“There is truth to the phrase, “You can never go home again.” I do not feel at home anywhere, but the idea of home follows me wherever I go. In dreams and on sleepless nights, the fragrance of the garden, image of the sky, and sound of language returns. I go back to the roads I have crossed many times. They are my companions and my solace.” - Zarina
Home is a Foreign Place, 1999
Portfolio of 36 woodcuts with Urdu text printed in black on kozo paper and mounted on Somerset paper/ Dimensions: 16 x 13 inches
Zarina passed away in London on 25 April 2020, she was 82 years old. Her works were minimalistic and monochromatic with sparse Urdu calligraphy though towards the end she did use some gold. Zarina made her personal life the subject of her art. She did confess that it was painful to open up her life to the scrutiny of strangers. She liked natural materials that were close to the earth like Wood, paper, cloth; fragile materials connected to the earth. Fragility and that correlation stimulated her. Handmade paper was one of her favourites and she selected them carefully for each project; unbleached and natural. Zarina’s works are quiet and subtle, there are no figures, all there is are the lines and patterns. Borrowing Allegra Pesenti’s (Exhibition curator of “Paper Like Skin”) words “It’s not flush, not clean, it has a roughness” and yet a sacred purity resides, I would like to add. Paper, like skin ages, stales and keeps secrets and it also binds everything together and retains a sense of intimacy.
I came across Zarina, unexpectedly, a couple of years ago when YouTube recommended a Tate video, “My Work is About Writing”. I was instantly fascinated and remain so ever since. I remember her stating in another video that she was apprehensive about saying that she was an artist but instead preferred to say that she was a teacher. Zarina, on another occasion, also mentions that she had trouble being identified as a “Muslim artist”, “Indian artist” or the like. She is an artist and that’s it. Zarina, as she liked to be called, hadn’t resided in India for the past 50 years; New York was her home away from home. Her last years were spent in London with Rani's children; her family. She couldn’t really point to a single place as her home. Her travels took her to a lot of transient homes and this idea of a shifting home, the displacement, the isolation/solitude, the hideaways, the spaces, borders, journeys and memories attached to each space that she may have felt at home at some point were instrumental in the forming of her oeuvre. Having said that Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) quarters always brought back a sense of home to Zarina where she did long to return at some point.
Home was a confusing notion for Zarina. Zarina’s works Home I Made/ A Life in Nine Lines (1984 -92) is a set of nine prints of the homes she resided. Home is a Foreign Place (1999) is a suite of 36 woodblock prints which included a miniature floor plan of her Aligarh home. The works are accompanied by Urdu words like dust, despair, night, door, breeze, country, threshold, time, cage, border, etc. She wrote the word first and then the image formed; she chose a whole series of words that represented her. She engaged in creating these works at a very difficult time in her life soon after being threatened to vacate her life-space and working space in NY. Leaving home - What does it really mean to leave home? It is as much as this shifting concept of home as it is with life itself.
“Home is other people. I often have a dream in which I’m sitting in our courtyard and everyone around me is saying, “Oh, I’m so glad you’ve decided to come back.” When I wake up, I realize that I was sitting amongst the dead. Nobody is left in our house at Aligarh. Rani is gone. My parents are gone. Home has become another foreign place.”
Dividing Line, 2001
Woodcut printed in black on Indian handmade paper Mounted on Arches Cover white paper Dimensions: 25.5 x 19.5 inches
Partition left her scarred and she mentions the aftershock even after 50 years. It defected lives both in India and Pakistan - a line that disrupted and uprooted millions of lives. Zarina’s work is connected to language and poetry. Urdu is a poetic language as much as it is a dying one and Zarina wanted to place it historically to indicate that there was a certain time that the language existed. She lived outside India for 50 years but kept up with the language because it has a cultural connection. Once you are separated from your language it’s a great loss; one loses access to one’s own scriptures, poetry, literature; it has an emotional connection too.
Urdu, a language Zarina loved which obviously connected to her home, became her idea of home I suppose. Her works were rooted in Urdu calligraphy, rooted in culture, reminiscent of her time in Aligarh and her family. Zarina often quoted Ghalib, Meer and the Palestinian poet, Mohammed Darwish.
“I am not a writer; I need to retrace my steps to places I have passed through to understand how I got here, at this place, at this point and time. I used the means available to me, a language of symbols and words. It has nothing to do with nostalgia; I have no desire to ever go back up to pick up the threads of my old life.”
Zarina was first captivated by printmaking when she attended a diplomatic party in Bangkok with her husband, Saad Hashmi. She enquired about the work and was told that it was a Japanese woodblock print. She wanted to learn the art and though it took a few years for her, Zarina did finally reach Japan and did study the art form under Father Gaston Petit and apprenticed at Toshi Yoshida Studio. Along the way, Zarina did learn woodblock in Bangkok, Intaglio in Atelier 17, Paris under S W Hayter under whom she was eager to practice.
You may find articles on Zarina from experts. I am no expert but I loved Zarina and her works. It’s like admiring a movie star whom everyone knows and one feels attached to even though you don’t know them personally. Probably it is this shifting idea of the home that drew me towards Zarina. Living in a country away from home brings about a lot of changes. I have lived feeling displaced a lot of times. Sometimes even when I am at my own home, there is a sense of longing for a place called home that I am yet to find.
Zarina’s upbringing moulded her independent outlook of life. She was surrounded by books and printed stuff early on as her father was a History professor at the Aligarh Muslim University. She remembers that was where her love for the printed words emerged. Mr. Rasheed wanted her daughters to be well educated, unlike the times they were in. At one instance, he took Zarina for a ride on an airplane when she was about five. It stirred up her love for topography and architecture eyeing it all from an aerial perspective. This probably led Zarina to join Delhi Flying Club in her twenties and she learned to glide. Her sculpture, Flight Log (1987) reminds us of this instance.
Rani (Kishwar Chishti) was a constant support in her life. They had worked on several projects together and Zarina sought input from her sister at all points. They shared a strong bond. Letters from Home (2004) – a portfolio of 8 woodcuts and text by Zarina, is one such iconic and personal work. It’s a compilation of 6 unposted letters written by Rani to Zarina which was later handed over to the latter during one of their visits. It recounts the passing away of their parents, selling their home, the grief she felt after her children moved away and how much she missed Zarina.
“Rani (my sister) and I spent countless afternoons there. The sense of being enclosed within the courtyard’s four walls was an opportunity to reflect on life. On summer nights, we would sleep under the stars and plot our journeys in life. Sometimes it would keep us awake until the sunlight faded the stars from our vision.”
Travels with Rani, 2008
Diptych - Travels with Rani I: intaglio printed in black on Arches Cover buff paper Travels with Rani II: woodcut printed in black on Okawara paper and mounted on Arches Cover buff paper Dimensions: 24 x 20 inches
I admire Zarina for the strength that she had to grow and nourish herself in her times when it wasn’t easy to go about as a single woman artist, reside in an unknown country, travel and make friends and realize her aspirations. Of course, she had unflinching support from her sister Rani and her family. At one point during the process of moving from New York to LA, Rani and her children visited Zarina, they rented a car, picked up Zarina’s belongings and drove. It was a week-long road trip, two Asian women with kids and an adventurous cross-country trip. Travels with Rani (2008) is an ode to that.
“I like to travel; it's cleansing. That trip helped me rethink my life and focus on what's ahead. I saw the highway as my life's journey, many exits I took, some detours, and many I did not. I will never know what those exits contained. I think I still took the route I knew and got to where I should be.”
Like most women artists, Zarina faced difficulties at home, her marriage. She couldn’t fit in the role of an ideal wife of a diplomat arranging parties, small talk and forced appearances. However, it did take Zarina around the world to major cities like Paris, Bonn, Tokyo, Los Angeles, London and New York. Ever since her first travel. She never looked back; she loved traveling extensively and it added to her work, obviously. Zarina points out that “Human beings are supposed to travel. Stillness is death. We like to move.”
In a way, she has lived a life that we would dream of:
“I went to art galleries, watched art films at the Cinémathèque française at Trocadero, took art history classes at the Louvre, and visited the graves of Vincent and Theo van Gogh. I drew maps and traveled through France, often on my own. I read Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Nathalie Sarraute, and Alain Robbe -Grillet. I met the most fascinating people: André Malraux, de Beauvoir, Beckett, and Umberto Eco. I saw all the art I could: Naum Gabo, Antoine Pevsner, Kasimir Malevich, Constantin Brancusi, Max Ernst, and Maria Helena Viera da Silva. I discovered Paris through art.”
Saad Hashmi passed away in 1977, their relationship had strained by then and Zarina was living alone in New York focussing on her art. It was there that she became part of the feminist artists and their community, took part in the marches, worked in the editorial board of ‘Heresies’, co-curated with Ana Mendieta at the A.I.R, became aware of the Third World artists; the ‘other’ in America, embraced a whole new self. Her world changed radically.
Zarina felt that her identity was that of an exile though it wasn’t something exclusive to her; this century is full of such people. Transience is part and parcel of human life. Zarina was a quiet artist and wasn’t immediately embraced, it took her some time to find her place. In a way, she was able to bring down some barriers. Probably that made it easy for her to see her path with clarity. She believed that Life offers choice at every turn and one has to believe in the Divine Will for clarity. Uniting with the Divine, the Blinding Light is what she sought.
“When the journey towards God ends, the journey in God begins. This is a small part of our existence, it’s not eternity. Eternity is when we enter the other realm.”