Displacement and memory, and a keen yearning for order, are the key themes running through the very compelling and personal survey, “Zarina: Paper Like Skin.” Zarina’s first-ever retrospective, spanning 50 years of the Indian-born artist’s work, presents not only a deeply felt personal commentary on a life lived in exile, but also a catalog of the remarkable breadth of technique that has become integrated into the printer’s art in the last half century.
Zarina, (born Zarina Hashmi, in Aligarh, India in 1937), the daughter of an academic Muslim family, grew up in an India which ceased to exist after the Partition of 1947. She earned a degree in mathematics and then, as the wife of a diplomat, lived in Thailand, France, Germany and Japan before moving to the United States in the 1970s. In each location, she expanded her unique vision of the expressive power of her favorite medium, handmade paper.
Zarina is a master printmaker: she trained in the legendary Atelier 17 in Paris, under the tutelage of Stanley William Hayter, who was perhaps the most influential intaglio printmaker of his generation [see Art in Print Vol. 2, No. 3 for an overview of Hayter’s impact on 20th-century art]. In her own New York atelier she produced editions for many formidable modern artists, Picasso and Dalí among them. To have been involved in printmaking in the 60s and to have traversed so many corners of the globe afforded the artist a front row seat for two major developments within her generation’s international avant-garde: the radical expansion of what could constitute “a print,” and more broadly, of the expressive possibilities of abstraction. An incisive intellect, she was also deeply involved in both the artistic revolution in 1960s Paris and in the seminal early chapters of the New York Feminist Art Institute in the 70s. Yet, though her work can be considered in the context of broader worldwide movements and trends, it remains deeply personal, reflective of a life lived in transit.
Zarina’s work displays a broad range of technical mastery and inquisitiveness: the show features woodcuts, etchings, rubbings, incised paper, and even cast multiples executed in paper and bronze, as well as other techniques. In an interview she said, “I looked at paper and just loved it. It is an organic material, almost like human skin: you can scratch it, you can mold it, it even ages.” This sensitivity to the malleability and ephemerality of paper amplifies the effect her tightly choreographed images have on the sheet. She deploys many varieties of papers, from many different cultures, in conscious and effective ways: her prints are sometimes as much about the texture of the surface as they are about the printed image.
While stylistically broad, Zarina’s work is anchored by a highly developed abstract language. This symbolic integrity connects widely varied works from across the five decades surveyed here. Home is a Foreign Place (1999) is the title of a cycle of 36 etchings that lies at the heart of the exhibition. A glossary of the artist’s singular iconographic lexicon, this series speaks to the human desire to define a context for the concept of home, and to find the illustrative and representational means to expand its definition. The titles, written in her native Urdu, run the gamut from the familiar (threshold and fragrance) to the Ptolemaic (Earth, Sky and Moon), to the conceptually abstract (border, despair and distance). They mark tenuous anchor points that track the peripatetic range of the exile’s experience, from the banal to the universal. Another poignant group of prints, Letters from Home (2004) is literally and physically based on a series of letters, again written in Urdu, that the artist’s sister wrote to her, but did not send, about deaths in their family. Zarina overlays on these letters the charged imagery of her remembered Indian home, moving from blurring to almost complete blackening of the texts. Mapping and architecture (another of Zarina’s interests) play a large part in her iconography; she again uses her technical fluency in printmaking to elevate this often dry visual language into a highly expressive personal statement. The politically charged These Cities Blotted into Wilderness (2003) is a suite of nine prints that uses maps, carved in expressive, gestural lines, to depict the violent nature of the cities they describe. Another group of nine prints (and cover sheet), Homes I Made/ A Life in Nine Lines (1997), uses a softer, hazy line embedded in a scumbled field to imbue these simple plan views of Zarina’s homes with a sense of longing and loss.
Rootlessness is a state endemic to many in our time: it is a poignant and moving experience to see this ever-increasing condition explored by an artist of this caliber.
In Zarina’s own words: “Art is my mother tongue.” This retrospective is a provocative and compelling body of work, deserving of a much broader audience.
“Zarina: Paper Like Skin” was organized by Allegra Pesenti, curator of the Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts at The Hammer Museum. It was on view at the Hammer Museum from 29 September–30 December 2012. The show will travel to The Guggenheim Museum, New York (25 January–21 April 2013) and to the Art Institute of Chicago (27 June–22 September 2013). A catalogue accompanies the exhibition: Zarina: Paper Like Skin by Allegra Pesenti, with contributions by Aamin R. Mufti and Sandhini Poddar. 192 pages. Published by the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, and Delmonico Books Prestel, Munich, London and New York, 2012.