Friends and colleagues of the late artist remember her life and work.
I feel very privileged to have known and worked, as a curator and writer, with Zarina. In 2012-13, her remarkable retrospective ‘Zarina: Paper Like Skin’ showed at the Hammer Museum, Guggenheim and Art Institute of Chicago ( https://frieze.com/article/zarina ) and I interviewed her for a book project. A few months later she invited me to write the introduction to the catalogue of her exhibition at Gallery Espace in Delhi ( https://www.criticalcollective.in/ArtistInner2.aspx?Aid=135&Eid=382 ). I also had the great pleasure of including works by her in exhibitions at the Dhaka Art Summit (‘Planetary Planning’, 2018) and Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge (‘Homelands: Art from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan’, 2019-20). Each of these was informed by many conversations in which I learned from Zarina’s open and incisive take on life.
‘I made my personal life the subject of my art’, said Zarina. ‘It is very painful. I have opened up my life (…) to the scrutiny of strangers’ (https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/zarina-hashmi-17194/zarina-hashmi-studio-visit ). As Zarina’s work will live on for many years to come, it is the woman with whom I shared meals and conversed over Japanese tea in her New York home and studio and more recently in London that I want to pay tribute to. Zarina was refined and sophisticated in her manners and taste as well as outspoken and opinionated. She also displayed a wonderfully sharp sense of humour. This, combined with her broad knowledge and interests, in subjects such as Urdu literature and contemporary politics, the art of Ana Mendieta and the writing of Jorge Luis Borges, meant that moments shared with Zarina were uniquely inspiring. She lived a life on the go and reflected on the notions of home and exile and our extreme times. As her personal life ends, I know many will continue to be influenced by Zarina and the intersection between the individual and the historical she so brilliantly interrogated.
- Devika Singh
Zarina apa showed me that it was possible to live a strong, independent, ethical life as a single woman in the arts. To express the most complex ideas with the greatest economy of line. To continue to feel connected to my roots in India, and to claim those allegiances, to live in that fracture and to fill its darkness with poetry, memory, metaphor, forms of cultural resistance. After 9/11 she addressed her Muslim heritage by mapping the great Islamic cities destroyed by war. She mentioned an incident in India when the extra width of her shalwar was noted as Pakistani - it hurt her, as it had hurt me when I was a child, when my narrow pajamas were too Indian. I am finding it hard to say more in English. She was a pole star for my generation, an inspiration towards an independent and ethical life without compromise, navigating the art world with the adab, the etiquette and tanz, razor-sharp wit of Aligarh. To claim multiple homes without letting go of cultural affinities, to not be in a rush. I would take ginger biscuits and go over to her mid-town studio, and get so lost in conversation that I learnt not to make any appointments right after, because in our shared language we were, if temporarily, at home. The last time I was in her studio she urged me to pick up a copy of Directions to My House, a set of impossible instructions, and I had a strange feeling and said nahin, agli dafa, knowing somehow that I too, would not be able to return. Urdu was the language whose poetics consoled the sorrow of her loss of ‘home’. And perhaps only Urdu can describe the grief of her loss. She used the line by Iqbal as the title of a work - sitaron se agey jahan aur bhi hain. There are worlds beyond the stars. She leaves us with an incredible artistic legacy and some gold dust. I was so fortunate to have known her.
- Nada Raza
The passing of Zarina, celebrated artist in London marks a particularly poignant moment. The first extensive exhibition covering six decades of her work had opened to acclaim at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Delhi just weeks before the enforced lockdown. It was the latest in a string of prestigious exhibitions accorded to Zarina in recent years, including solo shows the Hammer Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, New York, the Art Institute, Chicago, and the Met Breuer.
Like other women of her generation and even a generation earlier, such as Louise Bourgeoise, and Yayoi Kusama, recognition came to Zarina in the closing years of her career. In the later decades of her life, she had lived and worked alone in her flat in a commercial building in New York, the haptic nature of her work seemingly fostered by the domestic atmosphere of the studio apartment. Ever thoughtful and generous, she would walk visitors from India across the road from her apartment to a favourite Persian restaurant, for a fragrant meal and conversation in her easy, unaffected style.
Through much of her life, Zarina had no family in India. Yet she predicated her practice on the unstable memory of home as a site of impermanence. Born and reared in Aligarh, the daughter of a medieval historian, she had vivid memories of visits with her siblings to Mughal monuments in and around Delhi and Agra. The other profound influence inducted early in childhood was a love for Urdu poetry, which she translated into her work in the form of text as confessional, visual riddles or form.
Perhaps the recent recognition accorded in western museums drew on the fact that Zarina's work has a stunning immediacy, and that she artlessly straddles the shift from decolonisation to displacement. Travelling the world with Saad, her diplomat husband, she predicated the idea of rootlessness on border conflict, Muslim identity and through the recesses of memory, the loss of her family home in Aligarh. Every detail was pared down to the essence, enabling her to create a style of printmaking that may be described as calligraphic. Her choice of wooden block printing was particularly affective, with its granular, uneven texture on hand made paper, and the effect of the hand to create the impression of gouging, cutting, rubbing, or piercing the surface. Like a master calligrapher, she could create the gash, the deep and shallow incision, to construct walls, borders, riven surfaces suggestive of vast migrations. In her chosen small, seemingly modest format of works that were meant to be held, rather than hung, such an emotional charge could create a profound affect.
Held in the hand, her print would render itsmeaning through touch.It is in the making that she transmits a sense of disquiet, often through elements thatshe uses like a basic alphabet. The reverse telescopic view, and the miniature format render her maps andcities as unpeopled sites of endless traversal. The crushing ofhandmadepaper,pasted on another surface marks journeys in the work 'Starting Over', in the print titled 'Srebrenica', a series of cloistered tiny rectangular forms reveal themselves as a vast cemetery of unmarked graves, a consequence of a mass genocide.
Undoubtedly, Zarina's sense of rootlessness and exile was overlain by her identity as a Muslim, living through Partition and its aftermath, the trauma of 9/11, and ethnic cleansing in different conflicts. Her response was to turn to what she knew and loved, Urdu, the language that she had grown up with. Urdu's place as the language of the court and artistic patronage, for over three hundred years in North India lent it a dignity even in times of adversity. Using letters, aphorisms, and quotes from poems, Zarina chose to go further beyond the Hijrat poets of India and Pakistan, those who wrote of the condition of exile in the aftermath of Partition. Much like her maps of India and Pakistan, the Hijrat poetry of both nations serves like a mirror image of loss. With them she shared the sense of longing, even of an historic injustice. However Zarina lent Urdu a form, she housed it, fragmented it, incised and overwrote it, rendering the language as the double bearer of the condition of exile. This is a space that Zarina has resolutely opened up, and it now resounds with clarity, in the unspooling of personal histories from Partition to Shaheen Bagh and beyond.
(A review of the artist’s final solo exhibition - Oneiric homes: Zarina at KNMA by Gayatri Sinha - can be found on the website’s Noticeboard section, dated February 24, 2020)
- Gayatri Sinha
Devika Singh is Curator, International Art at Tate Modern. She is an affiliated scholar at the Centre of South Asian Studies of the University of Cambridge and a member of the ‘Observatoire: Globalisation, Art et Prospective’ at the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art (INHA), Paris.
Nada Raza is a curator and writer with a focus on South and West Asia. She was the founding Artistic Director of the Ishara Art Foundation in Dubai, where she curated Altered Inheritance: Home is a Foreign Place with Shilpa Gupta and Zarina Hashmi. Prior to this, Raza was Research Curator at Tate Research Centre: Asia, with a particular focus on South Asia.
Gayatri Sinha is an art editor, critic and curator. She is the founder of criticalcollective.in, India’s first web-based archive and news magazine on art.