Meeting Zarina Hashmi at a Karachi house in the early 1990s was an enlightening experience, though I didn’t realize then how significant that house was for the artist. Zarina Hashmi, born in 1937, bid farewell to this world on the 25th of April 2020; her last place of residence was her niece’s house in London, but there were other addresses and other journeys too.
Zarina (“who chooses to be referred to simply by her first name”) left Aligarh, her home town in 1958, to live in Bangkok, Paris, and Bonn with her husband, a diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. In Paris, she studied with celebrated printmaker Stanley William Hayter at Atelier 17. Zarina returned to India in 1968 but later moved to the USA in 1975, where in New York City she “built out her loft, a community of friends and was part of the city’s burgeoning feminist art movement. She supported herself by teaching at universities across the country”.
No matter wherever she was, her work revolved around her home in Aligarh, and her language, Urdu. Probably, both home and language are Siamese Twins, because at home you start communicating in a language, which you carry everywhere you go, like you transport memories of your house. Language, Urdu, was important for Zarina, as shared in an interview: “At home we never spoke English. It was considered very rude to speak English when people didn’t understand, so we all spoke in Urdu”.
In her prints, sculptures and installations, she expanded the idea of home. In a large body of work, usually categorized as ‘minimal’ (however her work is not limited to that definition), she resurrects her ancestral home. The layout of rooms, silhouette of ceiling fan, patterns of window blinds, light simmering from outside, all in simplified and sophisticate formats. Lines, shapes, separation of dark and white spaces, particularly in a set of 39 woodcuts Home is a Foreign Place,1999. The imagery in these prints is more like words, which do not reproduce the objects referred, but become substitutes for them. Like Ideas.
The house, for Zarina, along with being a private persuasion, was also a metaphor of homelands. Her work addressed the issues of boundaries
The language in Zarina’s work remained an integral element: apart from inscribing words in this series of prints, she also wrote lines of Faiz, and Iqabl in her works on paper. Some of her titles come from Ghalib and Adrienne Rich, besides links with other poets, for example her digital print on handmade paper, Directions to My Home, 2001, have poetry from Zehra Nigah. Poetry, like Zarina’s art, inherently deals with displacement. A writer uses the tool of language to transform reality into a personal baggage transported with – and within the soul, yet can be identified universally.
The motif of the house was also an easily identified image, because a viewer was able to relate with marks defining walls and openings, shafts of lights, and receding shadows. In a way, some of her works invoke a sensation – beyond visual information. Memories of hot afternoons, summer months, comfort in enclosed spaces, warm breeze, perpetual wandering from one area to next – emanate from her artworks.
If on one hand Zarina created her abandoned house, she also made a house on the move. “I understood from a very early age that home is not necessarily a permanent place,” Zarina once said. “It is an idea we carry with us wherever we go. We are our homes.” This was visible in her sculpture, House on Wheels, 1991 (shown in early nineties at Chawkandi Art, Karachi). She addressed the same, displacement, in two other works, Homes I Made,1984-1992 (cast aluminium) and Crawling House, 1994 (hand-cut and moulded tin), invoking the urge to create/carry a house, no matter in what part of the world you travel; since your house will be a segment of your identity.
The house, for Zarina, along with being a private persuasion, was also a metaphor of homelands. Her work addressed the issues of boundaries. In her series of prints, divisions of maps appear arbitrary, rough, whimsical; and you start wondering the nature of frontiers. Lines of borders, which make people sacrifice themselves and kill those on the other side, are man-made; and can be modified. Like the boundary wall of a house. Zarina drew these in Dividing Line, 2001, and in a portfolio of prints titled Atlas of My World, 2001. These include outlines of countries and regions which have political and personal meanings for her: USA, Europe, the partition between India and Pakistan, Bangladesh, Arabian Peninsula, Japan.
These map-based works, and another one, Flight Log (cast paper and text from 1987), on the one hand hark back to Zarina’s childhood memory of her father taking her on a joyride in a plane over Aligarh when she saw how city was laid out, as well as her later “attempts at learning to fly a glider in New Delhi in the 70s”; at the same instance, they share the observation of every air traveller. Land viewed from high altitude – even close to landing and just after take-off – eliminates ‘political boundaries’ between states: the cause of violence, conflicts and wars. Due to its political overtones, Zarina’s work may not be labelled ‘minimal’ only. Zarina, responding to Sadia Sherazi for Post (The Museum of Modern Art’s online resource) in 2018, explained: “They’d say my work is very abstract and very minimal. I didn’t know what minimal was. I’d never heard the term, because I didn’t go to an art school”.
In a way one can draw a parallel between Zarina and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Both employed dictions which were formal, beautiful, enchanting, and selective – and personal; but both referred to the greater human condition and socio-political situation of their milieu. Zarina’s “work has been featured in major exhibitions and represented in important public collections, including those of the Hammer Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London” besides representing India at the Venice Biennale. It has been auctioned at prestigious organizations, yet the work transcends to a higher plane. Like poetry, it is accessible and lasting – and loved, because it deals with a primary concern, the dislocation of an individual and of a community.
Zarina Hashmi and Faiz Ahmed Faiz both employed dictions which were formal, beautiful, enchanting, selective – and personal; but both referred to the greater human condition and socio-political situation of their milieu
Talking about her series of prints Santa Cruz portfolio, 1996, Zarina recalled, “In Santa Cruz, there was a beautiful sunset on Monterey Bay, and the lights going up – twilight they call it – it was so beautiful. Then I thought of Faiz’s ‘kai baar us ka daaman bhar diya husn-e-do aalam se’ and then there is a misra, ‘magar dil hai ky us ki khana virani nahin jaati’”.
In that sense, what Ibn al-Arabi said 800 years ago could describe Zarina: “As soon as you see a house, you say, ‘This is where I want to stay,’ but scarcely have you arrived before you leave again, in order to be on your way once more.”, till you reach your final destination – death.