when she was hungry.

Cooked us elaborate meals on her countertop hot plate.

Insisted on not working during lunch and tea.

Detested disposable cutlery.

Complained that we spent the whole day drinking tea.

Would buy your favorite biscuits.

Washed and reused ziplocks.

Enjoyed attending and throwing a party.

Wore black or gold nail polish exclusively.

Loved her short white hair.

Often dressed like her art.

Wore Serge Lutens Fleurs d’Oranger.

Always made time for young artists.

Would read the book you mentioned in passing.

Would indulge gossip with mock-disapproval.

Chuckled at inappropriate jokes.

Cracked many more herself.

Respected Liz’s tattoo.

Pretended to be offended when you called her an old fox.

Never stopped roasting me for saying I enjoyed Pretty Woman. Once.

Reserved Friday afternoon for prayer.

Saturdays for seeing art.

Loved talking to museum guards and gallery receptionists. Always remembered

their names.

Saved every artwork she was gifted.

Signed both pieces of the sculpture we accidentally broke and gifted them to me

and Yukari.

Was loyal to her hairdresser, manicurist, bakery, and dealers.

Overpaid her housekeeper on principle.

Taught herself French.

Loved technology.

Told me she did not know the meaning of the word “afraid.”

Was a Muslim artist.

Was a teacher.

Liked eating chocolate ice cream at night.

Often stayed up later than she wanted going down YouTube rabbit holes.

Never stopped missing her sister, Rani.

Recited Urdu couplets even after the Alzheimer’s had set in.

Was happiest with Saima and Imran.

Was ready.

Blinding Light, 2010, Okawara paper gilded with 22-karat gold leaf, regular vertical slits, 185 × 100 cm. Photo by Farzad Owrang.
Copyright the artist. Courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

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