Zarina Hashmi passed away in London on April 25. She was 82 years old, and living with her niece and family in Wimbledon. Her relatives have released little information about her passing. Zarina (as she liked to be known) would have been glad. She was a private person, who made quiet works. Her prints, paper-works and insubstantial sculptures were mainly monochromataic, filled with minimalist motifs and spare Urdu calligraphy.
And, yet for all their subtlety, the reverberations they have generated across the artworld have been profound. Over the last two days, curators, gallerists, collectors, academics, writers and fellow artists have mourned her on Instagram feeds and through online obituaries; in a continuous stream of stories; a cross-border commingling of private memories and mutual loss.
Zarina was a relic of British India. She grew up on the grounds of Aligarh Muslim University, where she was born in 1937. At 21, she married an Indian diplomat, with whom she travelled the world (Bangkok, Tokyo, Paris and Bonn). Post-Partition, her father and siblings left for Pakistan, leaving forever her childhood abode. Zarina herself moved to New York in 1976.
Ideas of displacement and mobility are woven throughout her oeuvre. The subject of home is key: Father’s House 1898-1994 (1994) is a print depicting the floor plan of her childhood home. In Homes I Made/A Life in Nine Lines (1997) a set of nine spare, shadowy prints represent the homes Zarina occupied during her adult life. Homes I Made (1984-’92) is a collection of minute aluminium and terracotta houses, fitted with wheels.
Most famous of all is Home is A Foreign Place (1999) a suite of 36 woodblock prints, which includes a miniature floor plan of her Aligarh home; a vertical line and a horizontal one; black triangles; cream squares and crosses. Most of these fragile forms are accompanied by Urdu words for “journey,” “border,” “road,” and “time”. Home is a shifting concept in these works – as it was in her life.
For, perhaps more than any other South Asian artist, Zarina was a “cosmopolitan” superstar. Her artworks reside in the collections of Tate Modern in London as well as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, Guggenheim and Whitney. She has been represented by gallerists in New York and Paris; in Delhi and Karachi.
Over the last decade, Zarina had been feted at many an international institution. Retrospectives have taken place at Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum (2012); at the Guggenheim (2013); at the Art Institute of Chicago (2013) and at the Pulitzer Art Foundation in St. Louis (2020). She has been included in prestigious group shows. In 2011, Ranjit Hoskote chose her as one of four artists for the first-ever India Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Everyone Agrees: It’s About to Explode.
She was pivotal to Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space, co-curated by Hammad Nasar and Iftikhar Dadi in 2012 at The Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art in Ithaca. She was part of Nada Raza’s subtle 2019 tribute, Altered Inheritances: Home Is A Foreign Place, alongside Shilpa Gupta and Sophie Ernst, at the Ishara Art Foundation, Dubai. Her works appeared in Homelands: Art from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, curated by Devika Singh at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge in 2020. A retrospective of her work is currently at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Modern Art in Delhi.
For many an Euro-American curator, Zarina’s oeuvre represents an intellectually satisfying merger between “Eastern” philosophy, “Islamic” geometry and “Western” abstraction. But for South Asians, her work takes on a different level of significance. Zarina served as a witness to a collective trauma that continues to fracture our identities.
In her print Dividing Line (2001), a jagged black line cuts across a cream page, recalling the Radcliffe Line, the geopolitical boundary – named after the British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe – which ripped the Subcontinent apart. This Line recurs in the woodcut, Atlas of My World IV (2001) where a snaky black demarcation runs beyond the borders of the map of South Asia, rupturing it. (India and Pakistan are labelled in Urdu, Zarina’s mother tongue.)
Urdu’s erasure in the land of her birth – as much as the loss of her childhood home in Aligarh – was responsible for Zarina’s perennial sense of displacement. Her repeated revisiting of a pre-Partition world – artistic returns to her Father’s House, to her Mother’s tongue – express more than a personal tragedy. They gesture to a shared Subcontinental anguish, reminders of what we have all lost.
I remember a correspondence with Zarina. I sent her some interview questions (for the feminist journal N.Paradoxa) through the press department of her New York gallery Luhring Augustine. To my astonished delight, she answered herself. We had an email exchange about Proustian memory and madeleines. The smell of khas (vetiver) she said was the fragrance she associated with this kind of involuntary remembering; with hot afternoons, and her slumbering sisters, in Aligarh.
Some years later, I read a piece in The Guardian about Proust’s “madeleine moment”. That night, I dreamed about Zarina and her moving, mobile homes. I wrote to her the next morning. She didn’t reply for months, and I wondered what had possessed me: how forward and pushy of me, I thought. I had spoiled a perfect encounter; a pristine memory. And then, just when I had stopped expecting it, she replied.
She had received my email on the day that her sister Rani died, she said. She had smelled khas in the air, and thought of Rani and their trips together. Now Rani had taken her final journey, and Zarina would miss her. She wanted me to know that there would be “no more travels with Rani” in this life. Yet: “Memory”, Zarina had said, “is my only possession.”
The diptych Travels with Rani (2008) revisits the places she went to with her favourite sister. In these prints, maps melt into abstract shapes, recalling the spidery contours of Urdu calligraphy. Language becomes interlaced with the mapping of memory; evoking and revoking the separations of Partition, the finality of parting.
When Scroll.In, asked me to write an obituary for Zarina, it occurred to me that to memorialise Zarina’s memory-filled work with a memory of Zarina was the only fitting farewell. So, I asked the people who loved her for a reminiscence. I asked them to share remembrances across the Indian and Pakistani artworlds, so that in recalling Zarina we could travel together with her one last time. Right across the Lines that divide us.
A Map of Memories
An uprooted generation: Zohra Hussain, Zarina’s Pakistani gallerist, Founding Director of Chawkandi Art, Karachi
My last conversation with Zarina was an hour long and we discussed her final move to London. It seemed life had yet another home planned for her.
We met in 1985, shortly after I started Chawkandi Art and she had her first solo show in Pakistan there, the same year. I became Zarina’s gallery here and she had many shows with me over the years and they usually coincided with her visits to Rani and her father while they were alive.
When I first saw her work, I intuitively connected with it, visually it appealed to me but it was her topics that resonated and evoked our similar childhood. Zarina and I both were of the same generation and grew up in Northern India. I in Lucknow and she in Aligarh. With titles like One Long Afternoon When Everyone Slept, I found myself recalling the scorching summer afternoons when everyone stayed indoors in rooms that were cooled with scented reed screens of khas that were intermittently sprayed with water. Zarina and I also shared the experience of leaving our childhood homes that she so poetically conveyed in her art through floor plans, maps and Urdu, our common mother tongue.
Our connection went beyond the gallery: it was a deeper bond of an uprooted generation.
Magar dil hai kay us ki khana virani nein jati (How can the heart ever forget the pain of leaving one’s home.)
A meeting in Karachi: Professor Iftikhar Dadi; artist; art historian & Co-Curator of Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space
Elizabeth [Dadi] and I first met Zarina in Karachi in 1993. She would visit to meet her sister and show at Chawkandi Gallery. She had been working on her Home series then. Elizabeth recorded an interview with her for an art publication, which gave us deeper insight into her life and work. My father had been the country manager for IBM Pakistan where Zarina’s nephew worked, so she knew of my family background.
Like her, my mother grew up in Uttar Pradesh, studied at Aligarh University, and was strongly immersed in Urdu literature. After moving to Ithaca, NY, in 1998, we would meet her in New York City during visits. She had taught as a visiting professor at Cornell University for an academic year, and made work in the Art Department’s printmaking studios. Her Dividing Line (2001) became a central metaphor for the Lines of Control exhibition at Cornell’s Herbert F Johnson Museum in 2012, and Duke University’s Nasher Museum in 2013, curated by Hammad Nasar and myself.
Advisor, mentor, confidante, dear friend: Renu Modi, Zarina’s Indian gallerist, Founding Director, Gallery ESPACE, New Delhi
My association with Zarina goes back nearly 25 years, to 1995, when I first saw her work Road Lines, which Anupam Sood had included in the group show she had curated for my gallery. Over the years, Zarina became not just my gallery artist, but also my advisor, mentor, confidante, and most importantly, a very dear friend.
One of my most vivid memories of her is standing in her apartment in New York. She took out some works from under her bed. They were her cast paper works going back to the 1980s. I was bowled over. We must have a show of them, I immediately said to her.
“Do you think they are good enough to show?” she asked. Such was her humility. We showed the cast paper works at the gallery in Delhi in 2007. Later, they travelled to her retrospective at the Hammer Museum. Today they are some of her most celebrated works.
Moving cities: Abhay Sardesai, Editor, ART India magazine, Mumbai
Travelling between places led Zarina to explore how cities claim you and how you claim cities. In her work, the map becomes a document to record and revisit spaces of habitation; the house becomes a site to map temporary halts and stations of anchorage.
At one of the India Art Fairs in Delhi, I remember having a brief conversation with Zarina over a cup of tea. We were at the Gallery Espace exhibition space and I had just come back from visiting Humayun’s Tomb. You cannot visit Delhi without saying hello to Humayun.
Even as I enthusiastically shared my observations about briefly occupying the same space as Dara Shikoh, Farrukhsiyar and of course, Humayun and a host of other Mughal princes and rulers, I saw Zarina’s eyes light up. She spoke at some length about the different cities of Delhi and how they grew from each other. “We are all moving cities”, she said and flashed a generous, kind-eyed smile. “I am leaving for New York tomorrow,” she said. I left for Mumbai that evening.
A collective journey: Razi Ahmed, Director of Lahore Literary Festival and owner of Rani’s Garden
Zarina’s work resonates in both India and Pakistan, even more so now, as a historical visual resource. It explores the collective journey, post-1947, of the dislocations and ruptures families, friends and neighbours continued to feel as the process of state-fuelled nationalism gained ground in both states. Zarina, like Satish Gujral, was one of the very few artists who, having lived long after the Partition, was able to visually narrate the motifs and stories of the ways in which families stayed together – over long-distances, and in spite of the two states’ mounting hostility towards each other.
Rani’s Garden, a woodcut print with gold leaf, is a work which pays homage to her elder sister Rani’s garden in Karachi. Rani’s Garden distils the transcendence of nature and life over geopolitical crises, and it echoes hope in the maelstrom of the Subcontinental every-day.
A home for the ‘Pin Drawings’: London-based art historian Sandhini Poddar has been a curator at the Guggenheim in New York
On one of my earliest visits to her studio, Zarina bent down on her knees and pulled out an archival storage box from under her bed. It was full of her iconic “Pin Drawings” from the mid-to-late 1970s. I couldn’t believe my eyes; these were some of the most profound works of art I had ever seen. Each one was singular, subtlety different to the next, grounded by an invisible grid, and yet pulsating with rhythm and life.
She had a life-long dream to keep a suite of 20 aside for a major institutional collection in New York; the city that had become her home in 1976. This encounter was in autumn 2001. It would take me nearly a decade to place them in the permanent collection of the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, an institution dedicated to the non-objective, and with major holdings in Post-Minimalist abstract and process-based art. Finally, Zarina had her wish fulfilled.
She was 75 when the institution hosted her retrospective in 2013; a global recognition of her talent, which albeit arrived very late in her life.
An overnight sensation: Sharmistha Ray, artist and writer, New York
When I moved to Mumbai in 2006 to helm Bodhi Art, the first show I would oversee was Weaving Memory, a solo show by Zarina. That was when I met her for the first time. Zarina had an indelible memory and her recollection of people and places was inestimable. She loved to tell stories and would weave deftly between English and Urdu, dropping lines and entire verses from Sufi poetry into conversations.
That show, accompanied by an extensive and richly produced catalogue for which I wrote the introduction, was a knock out success. It heralded a breakthrough moment for Zarina who, up until that point, had been an artist’s artist, a deeply cherished member of the arts fraternity, and a beloved educator; but an unrecognised force in the commercial art world. Overnight, she became a sensation.
Zarina had an uncanny ability to distil complex concepts and emotion with bare economy. One of her most iconic works, Dividing Line (2001), depicts Partition as a singular jagged woodcut line that runs the vertical breadth of a page; but for Zarina, there was no such division between art and life. Her artistic vision and commitment to it were absolute. No other South Asian artist has so completely embodied the experience of displacement and in-betweenness with so much resolve and poetic fortitude.
A home in Urdu: London-based art historian Hammad Nasar & Co-Curator of Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space
“I am making a new work for your show”: Zarina’s frottage, A Few Steps in the Land of Confucius, was first shown in Drawn from Life (2008) at Green Cardamom. A depiction of the path to a Buddhist temple, it carries an easily missable inscription in the top right corner – an Arabic prayer for increased knowledge. For me, Zarina’s life and work were an answer to that prayer.
“When you find anything positive about the Partition, please let me know”: The Partition of India was a painful topic for Zarina, and despite our long friendship, she declined to participate in Green Cardamom’s Lines of Control exhibition in Karachi (2009); relenting when the project moved beyond the Subcontinent in its iterations at Cornell and Duke (2012-13).
“I am an Urdu artist”: Zarina made the Urdu language her home. Her collaborative book (with her sister Kishwar Chishti) of 101 Urdu proverbs was gifted liberally to those raising children in the diaspora. Both our boys have their own copies. Generous, wise, strong – with a wicked sense of mischief – Zarina was my friend. I will miss her terribly. Her quietly powerful work will remain an insistent reminder of all that we have lost.
A space to hide forever: Art historian Nada Raza, curator of Altered Inheritances: Home Is A Foreign Place, Ishara Art Foundation, Dubai
The film of Zarina talking about her father’s house, the one Sophie Ernst made, was shot in my father’s house. I guess that symmetry meant something to me, having been itinerant most of my adult years. That struggle – yearning and loneliness but needing to forge your own destiny – she showed the way.
The last time I was leaving Zarina’s studio, she asked me to take a copy of Directions to My House – an unlimited print she had made recently that related to her residency and book project with Sarah Burney at NYU.
It is a set of impossible directions to her paternal home in Aligarh. I said nahin, agli dafa – next time. It was partly takaluf – manners – and partly as I had nothing to carry it in and did not want it crushed. But I knew in that moment, somehow, that I too, would not return.
I did see her again, but not in her usual chair in “a space to hide forever”.
Yearning to fly: Art historian and curator Cordula von Keller, Rome
Writing from an extreme place of confinement, my home outside of Rome, where one of the world’s strictest rules of lockdown have been applied for more than seven weeks, I shall try to put down my thoughts about one of the most remarkable female artists of our time.
I was introduced to Zarina by Zehra at the India Art Fair in Delhi in 2012. Her discreet, yet elegant and self-confident presence, standing very upright while we talked, left a lasting impression. Referring to the Sufi poem The Conference of the Birds, Zarina recalled in a conversation during her exhibition at the Hammer Museum, how she joined the Flying Club in Delhi in the sixties and learned how to handglide.
She just wanted to fly, she stated, in order to have a sense of absolute freedom. Escaping confinement can be done in many forms, so she teaches us, all it demands is courage. Each of us can find a personal way to learn to fly.
Phir milenge: Artist and South Asian art historian Dr Mariah Lookman lives between the UK, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka
October 22 2014.
Zarina invited my husband, Muhanned, and I to late afternoon tea at her studio/apartment in Chelsea. I remember the evening well; we were greeted by classical Andalusian music and a warm welcome that instantly made us feel at home. Our conversation was eclectic and Zarina was extremely generous in sharing aspects of her work that seamlessly crisscrossed art, history, writing, printmaking, rent controls, lessons on managing a studio, multiple citizenships, Karachi, Aligarh culture, and the Urdu language while opening boxes upon boxes of prints over many cups of tea, and plates of food.
Before we knew it, it was past 2 am. None of us seemed to know how to end the evening, equally unsure of what to say. As Zarina walked us to the door in customary old-world fashion, we settled for the closest phrase we have to avoid saying goodbye in India and Pakistan; phir milenge: we shall meet again.
Zehra Jumabhoy is an art critic and art historian specialising in contemporary South Asian art. She teaches at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Read her piece in Artforum on on the art of Zarina here.