The first time that artist Zarina Hashmi went on a plane ride, it was 1940 and she was just three years old. Zarina’s father had taken her out in a single-engine Tiger Moth biplane, and she had loved it. The ride, which afforded amazing aerial views of the city below, made such an impression on her that the “bird’s eye view” of cities would appear in her work as a printmaker many years later.

Zarina, who prefers using only her first name, recounts this tidbit among other details of her life and work in a 7.40-minute video made as part of Zarina: Dark Roads by the US-based Asia/Pacific/American Institute where she is the 2017-’18 artist-in-residence. The video is now also playing on loop at New Delhi’s Gallery Espace where Weaving Darkness and Silence, a new solo exhibition of works by Zarina, opened to public on February 3.

Courtesy: The Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University. Created by Amita Manghnani, Emily Ho, and Shalemar Coloma.

Echoes of home

The video is an interesting lens through which to view Zarina’s large body of work since the work is deeply linked to her personal life and experiences. In the ongoing show, for example, the home in Aligarh where Zarina was born is the basis for works like The Dark House, 2016. A black-on-black collage made with Indian paper which Zarina has crushed and dyed with fragrant Sumi ink, The Dark House is reminiscent of the arched columns in her Aligarh home. The echo of her home in the work is unmissable, if you have just come out from watching the video which includes photographs from Zarina’s private albums. (The same arches also feature in earlier works like Dreams From my Veranda in Aligarh, 2013.)

'The Dark House', Zarina Hashmi. Collage with crushed Indian handmade paper stained with Sumi ink on printed black paper.

Partition, migration and the loss of home – all recurring themes in the New York-based artist’s works – also become easier to read with knowledge of Zarina’s memories of Aligarh during the Partition, of her marriage to a man who served in the Indian Foreign Services, and a life lived in nine different cities from Delhi to Bangkok and London to now New York.

In Weaving Darkness and Silence, the loss of home surfaces in works like Debris of Destruction. Pewter leaf makes delicate gold patterns on Somerset antique paper in this elaborate collage. Out of context, the image may even remind you of varq – a decorative gold or silver foil used for decoration on Indian sweets. Yet, the title will force you to step back and see the contours of what was once a sprawling golden home now in ruins.

'Weaving Darkness and Silence', Zarina Hashmi. Indian handmade paper stained with Sumi ink.

Yet there’s a new strain in Weaving Darkness and Silence, too. One that can’t be understood immediately through the video. In the lead essay in the catalogue, writer Sadia Shirazi explains that there is a new preoccupation with death and silence in these works. “Most of the works in this show are untitled and the few that are titled – Fence, Silent Night, Rain or Shine, Loss of Words, Debris of Destruction and My Dark House at Aligarh – evoke darkness and silence, the threshold of death. Zarina has explained that in her work, words come first before image and in this exhibition’s numerous untitled works the artist is perhaps articulating silence. To not speak, to be at a loss for words, is not the equivalent of not having ‘a voice’. Silence here denotes a limit–of language and also of representation.”

'Rain or Shine', Zarina Hashmi. Collage of etchings printed on Indian handmade paper.

Spun from memories

Indeed, some of the minimalist works in this show can seem impenetrable at first. Take the example of Silent Night. A beautifully evocative work made with found paper, Silent Night comprises 11 lines in a kind of copper-gold colour that shimmers up close. What might the lines mean? Are they markers of a memory so private she is loath to share it? Or a tally of days spent looking forward to something? The memory of a childhood game where the artist drew the shortest stick? Or could it be the fragment of a fence which is represented in other works in this show too?

'Silent Night', Zarina Hashmi. Collage with found paper on Indian handmade paper.

Whatever the artist’s intent, the work is perhaps more engaging because it opens itself to interpretation. It seems to ask the viewer: What do the lines remind you of? Do they have a resonance in your life? Would you like to stay a moment and reminisce?

Weaving Darkness and Silence, seen with the video, will alternatively produce aha moments where you think you’ve figured out the artist’s intent in a particular work. Yet the next moment, the works in this show seem to frustrate any attempt to read them from an historical and purely biographical perspective.

The artist has said in the past that art is about ideas, and Zarina’s ideas span human experiences from loss, migration, the relationship to language to now a preoccupation with death. In works like Silent Night in this show, Zarina seems to demand a more participatory viewing, as if she were inviting the viewer to reminisce with her.

Weaving Darkness and Silence is on at Gallery Espace, New Friends Colony, New Delhi, till March 3.