When an artist makes a statement through a form that lends itself to an expression of the personal and the perceptive, the works seem to embody the transience beheld within the very exercise of capturing that sense of assonance in the modulations of harmony.
Zarina’s cachet of works from the 70’s, become an unravelling of tendencies and moods that existed long before the world even woke upto it. Her works oscillate between the dulcet references of the idea of moorings inherent in memory, and a series of minimalist line prints that revel the absolute notions of pure abstraction.
Zarina’s body of works from the 70’s; created in New Delhi, Bonn, Tokyo, Paris, Los Angeles and in New York, is an attempt to bring order to a disconnected itinerary, shaped by constant moves. She often relies on memory to draw structures, safe spaces and familiar textures from a far away place called home. It is through 70’s work that she consolidated her conceptual ideas and gave them a visual form of abstract, reductive language of minimalism.
Minimalism in the 70’s
When asked whether her language of minimalism was an evocation that was acquired or inherent, Zarina says, ‘I only heard the term minimalism when it used to describe my work. I learned to write on a wooden board (takhti) with a reed pen, the black line on mud covered board has remained my valued mode of expression. I grew up in a house surrounded with books, as a child I was more familiar with the written word than the drawn image. I did not know until I came to Europe that visual expression was not dependent on representation of figure or a landscape.’
When you look at the series of prints in this show there is a sense of muteness, a silent soliloquy that has pushed aside the lexicon and decided instead to speak in the articulated intonation of capacious silences. The idea of cultural rootedness is certainly a part of her sensibility, even though you do not see it amply illustrated or even referred to, but it is the understanding of the passage of evolution in her own dictums of creation that make you wonder at her facile lucidity.
The white on white embossed prints with threads were made in 1973. In this, we see a reworking of her own self which involves the experience that mirrors facets of memories, symbols, beliefs and myths that may been destroyed, violated and, in some instances, obliterated as it is her Los Angeles and New York sojourn where most of her white work was created in the black and white prints, without shadows or layers, the message of the stark silkscreen prints try to seek spaces of representation. Whatever the intent, their language is direct and straightforward: to provide a connection between artistic practice and shared ideas between real and imagined.
Her white works have the power of a poignant pilgrimage. The poignancy of expanse in her white works, her intrinsic act of decoding the idea of thread (sutarum) in a very subliminal manner, and suddenly the emergence of the red stamp that bristles with so much energy.
Everything about these works have a monochromatic magic; you wonder how enclosed within a pictorial frame the language of magic and caprice exist in unison.
‘I like colour, monochromatic colour. What I am trying to say is not about colour, whiteness is an expression of things which remain unsaid and about nothingness. In India, thread is a symbol in life and in death, also when one goes to a shrine a string is tied to make a wish. I was on the road most of the 70’s - packing, shipping and stamping parcels. The stamp is a remembered habit. The other stamp is a seal of my name I got it made in Japan.’
Zarina’s characteristic spare monochromatic approach distances the events as she meshes few elements into imagined bonds, they awaken an inner response of pain and the exhilaration. After all, memory is about remembering and forgetting.
The woodcuts created at her Jangpura Barsati in 1968 in Delhi are appropriate parallels to the traces of memory left on the subconscious mind. These black lines recall the calligraphic markings Zarina was taught to write her first alphabets in Urdu. The same pictorial expression is visible in her silkscreen prints, printed in Germany.
Maybe the participation is tangential, in threads, in handmade paper that bears the seal and the stretched twine. The cultural undertone brings a rich overlay of images which we constantly encounter in the complex pattern of urban life.
Memory is a powerful tool, we know ourself through a remembered past. Zarina’s woodcuts draw their wistful power from a heroic struggle against disappearance, and what it leaves behind are the visual traces of its dispersion. The organic textures of her woodcuts within the hard edged forms create an interesting dichotomy between the organic and geometric.
‘I am instinctively drawn to natural textures and materials’, says Zarina. ‘Visiting old monuments or houses, I found beauty in old wood, cracked stones, or crumbling bricks, where I stopped to touch the stones or weather beaten wood’.
‘Within these works we would witness our own gaze, textures of the strips of bark of a tree speak of tensile tectonics, maybe at the precise moment before they settle back into dense encrustation. Explanatory labels are kept to a minimum. The woodcuts are printed with earth colour inks, burnt umber, raw sienna and lamp blacks are the preferred pigments’.
Classicism in Solitude
The white paper stitched with white silk thread, pin drawings and scratched paperwork belongs in the classical terrains of a Zen symbolism. If the thread works speak of sparseness the pin drawings are work of exquisite refinement.
Windows of modulation for Zarina seem to get more formal, as the geometric elements wrap around the edges of some works creating serene islands in space. Whatever size she chooses to work in, her ability to create classically contained compositions is always noteworthy. Looking at a glance at various strategies of working with the thread - the thread never looked more elegant or so tactile.
For those of us who lived in Delhi, Zarina’s works embodies the dulcet inclinations of Delhi’s winter light. From some angles, this tethered expanse of numerous lines in her prints embody a moment of stillness, on a winter so cold the sunlight might have frozen.
This understanding of inert tendencies gives her works the intimacy and immediacy of drawings. One thinks of the artistic intent leaving the room for slow-building narrative or layered experience. Over the years in few shows in India, Zarina has brought to the viewers the reading of images and texts within the multiple frames of mappings and shared histories.
In summing up the exhibition, one wonders if Zarina was seeking a quite unobtrusive identity. Japan, Los Angeles, Paris, New York - the fact that these works havebeencreated in varied parts of the globe brings us to the moot inquiry about if travel is a catalyst for creation? Does it awake an ingenuity or the quest for reinvention? What does travel do to the creative impulse within? How does it bring out the quest for continuity? ‘I don’t find travel conducive to work’ says Zarina. ‘Most of the time travel is a necessity, seldom a pleasure. I prefer to work in my own studio, which has always been my home. Travelling has become a habit, it has informed my visual expression, looking at changing landscapes, glancing at cities from air, flying above the clouds. Following the marking on the road, looking at horizons and crossing borders’.
The notable things about this set of work is that it invites quiet contemplation of the sages, the value of distilling silence so that one could bring out the crucial intent that lives in the past and becomes the confluence of the present. Walking from one room to the next and viewing one kind of work while still under the spell of another, creates expansive possibilities and adds richness to this experience of Zarina’s brand of silent soliloquy.
Published by Bodhi Art, New Delhi, 2006