Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 8 July 2020

Indian artist Zarina Hashmi passes away at 83 in London

Known for her simple forms, her work represented the voice of migration

'Home is a Foreign Place' (1999) is Zarina's most famous work. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York
'Home is a Foreign Place' (1999) is Zarina's most famous work. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York

Acclaimed Indian artist Zarina Hashmi, who went by the mononym Zarina, has died in London at the age of 83.

Her subtle and profound work investigated the key issues of the subcontinent in the 20th and 21st centuries: the partition of India; the idea of home as a foreign place (subject of her most famous work); and loss and longing. Her work was minimal, rendered in wood-block prints and silkscreens, or metal, wood and terracotta sculptures.

Zarina was born in 1937 in Aligarh, close to India's capital New Delhi. She married a diplomat at the age of 21, and they travelled to global postings: Bangkok, Bonn, London and Los Angeles. In the 1950s, after the partition of India, her parents and sister resettled in Pakistan. Though Zarina was abroad for the move, she was affected by it for years to come. It became increasingly difficult to move freely between the two countries and maintain family bonds.

Zarina studied art in various global cities before making New York her home in 1976. In Paris, she studied at the Atelier 17, an important site for Abstract Modernist print-making, and in Tokyo with Toshi Yoshida, who worked in the Japanese Modernist tradition of self-drawn, expressive prints, known as Sosaku Hanga. When Zarina arrived in New York, it was at the height of conceptual art and feminist thinking in the city, which she engaged with through, for example, feminist writer Lucy Lippard, or performance artist Ana Mendieta, with whom Zarina co-curated a show.

Though this diverse background influenced the form of her work, her subject matter remained rooted in India. Zarina's family home on the Aligarh Muslim University campus, became the source for many reimaginings, and became an emblem for the loss experienced by those at the time of partition, by economic migrants or by political refugees. It recurs in her works: in the collages Dreams From my Veranda in Aligarh (2013); in The Dark House (2016); and in Directions to My House, a collection of poems, essays and photographs that she produced in 2018 with curator Sarah Burney. In acknowledgement of the importance of the house in Zarina's work, the opening show of the Ishara Art Foundation in Dubai last year mapped the gallery exhibition according to the layout of the house.

Displacement and loss were also at the centre of her most famous work: the stunning Home Is a Foreign Place (1999). This series of 36 ideograms, each rendered as a separate woodblock print, based on words Zarina chose as important, such as “distance”, “road” and “wall”.

She sent the words to a calligrapher in Pakistan who worked in the nastaliq script used for Urdu manuscripts, and from his interpretations she developed different images for the words: simple grids and crosses; triangles obliquely set on the page; overlapping geometric forms of squares and circles. The work creates a new language, part-textual, part-visual – and part in Urdu, part in the Modernist language of her aesthetic education – for the idea of displacement: a unique vocabulary for the experience of migration.

“Language itself became ‘home’,” says curator Nada Raza, a long-time follower and curator of Zarina’s work. “The literary, urbane Urdu of the Indo-Persianate culture of north India, with all its etiquette and yet the capacity for metaphor and multiple meaning. I am reaching for something to say about her, but only Urdu comes out – as if the language of her grief is the only language that can encompass her loss.”

Updated: April 27, 2020 02:25 PM

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