No Direction Home: The Life & Work of ZarinaJuly 11, 2014
WSW’s 2014 gala honoree maps her life, makes a home in paper & print
Zarina Hashmi‘s printed lines run like scars across her paper’s surface, cleaving space, creating borders, and telling stories. Her 1997 portfolio of woodblock prints Homes I Made / A Life in Nine Lines delineates the floorplans of the houses and apartments she’s lived in. She calls the print representing Bangkok First Home. A house in Bonn, Germany becomes An uncertain time. And the New York City loft she’s inhabited since 1976: A space to hide forever.
Zarina’s modest live/work studio in Chelsea is packed floor-to-ceiling with boxes that store 50 years of artwork—the archive of a life lived across cities, countries, and continents. Her bookshelf is stocked with poetry, Islamic calligraphy, treatises on religion, and writers like Barthes and Camus. The Stranger is her favorite book. “I think that’s the greatest book,” she says, “because I too feel like a stranger, disconnected from my culture.”
For the Indian-born artist who goes by only her first name, the identity of the exile is essential to her life and art. Expressed with immediacy and economy, Zarina’s work is like a personal atlas, meditating on diaspora, memory, and place. During a lifelong love affair with paper, she has sculpted it raw into reliefs and inked it with floorplans and maps and symbols and Urdu script, writing the story of an adventurous life well and deeply lived.
Zarina was born into a Muslim family in Aligarh, India, in 1937, ten years before the country’s partition from Pakistan. Her early memories are of rooms, language, and paper. Her father was a professor of Medieval Indian history, her mother a well-read woman who told stories in Urdu. She played hide and seek in piles of books.
Drawn to architecture and construction, Zarina studied math at the university—this, along with India’s lattices, courtyards, and buildings, would become the bedrock of her simple visual system. “I wanted to be an engineer, but I just loved the geometry of it,” she says. “I like to draw straight lines.”
At 21, she married a diplomat and embarked on life on the road. Zarina’s retelling of her next twenty years is peppered with amusing stories that reveal her dogged studiousness and her embrace of the kaleidoscopic world around her. In Bangkok, she began making maps to travel the city, carved her first woodblock, and spent hours devouring books about handmade paper. In Paris she studied etching with Stanley William Hayter at Atelier 17 and became “that Indian woman at parties talking about Sartre.” In Germany, she first saw American artists like Carl Andre and Robert Rauschenberg. In Tokyo she apprenticed at the Toshi Yashida Studio and printed for a French Canadian Dominican priest.
During one of her stops in Dehli in the early 1970s, Zarina joined a flying club and learned how to fly a glider. From above the earth she could see the “footstep of a building” and further developed her eye for delineating space. She viewed her flying as deeply metaphorical and channeled it into first work in book form, Flight Log.
“That gave me a lot of freedom. It’s the most courageous thing I have done in my life,” she says. “Flight Log contains four lines of text. It says, I tried to fly / Got caught in the thermal / Could never go back / Having lost the place to land. In those four lines I wrote my autobiography.”
[pull_quote]“Flight Log contains four lines of text. It says, ‘I tried to fly / Got caught in the thermal / Could never go back / Having lost the place to land’. In those four lines I wrote my autobiography.”[/pull_quote]
Of course, paper has become Zarina’s place to land, a transportable home with endless sculptural and material properties. “Paper is like skin,” she says. “It ages. It keeps secrets.” Zarina’s work embraces the roughness of handmade paper and the sinewy grain of her woodblocks; her prints teem with tactility and energy yet feel refined and deliberate. She considers herself a sculptor, gouging and carving lines rather than drawing them: “I like to dig into the materials.”
After her husband’s early death, Zarina settled into the New York studio for good. At first, she wasn’t quite embraced by the New York art scene, which found her austere, minimalist work to be un-Indian. It certainly had more in common with European Constructivism than India’s colorful figurative tradition. “People didn’t really understand me. If said I was a printmaker, they would say, ‘Oh, you make saris?’” she chuckles. But soon she’d become a fixture in feminist circles, teaching at the New York Feminist Art Institute, serving on the board of the journal Heresies, and co-curating an exhibition at A.I.R., the US’s first cooperative gallery for women artists.
Throughout, Zarina has resisted categorization; she is sweetly, patiently annoyed when the topic comes up. “I just don’t like those divides,” she says. “Being an Indian artist, a Muslim artist, a woman artist…” She rolls her eyes. “My work is connected to India, of course—I was born in India! I will always be an Indian. Being a woman I will never deny. I will never say that I’m not a feminist. I am these things, but I am many other things also.”
In 1983 Zarina came to Women’s Studio Workshop to share her paper casting techniques and then returned in 1991 as a NYSCA-funded Artist’s Book Resident to produce two portfolios of text and image: Ten Woodcuts, Based on Urdu Proverbs and The House With Four Walls. Both employ Zarina’s trademark, totemic language of grids, lines, shapes, and symbols to reveal glimpses of a life lived far away, dislocated now from its linguistic, spiritual, geographical, and familial origin.
Similarly, Letters from Home (1991) includes lines of Urdu based on her sister’s letters relating the deaths of family members in Pakistan, the text obscured by maps and blueprints. Her important piece Home is a Foreign Place (1999) was created after the near-loss of her New York studio, her most permanent dwelling. Consisting of 36 woodblock prints employing a stark geometrical visual lexicon, each print relates an abstracted memory of home and is paired with a single evocative word in Urdu.
More recently, Zarina has tackled these issues on the scale of global religious and ethnic conflicts. Works like these cities blotted into the wilderness (memorial-like map-portraits of cities embroiled in chaos) or Dividing Line (a sparse depiction of the jagged border that cleaved Pakistan from India during the Partition)—explore the geopolitical borders of regions scarred by conflict. In these pieces, she begins to tell not only her own story, but the stories of exiles everywhere.
A resident of the US for over 30 years, Zarina would need a visa to visit India today. Her family was exiled to Pakistan ten years after Partition. And Urdu, her mother tongue, is a deeply divided and perhaps dying language. “It’s a very strange relationship we have to places,” Zarina says knowingly.
After years of working in New York’s art world, Zarina has recently received the attention she deserves. In 2009, she gained full representation with Luhring Augustine Gallery; in 2011 she represented India at the Venice Biennale; and in 2012-2013 her long-overdue retrospective Zarina: Paper Like Skin, curated by the Hammer Museum’s Allegra Pesenti, traveled to the Guggenheim and the Art Institute of Chicago.
“Paper is like skin. It ages. It keeps secrets.”
“That was emotionally very hard for me, opening up my whole life for the show,” Zarina says. “It was difficult because life has been difficult—you know, trying to stand on your own feet and trying to be alone. It has been a crazy life. I am glad I came on the strength of my work.”
Back in the “space to hide forever”, a work table is set up along a bank of windows in the tiny multi-use kitchen. Now 77, Zarina is tenacious and spirited, with a fantastic sense of humor. She works every day. She’s in the middle of her ongoing project The Ten Thousand Things, a series of paper collages recreating her oeuvre in miniature. She jokes she’ll “run out of time” before finishing it, but that doesn’t concern her much.
“I just need to touch my materials,” she says. “It keeps me sane. What am I if not my work? My home, for me, is my work.”