Essay first published as the introduction to Zarina: Folding House, Gallery Espace, New Delhi, 2014.

Drawings of houses have long acted as portable repositories of Zarina’s migrant biography. The variations she developed throughout her career on their shapes, sizes and floor plans form a recurrent presence in her prints. Zarina’s houses encapsulate through simple signs much of her relation to the world. Folding House (2013) thus charts the progression of a house as it swells and contracts. Each of the 25 collages bears the diagram of a house, adorned with shafts of gold or divided into sections. At the centre is a house flanked with wings. Cloaked in gold leaf, it seems to expand into space. The smallest house is a house on wheel, a tiny mobile wedge of a house. Its agility contrasts with some of the sturdier, crumbly houses. Much of Zarina’s work concerns the life she had before becoming an artist, which was marked by the aftermath of Partition and the experience of exile. Read Folding House from left to right and you’ll find that a crack runs through the first house at the top of the composition. Already neatly separated between left and right, the house speaks not of comfort and protection but of contingency. Similarly, at the opposite end in the bottom right corner, stands a disintegrated house whose rugged shape bears little semblance with the other designs. The title of the work suggests that these cloistered spaces are all variations on the same house permutated or rather folded and unfolded into different patterns. Like paper, the material Zarina adopted when she started her life on the road[1], the folding house is a small, transportable object. Tucked, bent and creased, its malleable surface perpetually adapting to exterior surroundings stands as a metaphor for Zarina’s life and work weathering through unstable conditions.

Zarina has always eschewed the enclosure of fixed identity. Born in Aligarh, Zarina grew up on the campus of Aligarh Muslim University where her father was a professor of medieval history. Zarina eventually left India in the late 1950s to embark on a peripatetic life with her diplomat husband, roughly at the time when the rest of her family moved to Pakistan in 1959. With intermittent stays in India, Zarina has since lived in Bangkok, Paris, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz and New York where she settled in the late 1970s. Perhaps as a consequence of this unique trajectory, her work is not bound by established forms and conventions. Across her career Zarina has borrowed with great confidence from different artistic traditions. Her works packs in the learned references of her childhood, including Urdu literature and calligraphy, but also Japanese printmaking and zen Buddhism, which she discovered while living in Japan in 1974. Consider the sculpture Enso (Zen Circle) (2012), in Japan an enso refers to an ink drawing of a swift black circle meant to both symbolise and channel the creative process. But instead of trying her hand at it, Zarina takes liberty with the form of the enso and transcribes the zen Buddhist motif into a three-dimensional object made of hundreds of black marble discs. Zarina’s Enso captures the fluidity of the brushstroke into a solid object whose shape can be articulated at will.

Though her work has expanded since the 1980s into three-dimensional forms, Zarina has persevered in the art of printmaking for the last five decades. First trained in Paris and Japan, Zarina’s work hinges on exacting methods. The choice of specific papers and inks (for instance kozo paper and sumi ink) is one of her hallmarks. Originally educated in mathematics, Zarina admits to an impeccably controlled working process. ‘I don’t experiment or trial - that comes from mathematics. If you take one step out of order it collapses’, she once told me. ‘I have never done a trial piece.’ [2] This precision materializes in the concentrated aspect of her work and in the way she constantly perfects new versions of her core motifs. Much of the rigour of Zarina’s work also depends on the intimate scale of her typically understated prints. Take for example the new untitled diptych composed of a simple thread and a row of nine houses (Untitled, 2013). It expresses in economic lines the same experience of displacement as Folding House. Here, a gold thread forms a linear ellipsis, another stand in for Zarina’s nomadic life and an implicit reference to her earlier work Homes I made/A Life in Nine Lines (1997).

In a few lines and colours, Zarina’s pared down aesthetic taps into a register of identity, love, loss and belonging. ‘Zarina’s work has moved across regions and established communication by using the common right to the face of the earth as her platform’, states Homi K. Bhabha on Zarina’s cosmopolitan ethos.[3] Offering a topographical imprint of violence, displacement and human fragility, Zarina’s prints record not only her own houses and the maps of cities she has lived in, but also a wider landscape of political conflict. Aligarh, New Delhi, New York and San Francisco, as well as Grozny, Kabul and Baghdad form the virtual atlas of Zarina’s work. In doing so, rough floor plans and city maps have become containments of individual and collective experiences in works such as Homes I made/A Life in Nine Lines (1997) and These Cities blotted into the Wilderness (Adrienne Rich after Ghalib) (2003). ‘Now that I have lived almost fifty years away from the place I call home’, Zarina explains, ‘I have accepted the identity of an exile, and I feel closer to the community of people who live across barbed wire, barriers and checkpoints’.[4]

Zarina deals with the experience of displacement by often resorting to the power of language to invoke home. In the process she has quoted notable Urdu poets including Muhammad Iqbal and Ghalib. Like Zarina’s work, many of their poems speak of cultural loss and isolation. In the majestic woodcuts Akhri Shab kay Humsafar (all 2013) vast expanses of black ink engulf tiny specks of white. The star-like constellations move across the surface bridging two sheets of paper or slit sides of a composition. The title of the works translates as companions of the end of the night and comes from a couplet from Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ‘Shaam-e-Firaaq’ (the night of separation). The full couplet reads:

Faiz I don’t know what happened to companions of the end of the night - the breeze did not come my way and morning went in another direction.

Like in Faiz’s poem, the flickering particles express the fragility of the atomized individual and the experience of modern subjectivity, maximised by the humbling scale of the composition.

Darkness but also, on the contrary, the increased use of gold characterizes the artist’s recent works. In Zarina’s collages gold always stands for the presence of ‘Noor’, or divine light, a concept that she says relates to manyreligioustraditions.[5]Thepresence of gold is a way of deploying a common visual language that crosses cultural divides and of encouraging a shared aesthetic experience. But Zarina does not shy away from more playful associations, even when she deals with the concept of light. For her sculpture Frozen Light (2013) Zarina uses marble stone to carve a mundane, everyday object. The sculpture consists of one hundred and one marble bulbs, their smooth shiny texture enhanced by gold thread rims. In India where they light up myriad street stalls, bear bulbs and neon tubes are an ubiquitous presence. At the same time, in American art they also recall the luminescent garlands of Felix Gonzalez-Torres. However, once carved into marble Zarina’s bulbs are stripped of any functionality. As such, Frozen Light is a profoundly tactile piece, a cold round object that contains the idea of light but does not release any warmth or light.

The artist also uses gold to deploy a vocabulary of mass, volume and light articulated on paper. Already present in Folding House, gold leaf takes on sculptural dimensions in a new untitled diptych (Untitled, 2013). Though the use of gold brings to mind illuminated manuscripts, the rapturous glow of the 22-karat gold leaf does not have the rarefied quality of Indian miniature painting. In the diptych the gold leaf does not embellish the page, it makes for the bear structure of the composition. Contrary to the planar surfaces of Zarina’s maps and linear designs, the vertical diptych speaks of spiritual ascension. Steps, stages or mountains are evoked in this metaphoric architecture. ‘The image on the right is [about] taking steps towards eternity, merging with the Divine’, the artist explains. ‘The left side, the verso page, is about stages’.[6] Amidst a work that is bound by the evocation of human frailty, the golden structures conjure the promise of resolution and recall the winged house that stands, between cracked and slumped variants, at the centre of Folding House.

Text © Devika Singh


[1] See Alegra Presenti, 'Zarina: Paper Like Skin', in A. Presenti (ed.), Zarina: Paper Like Skin, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, 2012, p. 14.

[2] Author interview, New York, 22 February 2013.

[3] Homi K. Bhabha, ‘Age of Insecurity’, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 23 March 2013.

[4] ‘The Garden of Dark Roses: Zarina in conversation with Sandhini Poddar’, in Zarina: Paper Like Skin, p. 168.

[5] ‘The Garden of Dark Roses: Zarina in conversation with Sandhini Poddar’, in Zarina: Paper Like Skin, p. 172.

[6] Email correspondence with the author, 12 December 2013.
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