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Partition, memory and the search for home: Zarina Hashmi (1937-2020)

Among the foremost women artists of her generation, Zarina distilled complex histories of displacement, home and migration in her art

Zarina's work resonate with themes of loss and belonging. Courtesy: Gallery Espace.
Zarina's work resonate with themes of loss and belonging. Courtesy: Gallery Espace.

On the night of 25 April, poet, curator and cultural theorist, Ranjit Hoskote, announced on Twitter that artist Zarina Hashmi had passed away in London at the age of 83. “She was magnificent: full of wit and shrewd wisdom, her work imbued with a tragic vision," wrote Hoskote, who featured her work in India’s first ever pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2011.

Born in Aligarh in 1937, the artist, who preferred to be addressed only by her first name, explored the notions of migration, memory, home and shelter in her work. She once said: “Memory is the only lasting possession we have. I have made my life the subject of my work, using the images of home, the places I have visited, and the stars I have looked up to. I just want a reminder that I did not imagine my experiences."

Zarina's art had deep roots in her early life. Her father, a professor of history at Aligarh University, moved to Karachi with the family in the 1950s. She chose to stay back and subsequently lived in various cities across the world with her diplomat husband, Saad Hashmi. “She was 10 when borders not of her choosing changed her life; she spent her life defying borders and the exclusionary claims of territories, learning from diverse teachers, always true to the compass of a lost home," posted Hoskote.

When her husband passed away at a young age, Zarina based herself out of New York, mid-1970s onwards. “[The city] offered the opportunity to work as an artist and keep in touch with her family in Pakistan," wrote S Kalidas in Zarina Hashmi: Sacred Geometry of Light and Darkness. He further writes that with no home to call her own, she would search for spaces to rent and look at the poetics of home/shelter. This theme transformed into a series of works such as Spaces to Hide and Homecoming.

A restrained palette

In her artistic practice, Zarina worked with sculpture, drawing and printmaking, but it is the last that she was most fascinated with. Her favourite medium, though, was paper. Kalidas adds that for her, paper was like skin. “It can be stained, pierced and moulded, and it still has the capability of breathing and aging," he quotes her as saying.

Zarina's aesthetic was shorn of ostentation. According to Hoskote, her work had a distilled refinement. The histories that came through in her work were deep and complex, but the way she approached the material was very refined. “She made a deliberate choice of moving towards a truly restrained palette. Both Mehlli Gobhai and Zarina, who were good friends, represented this turning away from the seduction of colour," says Hoskote on the phone.

Over the years, her travels across the world added to her vocabulary as well. While writing about Zarina: Dark Road, an exhibition held at the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University between 2017-18, Nadia Nooreyezdan sheds light on the fact that the artist apprenticed with British printmaker Stanley William Hayter in 1964-67, learning about different textures of paper, and explored woodcut techniques in Toshi Yoshida’s studio in Tokyo.

She used her extensive knowledge of woodcut in one of her most famous works, Dividing Line (2001), based on the Radcliffe Line drawn between India and Pakistan in 1947. She later sent a pin-drawing version of the work to gallerist Renu Modi of Gallery Espace, New Delhi, for a show celebrating 25 years of the space.

According to Nooreyezdan, Zarina became fascinated with the material possibilities of not just printing but scarring, folding, poking, embossing and sewing on paper as well. A stark example of this is the work, Flight Log, from 1987 in which she created a book of cast paper, with faint indentations of concentric circles on the six ‘pages’. “However, what is not visible is the writing Zarina has inscribed on the inner four pages: I tried to fly/Got Caught in the thermal/Could not go back/Having Lost the place to land," writes Nooreyezdan.

'My House' by Zarina Hashmi. Courtesy: Gallery Espace.
'My House' by Zarina Hashmi. Courtesy: Gallery Espace.

Finding home in the world

In her later years, Zarina was immensely moved by the plight of the refugees and the Rohingyas. Hoskote adds that Zarina was one of the rare artists to reach out to points of crisis everywhere—whether it was the crisis in Lebanon or Baghdad. He recalls that in 2016, she had been responding to the condition of the Syrian refugees in camps in her work.

“Everything that she did was autobiographical. Her life extended to lines and maps. She was agonised by the polarisation of the world," says Modi, whose close association with Zarina dates back to 1997, “She was a mathematician and a scientist, who was fascinated by cartography. She even did lighthearted maps called Cities I Called Home."

Zarina’s works also reflect her interest in architecture, “especially in her use of geometry and structural purity. She also made regular use of geometry found in Islamic architecture," says Kiran Nadar, founder and chairperson of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi, who is showing a solo exhibition dedicated to her career, Zarina: A Life in Nine Lives, till 30 June. Though it’s not possible to view the works in the physical space during the ongoing lockdown, the museum is showcasing the works “of one of the foremost women artists of her time" on virtual platforms.

Over the years, Zarina’s work has been acquired by museums across the world, such as the Guggenheim Museum and the Hammer Museum in the United States. Since 2019, one of her seminal works, Home is a Foreign Place (1999), a set of 36 woodcuts, has been hung on the second floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) Breur in New York. According to a curatorial note, the work was made during a particularly fraught period when the artist faced eviction from her Manhattan loft. The folios in the series are visual responses to words in Urdu that conjure up multiple senses of home.

“It set the stage for an exhibition of recent acquisitions of mostly contemporary works that explore the notion of 'home' and 'place'. [It is] a work that helped us understand and cohere to some extent what unfolds around us. The prescience and significance of her work today cannot be overstated," says Shanay Jhaveri, assistant curator of South Asian art at the MET’s department of modern and contemporary art, in an email.

He first corresponded with Zarina in May 2012 as a research assistant, when he needed her to review the edits to a transcript of her interview. “We remained in touch over the next few years, and intermittently when I visited New York, I made a pilgrimage to her studio apartment. She was always generous with me, sharing her work and also her memories," he says. Jhaveri particularly recalls conversations about her time in Paris and her friendships with Nasreen Mohamedi and Ana Mendieta, as well as her involvement with A.I.R.

After he moved to New York in 2016 to join the MET, Zarina still made time to answer his “never-ending queries", preferring that he visit on the weekends to pick her brain, which, as she put it in an email to him, “are the best time for long conversations". “During one of my visits to her studio, Zarina was astounded to learn that the MET did not have a work by Mohamedi in its collection, and immediately decided to gift a drawing, which Mohamedi had given her as a token of her appreciation when she stayed with her in 1980 while visiting New York. An incredible gesture, the presence of that drawing in the MET’s collection is a celebration of friendship and female solidarity," he says.

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