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Last updated: 22 January, 2011
Giridhar Khasnis 17:29 IST

Different strokes

For Zarina Hashmi, geometry is sacred practice and paper is like working on one’s own skin, writes Giridhar Khasnis

creative space Zarina’s Wall IIIHome is the centre of universe for 73-year-old Zarina Hashmi who was born in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh and has lived in New York since 1975. “I make a home wherever I am. My home is my hiding place, a house with four walls, sometimes with four wheels.”

For more than five decades, Zarina has been a restless traveller crossing many borders. (“I was on the road for twenty years before I came to New York.”). Her life and art have been punctuated by relentless journeys and an intense yearning for ‘home’.

“Zarina Hashmi, who uses only her first name professionally, was a nomad long before a peripatetic way of life became art-world fashion,” explains Holland Cotter (The New York Times/ 2 Dec. 2005). “She was born a Muslim in Aligarh, India, and has spent long stretches of time in other parts of Asia and in Europe, Latin America and the United States. Even after making New York her base in the 1970’s, she kept on the move, and her semi-abstract, minimalist art is largely about self-location in the face of constant change…”

Youngest of four children, Zarina recalls having a happy childhood with a religious, home-maker mother and scholarly father. “Our house was full of books. Literature and poetry were part of our life.”

Initially receiving traditional education with tutors at home, she later attended the university to study science and mathematics.

After her marriage in 1958, she went with her diplomat-husband to Bangkok. It was in Bangkok that she took a penchant for woodblock printing. Later, she was to train in intaglio with Stanley William Hayter (acknowledged father of contemporary printmaking) at his famous print studio, Atelier-17 in Paris.

Shows in India & abroad

Hayter’s influence on her art was immense. “He was wonderful to me. If I hadn’t met him at a certain time in my life, I don’t know what I would be doing now. Maybe I would be doing those paints with mother and child.” While in Paris, she also took courses in the Louvre. “It was a good time to be in Paris and to be Indian and to be 26.”

Her skills in woodblock printing were further sharpened in 1974 when she went to train at Toshi Yoshido’s studio in Tokyo on a Japan Foundation Fellowship. She also learnt paper-making - initially in India, and later at a paper-mill in New York.

A prolific artist, Zarina has exhibited widely. Even by the early 1970s, she had shown with leading artists in India. Apart from many group exhibitions, her solo shows have been held in New York (1992/2005); Santa Cruz (1994); Madison (2002); San Francisco (2003); Mumbai (2004); Karachi (2004); and Singapore (2006).

Last year, her works were featured at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in ‘Mind and Matter: Alternative Abstractions, 1940s to Now’, an exhibition which showcased drawings, prints, books, and sculptures of twelve acclaimed international artists.

Zarina’s works are in the permanent collections of the Bibliothčque Nationale, Paris; the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. She has worked on the editorial board of ‘Heresies’ for their issue on Third World Artists; and also co-curated a show of Third World Women Artists for AIR Gallery in New York.

Zarina’s work bears a distinct individuality and minimalist feel and is influenced by many things, words, images, sounds and smells. The veteran artist is known for her intense abstract visual vocabulary which often employs basic geometry. “I regard geometry as sacred practice.”

Although she has worked in several mediums, paper is clearly her favourite. Her creations - be they prints (woodcut, intaglio, lithography, silkscreen, and rubbings on paper) or paper sculptures - bear a characteristic austerity, sensibility and expression. “Paper is like working on your own skin. It has a fragility and resilience that lasts through time.”

Zarina often interlaces text with image and many of her works have inscribed words in Urdu. “I begin work with a word, not the image. For me, words form an indispensable part of my visual expression.”

As someone who witnessed the horrors of Partition – as a ten-year old girl in 1947, she saw the villages around Aligarh burning – Zarina often sees personal and political sides colliding. “How can one ignore what is happening in the world: the injustices the violence perpetuated on innocent civilians, the wars fought over fraudulent claims? I cannot join the resistance. I protest through my work.”

Critical acclaim

Zarina’s work has received wide critical acclaim. Critics have observed how her art poignantly chronicles her life; how the artist raises questions concerning meaning, stability, endurance, mobility and the ephemeral nature of the concept of home; how her recurring themes not only include home, displacement, borders, journey and memory but also dwell on geographies, identity, personal relationships and language; how her work challenges familiar notions and locations like ‘country’, the ways in which they are enclosed, delimited and traversed, and the feelings and memories that they evoke; how the artist causes a range of emotions in a superbly abstracted, austere and minimalist mindscape; and how she instills her work with a specific political content.

On her part, the veteran artist confesses to have always had an inner link to a spiritual life. Many of her works clearly bear the influence of Sufi, Zen and Buddhist thoughts and ideas.

Zarina’s solo show is on at Gallery Espace, New Delhi (as a concurrent event with the India Art Summit 2011). Maps feature prominently in the exhibit with the series ‘Cities I called Home’ (woodblock prints on handmade Nepalese paper) evidencing her continuing interest in depicting the reality of her nomadic existence. In other works such as ‘Blinding Light’, ‘Coin’ and ‘Wall III’ (Okawara paper cut and gilded with 22 carat gold leaf) and Noor (Maple wood with formulated gold leaf and leather cord), there is a sense of poignancy and meditative longing. The show continues till February 11.

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