In the summer of 2015, while working in New Delhi, I ventured into the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art to see Constructs|Constructions, a collection of works by 30 artists. I found myself circling back, repeatedly, to Zarina’s ‘Home is a Foreign Place’ (1999). The work consists of 36 woodblock prints, each one reflecting a particular memory of home. Almost three years and 11,747 kilometers away, I stand in front of her work once again, feeling the same tug at a nostalgic kind of loss - like I’ve been yearning for home all along. Through gilded collages of black, white, and gold; jagged woodcuts; and minimalist etchings on handmade paper, Zarina translates the loss that comes with displacement into abstractions that feel politically charged.
Zarina often situates her work within the historical context of the division of the subcontinent and the consequent displacement of millions of people. It seems appropriate then, to mark the 70th anniversary of the Partition that the A|P|A Institute at New York University is hosting Zarina as the Artist-in-Residence for the 2017-18 academic year. Presented in conjunction with this role, Zarina: Dark Roads, an exhibition commemorating three decades of the artist’s work, is on at the A|P|A Institute until February 2, 2018.
Zarina has called many cities across Asia and Europe ‘home,’ travelling with her diplomat husband across the globe before settling in the United States in the mid-70s. Her travels also allowed her to expand her artistic practice. In Paris, she apprenticed with a British printmaker, Stanley William Hayter, from 1964-67, learning about different textures and kinds of paper, and how to work with them. In Toshi Yoshida’s studio in Tokyo, she learned woodcut techniques and woodblock printing. Her trips back to India, to printmaking centers in Rajasthan, cemented her passion for paper as a medium for her work. Zarina became deeply fascinated with the material possibilities of not only printing, but scarring, poking, folding, embossing, and sewing on paper.
The show reflects Zarina’s careful experiments with paper, as well as woodcut prints and sculpture. Divided into three sections, the room reads from right to left not unlike Urdu, the artist’s mother tongue and the language she sometimes uses in her artwork. Simple geometric shapes like triangles, squares, and circles are placed together to build what looks like a house on wheels, a bronze and patina sculpture named ‘I Went on a Journey I’ (1991). The basic shapes are also used in ‘Refugee Camp’ (2015), a collage with handmade Indian paper and black thread, to produce 20 identical tents in neat rows, referencing an ongoing history of displacement, from her own family’s forced relocation to a camp in Delhi, to the current global refugee crisis.
Although Zarina has stated that, “My work is a record of my travels, retracing a life of displacement and loss,” her art speaks to many on the spectrum of diaspora. In their quiet abstraction, Zarina’s portrayal of places that were destroyed, lost, or never to be returned to again, function almost as - a locus of grief. In ‘Dividing Line’ (2001), she recreates the craggy Radcliffe Line drawn in 1947, separating Pakistan from India. But instead of carving out the line into the woodblock, she carefully cuts out the jagged borders of land on each side. A more recent piece, ‘Abyss’ (2013), provides a negative of this image - etchings of the cartographic line on a dark, black background. In both works, her harsh lines and rough edges betray a delayed anger at the act of division and the violence that ensued. There’s something about the practice of carving, that she would rather gouge out space than layer on a surface, that conveys a deep sense of loss.
Other acts of memorialising include her series, ‘These Cities Blotted into the Wilderness’ (2003), where she maps cities that have been bombed, people that have been killed, and homes that have been destroyed. These include Grozny, Sarajevo, Srebrenica, Beirut, Jenin, Baghdad, Kabul, Ahmedabad, and New York. Seen aerially, Zarina follows odd contours of the land, giving some cities irregular lines while others resemble the pattern of latticed walls. The piece labelled ‘New York’ (written, of course, in Urdu) stands out. It is black with two slender white lines running parallel down the centre of the image, commemorating the Twin Towers. Zarina manages to convey a powerful message, about destruction as well as the preservation of memory, through her elegantly minimalist work.
In the 1970s, on a trip to India, Zarina joined a flying club in Delhi and learned how to fly a glider. One can only imagine her ability to conjure these aerial maps of places, such as her collection of pieces in ‘Cities I Called Home’ (2010), was influenced by her sojourns not just away from land, but above it. A direct result of her experiences flying, Zarina created ‘Flight Log’ (1987), a book comprising of cast paper, bound with a silk cord. Standing upright in a glass display case, the faint indentations of concentric circles, almost like targets, can be seen on the six ‘pages.’ However what is not visible is the writing Zarina has inscribed on the inner four pages. They read: “I tried to fly/ Got caught in the thermal/ Could never go back/ Having lost the place to land.” Her words are a poetic meditation on her own life’s trajectory, in addition to a broader claim to be made about impermanence of home. Instead, she recreates homes out of her own memories, out of materials like paper that parallel the ephemerality, disintegrating with time.
In her most recent work, Zarina engages with global ethnic and political conflicts, narrating not just her own story but the stories of countless other displaced communities. She seems attuned to the waves of mass migration, oftentimes engaging with them through her art practice before the rest of the world pays notice. Particular references to the Syrian refugee crisis and the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar show Zarina to be attentive, not simply to the broader motifs of dislocation, but to their calamitous effects in real time.
From the aerial maps of obliterated cities, Zarina shifts to the optics of boats. A recurring image in the selection for this show, pieces like ‘Lost Boat’ (2015) and ‘Year of the Sinking Boats’ (2015) convey the hopelessness of its occupants, fleeing from a country that is no longer home, floating without a destination.
‘Sinking Boat with a Heartbeat’ (2015) is a print with an EKG running through the centre of the boat. The lines in these pieces are less jagged than her earlier work, as if to convey the fragility of the boat itself compared to a vast and unforgiving ocean. The gentleness with which Zarina portrays both loneliness and hope, is visible in the softness of the lines and the slight shine of the pewter leaf. But it is in the black and white ofpaperitself that the poignancy of the human cost is rendered through art. Zarina understands intrinsically the significance of her materials and its effect on her subject matter. The childlike quality of the boat in ‘A Child’s Boat for Aylan and Ghalib’ (2015) is because of her choice of Kanazawa paper on a black background, the subtle tone and texture of the paper. The piece is an allusion to Aylan (3 years old) and Ghalib (5 years old), Syrian refugees whose bodies washed up on the Turkish coastline in 2015. Her materiality is also effective in ‘Rohingyas: Floating on the Sea of Memory’ (2015), a collage with BFK paper printed black that shows a black boat within a sea of darkness. The quality of the paper and the print itself lend a sculptural quality to the piece, such that the boat itself seems to be elevated from the surface of the paper.
When Courtney Stewart asked Zarina what the role of the artist is in society, in an interview for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Zarina stated, “I think we are witness to the times we are living in.” Zarina: Dark Roads establishes her ability to not only bear witness, but to provide non-verbal documents and memorials of these dark times we are going through.