Zarina (1937-2020) : A fiercely independent woman artist

Zarina, as she was known, made an indelible mark in the international art world as one of South Asia’s leading artists. Widely recognised in her lifetime, she will be remembered as a fiercely independent woman artist who achieved artistic recognition on her own terms, through powerful yet restrained works that drew on her linguistic and cultural heritage and experiences of estrangement, dislocation and loss.

Zarina was raised within the cultural and intellectual milieu of the Aligarh Muslim Uuniversity, a world that informed her aesthetic sensibility, encompassing her father’s history books and the strong feminine bonds of the zenana. She took up printmaking while married to an officer in the Indian Foreign Service, first woodblock carving in Bangkok, then learning experimental ink and intaglio techniques at the Atelier 17, the cosmopolitan Paris studio run by Bill Hayter (the subject of a focused exhibition in 2016 at the Metropolitan Museum, Workshop and Legacy: Stanley William Hayter, Krishna Reddy, Zarina Hashmi). Zarina is best known for her series of etchings and woodblock prints that express the estrangement of migration, geographical dislocation and exile, captured in works such as Travels with Rani 2008, a dotted diagram of all the towns and train stations she and her family had passed through, forming a mind map of an undivided subcontinent.

Quiet struggle

She experimented with papermaking techniques, testing the limits of the medium with expert craftsmen in India, moulding and piercing paper into sculptural and architectural forms that resembled packed earth, terracotta and stone (I Whispered to the Earth 1979, Wall II 1979, Fence 1980, Pool I, 1980, Tate Collection). The opportunity to leave Delhi for the United States in the 1970s brought personal and artistic freedom, but also many years of quiet struggle.

After itinerance for many years between training in Japan, teaching in California and New York, her family in Aligarh, Delhi and Karachi, and an artistic circle in New York, she was able to base herself in her studio in Manhattan while continuing to exhibit regularly in India. With strong opinions and immense self-discipline, Zarina resisted being pigeon-holed into the prevalent art world orthodoxies.

Her peers included Judy and Krishna Reddy, Ram Rahman, Mehli Gobhai and Meena Alexander among others, and she joined postcolonial feminist networks, co-curating an exhibition with the Cuban artist Ana Mendieta at the A.I.R Gallery titled Dialectics of Isolation: An exhibition of Third World women artists in the United States in 1980. The exhibition WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution at MOCA in 2007 led to critical attention, and her first major museum exhibition. The retrospective exhibition Paper Like Skin travelled from the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles (2012) to the Guggenheim, New York and the Art Institute of Chicago (2013).

Zarina’s works on paper, in print and collage, and her sculptures, made from paper pulp or metal, found homes in prominent museum collections such as the Tate Modern in London, the Metropolitan Museum, MoMA, Whitney and Guggenheim in New York. Her work is in many private collections and recent exhibitions have been held at the Kiran Nadar Museum in New Delhi (2020) and the Ishara Art Foundation in Dubai (2019).

Of exile

It was in the poetics and yearnings of exile that she grounded her work, after the Partition and its upheaval fractured their lives in Aligarh, a world relentlessly yearned for; ‘Language ties my work together. Urdu is home’, and this included its capaciousness for metaphor and multiple meanings. ‘Ghar’ was always the floorplan of her father’s academic bungalow in Aligarh, described poignantly in Letters from Home 2004.

In recent years, claiming that time was running out and that she wanted to use up all the scraps left in her studio, she had worked mostly with paper collage, referencing Faiz, Ghalib and Iqbal in the titles of inky starscapes, lines such as ‘Akhri shab ke humsafar’ or ‘Sitaron se age jahan aur bhi hain’.

Zarina departed on Saturday for the world beyond the stars, cared for and survived by her sister’s children in London. Zarina apa, as I called her, was a role model for how to live an independent life without compromise, navigating the world with the dignity, etiquette and razor-sharp wit of Aligarh.

(Nada Raza has been a curator for South Asian art at the Tate Modern museum)

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 5:01:38 AM |

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