Zarina Hashmi has lived and traveled all over the world investigating the essence of identity, drawing upon sources ranging from her childhood memories in Aligarh, India, to contemporary political events. “The Ten Thousand Things” featured three sculptures, three print portfolios and nine unique works on paper as relics of her journey so far. Curated by Luhring Augustine’s Lisa Varghese in collaboration with the artist, the show offered a rare look at 30 years of Hashmi’s practice and an examination of her prints—the body of work for which she is best known—alongside works in other mediums.
The exhibition took its name from a quote by the Tang dynasty poet Cen Shen: “When the 10,000 things have been seen in their unity, we return to the beginning and remain where we have always been.” It opened, fittingly, with a suite of recent prints that featured a meandering sequence of branchlike lines and dots mapping the cities Hashmi and her sister have visited in Pakistan and India. Travels with Rani I (2008) Travels with Rani II (2008), and Wrapping the Travels (2009) synthesize themes of rootlessness and conflict found elsewhere in her oeuvre. Born in 1937,
Hashmi was ten years old when she witnessed the violence of Partition, Britain’s division of the Subcontinent into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-dominated West and East Pakistan. In this series of intaglio and woodblock prints, the boundaries of each country are implied by the terminal points of her routes and not the demarcations of national borders, revealing the subtle means by which the artist simultaneously exploits and subverts a variety of human-made systems.
Houses are a recurring image in Hashmi’s exploration of the idea of home as a transient place. The wall sculpture Couple of Houses (1984) consists of a row of 20 dollhouse-sized and shaped aluminum casts. Evenly spaced and slanted slightly to the right as if in a forward march, they rounded a corner of the main gallery like a processional frieze. The portfolio of etchings, “Homes I Made / A Life in Nine Lines” (1997), illustrates the floor plans of nine apartments and houses around the world where Hashmi has lived. Their stark architectural frameworks are offset by the intimacy of handwritten inscriptions that allude, in the artist’s native Urdu, to memories associated with each place. Bangkok (1958–1961), where she moved from Aligarh after marrying, is “first home.” Bonn (1971–1972) signifies “an uncertain time.”
Hashmi’s work is typically characterized by a formal austerity that rewards the patient viewer. The earliest pieces in the exhibition were two 1979 untitled works made solely from vertical sheets of white laminated paper with large rectangular fields of bumps formed by the repeated piercings of a sewing needle. Hashmi refers to such works as “pin drawings.” As the viewer’s gaze lingers on the paper’s surface, ghostly outlines of grid patterns emerge from the handmade constellations of tiny holes.
“The Ten Thousand Things” culminated with “Home Is a Foreign Place” (1999), a portfolio of 36 framed woodcuts hung in a grid on the far wall of a separate room, creating the effect of a sacred space. Each woodcut contains an abstract symbol that functions as a synaesthetic device, corresponding to a particular sensation or natural element. In Rain, a veil of diagonal lines of varying lengths calls to mind the staccato beat of raindrops. In Afternoon, a long, horizontal “X” at the top of the composition conjures the breeze of a ceiling fan’s blades whirring overhead on a hot summer day. Fingernails appear to have clawed at the ink- covered surface of the concise Despair.
The range of dates and mediums in the exhibition—Hashmi’s first at Luhring Augustine—was carefully determined with a broad audience in mind, a strategy reflecting the artist’s cosmopolitan sensibilities. The survey was a poignant reminder of the ways Hashmi uses a range of universal codes of representation, including maps, pictograms and geometric shapes, to impart intimate experiences and explore the intangible gap between the specific and the general.