ZARINA HASHMI, Cities I Called Home, 2010, portfolio of five woodcut prints and text on handmade Nepalese paper, 66 × 51 cm each. Courtesy the artist.

Dark Roads

Zarina Hashmi

Asian/Pacific/American Institute
India USA

Zarina Hashmi infuses both a personal history and global narrative into her minimalist printmaking. As was observable in the exhibition “Dark Roads” at New York University’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute, where she is the artist-in-residence for 2017–18, many of Zarina’s works map out her movement from her birthplace in India to places across the world, while the bird’s eye view she often employs serves to connect a familial story of displacement with that of other migrants, refugees and victims of war.

Emblematic of the artist’s fractured roots, Dividing Line (2001) depicts the geographical line that demarcates India from Pakistan. Born in 1937 in Aligarh, India, Zarina experienced firsthand the fallout of the Partition in 1947 when her Muslim family became separated between the two newly created states. Yet in the woodcut printed on Indian paper, there are no signifiers to denote which side is which—nothing to reflect the people, their culture or religion. All we see is a thick, jagged rupture, its abstract appearance indicative of the arbitrary nature of political boundary-making. Some twelve years later, Zarina returned to the dividing line, this time inversing its black and white spaces—with the land in Abyss (2013) rendered as an opaque, inky field, the focal point is placed entirely on the line, underscoring how its historical impact still reverberates today.

More than anything, Zarina feels like an exile. “I call it a life on the road,” she said, referring to the many different cities and countries she has lived in since leaving India at the age of 21. The only sculpture included among the paper-based works, I Went On a Journey (1991) encapsulates the artist’s extensive travels with the wheels of the house-like cart facing all four directions. She further chronicled the shifting notion of belonging in Cities I Called Home (2010), which comprises five woodcut prints, each mapping a different locale. In the image of her hometown, a square symbol represents the house in which she grew up. A black-and-white photograph of the actual structure hangs nearby. The series then jumps to Bangkok, New Delhi and Paris before finally arriving in her current home of New York.

ZARINA HASHMI, Dividing Line, 2001, woodcut print on handmade Indian paper, 65 × 51 cm. Courtesy the artist.
ZARINA HASHMI, Dividing Line, 2001, woodcut print on handmade Indian paper, 65 × 51 cm. Courtesy the artist.

ZARINA HASHMI, Srebenica from These Cities Blotted into the Wilderness, 2003, portfolio of nine woodcut prints with Urdu text on Okawara paper, 40 × 36 cm. Courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York. 

New York figures as a point of connection between the places that have formed her identity and those that have altered the global fabric. These Cities Blotted Into Wilderness (2003) commemorates nine locations marked by violence and conflict, including Sarajevo, Beirut, Baghdad and Kabul. Again, Zarina lays out the cities using woodblock prints, while playing with figurative imagery in some of the depictions. For example, in the image of Srebenica, a repeating pattern of rectangles alludes to the mass burials following the 1995 genocide of more than 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks, in lieu of streets. The print labeled New York simply shows two stark strips, referencing the Twin Towers struck down on 9/11.

In addition to seeing the world from an aerial perspective, the act of flying preoccupies Zarina’s imagination. The inner pages of her earlier work Flight Log (1987), molded from paper pulp, contain a swirl evocative of the artist’s perpetual state of suspension, as well as four lines of text: “I tried to fly / Got caught in the thermal / Could never go back / Having lost the place to land.” Meanwhile, her latest collages No Escape I and II (both 2015) reference drone warfare.

More recently, however, Zarina has turned her attention to crossings made by refugees, such as those fleeing Syria. A white paper boat floats in the blackness of a sea in A Child’s Boat for Aylan and Ghalib (2015), paying homage to two young boys, Alan and Ghalib Kurdi, who drowned in the Mediterranean with their mother while attempting to reach Greece. In Sinking Boat with a Heartbeat (2015), Zarina traces part of an electrocardiogram onto the outline of a vessel as a way to not only remind the viewer of the loss of life but also for us to consider what it would be like to put ourselves in that same position. An individual’s heartbeat does not differentiate between place of origin, race or religion. It is universal. Of course, a displaced person’s perilous journey does not end with the voyage. From boats to tents, the paper forms in Refugee Camp (2015) bring to mind another possible fate, while the crushed paper in Starting Over (2016) suggests that new shores can never truly offer a blank page—trauma leaves scars, whether visible or not.

In the era of President Trump’s Muslim ban, Zarina’s layering of the political and personal feels unavoidable. After all, borders have shaped the artist’s life since the age of ten. “My journey on the dark roads hasn’t ended yet,” said the 80-year-old. The rough outline of a distant horizon in Almost There (2016) speaks to the necessity of pressing onward. As her work navigates the past and the present, she is also mindful to look toward the future.

ZARINA HASHMI, Starting Over, 2016, crushed handmade Indian paper, 65 × 48 cm. Courtesy the artist.
ZARINA HASHMI, Starting Over, 2016, crushed handmade Indian paper, 65 × 48 cm. Courtesy the artist.

Mimi Wong is a New York desk editor of ArtAsiaPacific.

Zarina Hashmi’s “Dark Roads” is on view at the Asian/Pacific/American Institute, New York, until February 2, 2018.

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