Remembering Zarina Hashmi: Simplicity and meditativeness of artist's minimalist style are timeless
Zarina Hashmi's personal life, in which themes of home, displacement, belongingness and exile were paramount, shaped her art practice as well.
In an interview during her first retrospective, Zarina Hashmi, the Aligarh-born American artist who passed away on Saturday at the age of 83, had said: “I like natural materials, which are close to the earth. Wood, paper, cloth. I like fragile materials, which will become part of the earth, because it is life completing the circle.” During that interview, filmed for Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum in 2012, she used the same metaphor of completing the circle, this time with reference to the process of life and death: “When you are young, you think you will never die. But you begin to accept the mortality, and you long for it — that it will happen sooner than later. You just wait for this cycle to end to unite with the divine.”
The retrospective at the Hammer Museum, which curated about 60 works covering a large part of her life from the 1960s to the present, was titled “Zarina: Paper Like Skin”, suggesting the body — and by extension, her life — and her art are not different things for this artist. While Zarina (b. 1937) has become a part of the earth, to borrow her own phrase, her work lives on.
Zarina, who chose to use only her first name over the last few years, is known for her career-long commitment to the language of abstraction through a wide body of work in printmaking, paper works and collages, and sculptural objects in paper pulp and metal. Her personal life, in which themes of home, displacement, belongingness and exile were paramount, shaped her art practice. “The stark minimalism of her visual language was ahead of the times when she first began exploring it in the 1960s and '70s, but their simplicity and quiet meditativeness speak to us today as we grapple with a world in disarray,” said Renu Modi, founder-director of Delhi-based Gallery Espace, which represented the artist.
Widely regarded as one of the foremost printmakers since the 20th century, Zarina’s work is born out of a sparse exploration of form — primarily the line, both straight and jagged; along with grids and geometric shapes pared down to their bare essentials. Maps of cities and countries from her travels, architectural models of homes that she has lived in, Urdu letters from her sister, or just a meandering line over a barren-looking surface — Zarina’s idiom resonates with the global narratives of borders, division, loss of home, and a permanent sense of dislocation, either voluntary or forced.
Despite the minimalist use of form — she rarely used colour, except in some of her sculptures or early prints — her works evoke a strong emotional response because of the refined tenderness of her aesthetic and the way she transforms simple materials into objects of timeless quality. By showing little, Zarina says a lot, about lives, memories, families, and personal journeys of migration and constant change. On memories, she is often quoted thus: “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.”
One of her most famous works is a set of 36 woodblock prints, which she made as she faced the threat of eviction from her Manhattan loft in New York City. The work is a series of folios, under the title ‘Home is a Foreign Place’ (1999), and is part of the Met Museum’s collection. Sparse geometric shapes, minimal Urdu lettering and a distinct emptiness of physical space in these works point to the fact that even as her own country’s partition was in the past she continued to be drawn towards and affected by themes of dislocation.
She was 10 years old when India was partitioned in 1947 — a bloody and life-altering event in South Asian history that has shaped the practice of many other artists from the subcontinent and beyond, such as Ganesh Haloi, Krishen Khanna, Jogen Choudhury, and the late Satish Gujral, among others. But she was also a voracious traveller, who always had her suitcase packed and ready, as she believed to be human was to be a nomad. “Stillness is in death,” she said during her first retrospective.
Her marriage to a diplomat in the late 1950s took her to different parts of the world. She lived in France, Germany, and Thailand and Japan, where she studied woodblock printing in Bangkok and Tokyo, respectively. During the '60s, when her husband was posted in Paris, she apprenticed with the legendary printmaker Stanley William Hayter at his famous studio Atelier-17, which also played a major role in the career of another well-known printmaker, the late Krishna Reddy.
In the '70s, she migrated to the United States, where she lived for most part of her later life, first in Los Angeles, and eventually in New York City. New York witnessed a burst of artistic and creative activity after the World War II, shifting the focus of the art world from Paris. It was in the US that she encountered and came under the influence of major art movements of the 20th century, such as American Minimalism, known for its simple arrangements of geometric patterns and directness of form.
Prior to learning printmaking, she studied mathematics in India, which explains her controlled lines which she made with precision. One of the most profound aspects of Zarina’s practice is her ubiquitous use of the Urdu language and poetry, recalling major ingredients of Islamic art, such as Arabic calligraphy and geometric patterns. Like her father, who taught history at Aligarh Muslim University, Zarina wanted to be a teacher, and not a housewife, like her mother. In her deep engagement with the written text, and the precedence of words over images, Zarina is the conscientious teacher, a title she preferred instead of being referred to as an artist, a label she thought was “embarrassing” and “pompous”.
As per tradition, she started learning Arabic, the language of the Quran, at an early age, which has made language the mainstay of her practice. In Zarina, the language is embedded with faith. It reflects her concerns over the extinction of Urdu, which developed centuries ago in India and borrows heavily from Arabic and Persian. “Once you are separated from language, it’s a great loss. You don’t have access to your own scriptures, your poetry, literature,” she has said an interview to The Met Museum, New York.
Her passing away follows the opening of a major exhibition of her work, “Zarina: A Life in Nine Lines | Across Decades, Borders, Geographies,” at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi. The exhibition, named after Zarina’s portfolio of nine etchings from 1997, is a survey of her woodcut prints, lithographs, etchings and a few sculptural objects. According to Kiran Nadar, the museum’s founder and chairperson, “Zarina was a dynamic artist who worked in multiple formats, and was one of the foremost women artists of her time. Her interest in architecture was reflected in her works, especially her use of geometry and structural purity. She also made regular use of geometry found in Islamic architecture.”
Some of Zarina’s other major exhibitions have been held at the Guggenheim, New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and at the Venice Biennale in 2011, as part of the India Pavilion, with Ranjit Hoskote as the curator.
How should Zarina be remembered now? In both personal and political terms, given the nature of her practice. For Delhi-based curator and art critic Meera Menezes, who included Zarina’s work in her recent exhibitions at Mumbai’s Sakshi Gallery and New Delhi’s Shrine Empire, the artist’s legacy, quite appropriately, can be seen in relation to the home and the lack of it. Menezes says: "As she passes on, I cannot help but recall the words of one of her favourite writers, Federico Garcia Lorca: ‘but now I am no longer I, nor is my house any longer my house’.”
Critic Geeta Kapur, on the other hand, situates abstract practices like Zarina’s in the realm of the political, which resonates with the artist’s personal choices, of being a fiercely independent woman, and her deep involvement with feminist movements of the 20th century. In a recent Marg issue (“in focus: abstraction,” 2016), Kapur commented on the pithiness of abstract art by women artists: “Aesthetic autonomy on a feminist premise has often entailed opting for an economy of means. In societies that maintain male authority, and in cultures based on iconographic excess, there is place for retraction which counts as resistance.”