Zarina Hashmi, known simply as Zarina, is exceptionally brave. Though her small works on paper are technically excellent, she impresses me most as an artist who is unafraid of exposing her secrets and personal losses. Recently, while leading a group of fifth graders through Zarina: Paper Like Skin, the artist's current retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, one student said to me, "It seems like she doesn't want her memories, like she is trying to cover them up with black ink." He had no idea how apt this comment was. Zarina herself has stated, "Memory is a burden. I tried to get rid of my memories, but it didn't work, so I decided to use them."
In her most well-known series, Home is a Foreign Place, both good and bad memories come to the fore. This work, comprised of thirty-six woodblock prints, was created in 1999, when Zarina was being evicted from her apartment. She decided to take her landlord to court, and while she was fighting to keep her small living quarters, she began thinking about the meaning of home, a complicated concept for an artist who has lived outside her country of origin for over fifty years. After generating a list of thirty-six words that relate to her notion of home, she illustrated these words with images that are largely schematic. Though the words are written in Urdu--Zarina's native language, which few people still know how to read--the imagery is universal.
Still, Zarina's life story as told through these thirty-six images remains distinct. She was born in 1937 in Aligarh, a university town in northern Indian close to the current border with Pakistan. When she was ten, the country was partitioned, an event that displaced millions of people and resulted in violence and sectarianism. The consequences of the partition continue to reverberate within Zarina and her work. The last image in this series is titled "border," depicting a shrunken, jagged version of the geographical boundary between the two aforementioned countries.
When Zarina was twenty-one, she married a diplomat and began traveling: first to Thailand, where she learned traditional printmaking, then to Japan, Germany, and eventually the United States. She moved to New York in 1975, and has since spent time living in both lower Manhattan and Santa Monica, California. "Human beings are supposed to travel," she argues, "I think of stillness as death." Though she has not lived near her family in decades, and though she says her "identity is that of an exile," in a very basic sense, she still considers Aligarh home.
Some of the images in Home is a Foreign Place are concrete and recognizable. The first, "home," depicts a miniature floor plan of her father's house, in which she grew up. "Afternoon," pictured on the upper right here, shows a ceiling fan, referring to Zarina's memories of lying on the bed under whirring propellors to avoid the afternoon heat. Other images are more suggestive or metaphorical: "silence" is a series of rest notes on a musical score, alluding to Urdu's slow demise as people stop using it. In the same row, "despair" is two parallel scratch marks that look like indentations; they resemble the work of fellow artist Ana Mendieta, another self-described exile living in New York, who passed away in 1985.
Zarina always works with organic materials--paper, pulp, wood, and plants. She likes the idea that her art will decompose if left untreated. But there is also a more symbolic reason she chooses paper. "Paper," she says "is very close to skin, because skin ages and stains and keep secrets. So does paper." By putting her delicate works on display for a wide audience, she has also revealed herself.
To learn more about Zarina and other exhibitions now on view at the Guggenheim, join my class at the museum on Saturday, April 6. See here for more details.
Sources: All quotes are taken from the excellent videos available on the Hammer Museum's website, as well as the catalog for Zarina: Paper Like Skin.