A Room of One’s Own: Zarina
The works in Weaving Darkness and Silence are at a scale that Zarina often works in. A scale that allows her to work independently, the scale of one person. “Working on a small scale has its own intensity—the image has no place to go,” the artist writes, “It can only pull you into the depth of darkness from where it is impossible to escape.” To begin to understand this aspect of Zarina’s work one has to conjure the spaces in which the artist has lived and worked. Laila Tyabji recalls Sunday’s at Zarina’s barsati in Jangpura and the incongruous printing press hulking in the middle of the small room, over which Zarina would lay a tablecloth and set delectable meals. It was in this barsati that Zarina first found a room of her own, a solitary space in which to live and make work. The Delhi barsati’s of the 1970s were simple, affordable, one room enclosures with large terraces. These rooftop spaces in Nizamuddin East and Jangpura were populated by artists—M.F. Husain, Tyeb Mehta, V.S. Gaitonde, Nasreen Mohamedi—a community in walking distance of one another well before they achieved meteoric fame. Zarina was one of the very few women amongst them. Zarina’s artistic practice expanded after her marriage and departure from Aligarh in 1958, during sojourns abroad when she lived in Bangkok, Paris, and Bonn with her husband, a diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. While living in Paris in the mid-1960s Zarina studied with Stanley William Hayter at Atelier 17, and was one of many Indian artists living and working there at the time. Upon her return to India in 1968, Zarina moved to Jangpura and lived there, alone, for six years. She left Delhi for Tokyo in 1974 where she worked with Toshi Yoshido at his studio, and immigrated to the United States the following year.
Zarina still lives in the same apartment she first rented in Chelsea after her move to New York. At that time the neighborhood was full of clothing wholesalers and her building was all furriers; artists had only recently begun to move in. Zarina built out her loft, gradually built up a community of friends, was part of the city’s burgeoning feminist art movement, supported herself by teaching at universities across the country, traveled back home to India, fought eviction from her apartment, had exhibitions in India, Pakistan and New York, and continued visiting her family in Pakistan, the new country that they, but not she, would call home. Zarina’s relationship to her homeland and newly adopted country mirrored the fraught relationship both have had with their Muslim minorities. In the wake of the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the wars waged after 9/11, neither India nor the United States ever felt like home again. Throughout this time, Zarina continued to create a rich body of work with a determination, consistency and focus that is difficult to fathom today, in our much altered world of global fairs, biennials and inflated art markets.
Over three decades, the artist sustained herself and her practice in the United States through teaching and a transnational network of support. Zarina had solo shows in Delhi, Bombay and Karachi throughout the 1970s and 80s, while living in the United States, and continues her relationships with artists, friends and gallery owners in these cities, relationships that now span nearly forty years. Even before Zarina represented India in its pavilion at the Venice Biennale, she had inspired artists across South Asia and the Middle East as one of the few artists in the region who has worked with abstraction and minimalism for her entire career. But it was only after her acclaimed retrospective, Zarina: Paper Like Skin (2012-13), which began at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and then traveled to the Guggenheim in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago, that her work came into the purview of museum going audiences in the United States and, more widely, the West. Zarina never sought institutional validation from the United States, despite having lived there for most of her adult life and having been actively involved with artistic and feminist networks. Krishna Reddy, who was also at Atelier 17 in Paris, introduced her to Robert Blackburn in New York, whom she in turn introduced to other Indian artists. She was on the editorial board of Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics for their issue “Third World Women, the Politics of Being Other,” and her close friends included the artist Ana Mendieta, with whom she exhibited and had a shared history: both were immigrants, exiles, and felt othered by the New York feminist movement’s whiteness. Zarina’s transnational reach, it bears mentioning, is not the result of an ambition to exhibit at a global scale, nor a result of privatized, institutional networks, it is the result of the artists’s lifelong investment in the social.
When you visit the artist at her studio, you enter at the short end of the L-shaped plan, facing many windows that run the other length of the loft. There are metal shelves stacked high with books and impeccably organized acid-free archival boxes holding Zarina’s prints marked with annotations that read “Home is a Foreign Place,” “Beirut Summer of 1982,” “Travels with Rani.” This is the loft’s primary work space, a desk and computer lay against one wall near her books, with work tables against the opposite wall near more shelving stacked with printmaking materials. The hinge of Zarina’s home is the living area, its contours defined by a large, Persian carpet. The rest of the loft is a tight, efficient plan. The galley kitchen has a long plywood table running parallel to the windows and functions as countertop and storage, with appliances and more open shelving opposite it. Like her Jangpura apartment in Delhi, there is no stovetop in this home, only an electric hot plate with two burners. The washrooms and wardrobe are here, more metal shelves stacked neatly with clothing. The home has not changed much since she moved in, though recently there are some imperceptible changes—books are gifted and donated, new bric-a-brac from friends and loved ones are displayed alongside older, beloved objects. In the kitchen, thin slivers of cut paper lie atop a workspace abutting it, prints that have been cut by Zarina’s assistant, Yukari Edamitsu, are arranged by the artist into collages, her elegant, curled hands working tirelessly in tighter and tighter gestures. It is here, in Zarina’s home and studio that the works in Weaving Darkness and Silence were made.
شہر کي رات اور ميں ناشاد و ناکارہ پھروں
جگمگاتي جاگتي سڑکوں پہ آوارہ پھروں
غير کي بستي ہے کب تک در بدر مارا پھروں
اے غم ِ دل کيا کروں، اے وحشت ِ دل کيا کروں
Sad and aimless, I wander the city at night
On streets lit like day, I roam, a vagabond
In this city that is not mine, how long can I drift door to door
O my sad heart, what should I do, O my frenzied heart, what should I do
. . .
Zarina’s preoccupation with architecture finds itself rendered anew in this exhibition. The works display her characteristic ability to distill emotion down to its most essential, expressive forms. Forms that are invested in materiality and hapticity, that do not shy away from embellishment and ornament despite their spareness. The representational language of the architectural plan that is characteristic of Zarina’s earlier work from the mid 1990s plays out in a series of visually dynamic line collages of floor plans. From the etching, Father’s House 1898-1994 (1994), where the spaces described by the thin lines of a floor plan of her family house in Aligarh are annotated in Urdu, to My House 1937-58 (1994), where the lines of the plan are more thickly rendered and interiority is represented through darkness and exteriority through light, and finally in Homes I Made/A Life in Nine Lines (1997), the artist settles on a formal language that invokes the bones of the architectural plan. This language reappears in this show in three black and red Untitled (2017) works that play with a line that is alternately a boundary and a passage.There are no cryptic titles here and the architectural plan is not the now familiar family home with its fragrant trees and courtyard. In these collages the plan is only a folly of memory. A cruciform room in one work is closed and impenetrable, in another walls are sliced, rotated, they turn at odd angles creating rhythmic patterns, in a third, corners are all that remain of what were a room’s four walls. Red lines disrupt the most basic convention of the plan that the artist is working with, its black poché. An entire architectural language is glitching, eroding, or perhaps reassembling into something else—a game, a maze, an escape.
Departing from this exploration of the line is a series of black and white works that explore figure ground relationships. Patterns arise in these pieces as a result of a series of operations the artist employs—rotation, repetition, mirroring, layering, and weaving. The collages feel improvisational, geometries are forgiving and seams are imperfect. In one Untitled (2017) work, what appears as a snaking, white cubic figure is, upon closer inspection actually the negative space that emerges out of the positive of the collage’s black paper strips, an inversion of the figure ground relationship. A thin white line in another work thickens into a rectangular handle or block, this form is then mirrored and repeated. Again what we read as white figure is ground. A wall’s brick courses and stairs are evoked in a third work that reads simultaneously as a play with scale and the conventions of plan and elevation, a tactic we see again in the movement of light and shadow across what seems to be a modernist building’s facade, reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s Mill Owners’ Association Building in Ahmedabad. This latter work is in fact made of alternating squares and triangles, and repeats a symbol of home that the artist has made iconic in her work. This symbol of home, though, is not an architectonic figure, it is affective, instead of structure it is invested in memory, sentiment and feeling.
Paper is woven, crushed, cut and layered in the artist’s textural, black on black works. There is an emphasis on the haptic and olfactory as opposed to the purely visual in these processes, a refusal of the dominance of the ocular in Western architectural modernism and an embrace of “the eyes of the skin.” Paper “is an organic material, almost like human skin,” the artist Zarina Hashmi has said, “you can scratch it, you can mold it, it even ages.” Paper strips are stained in Sumi ink, whose fragrance the artists has likened to burning incense, and woven tightly in Untitled (2016). In another work the artist crushes stained Indian handmade paper with her hands, and then cuts and reassembles it into an uneven rectilinear shape whose center consists of shards. In addition to these black works are others using gold and pewter leaf, a material the artist began working with in the 2000s. Dark Mirror (2017) is a rubbing of a gold border on black paper, its negative space an echo of the black marble bulbs that Zarina has worked with in installation, a play on noor (divine light) and blackness. Another work of gold leaf is affixed on white tissue paper adhered in a way that creates small rivulets and loosely collaged into a cube appearing like rough hewn blocks, the old stones of a historic structure.
I have not yet mentioned the undeniable obsession with darkness in this exhibition. Most of the works in this show are untitled and the few that are titled—Fence, Silent Night, Rain or Shine, Loss for 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. There has always been an opacity in Zarina’s work, at times the work gains in depth and particular meaning for viewers familiar with the Urdu language, at others through an archaeology of the artist’s remarkable life and its intersection with the destruction of civilizational matrices that once connected Delhi to Baghdad and Damascus. Of late, over chai, the artist has mentioned the vernacular Urdu versions of Shaykh Farid ud-Din Attar’s Conference of the Birds (Mantiq al-Tayr), women’s stories she recalls hearing as a child. Perhaps the threshold in Weaving Darkness And Silence is that between sleep and wakefulness, a concern not with the body but with the soul.
How long will the sea of your soul be in turmoil?
You should die to this life and be silent.
جان فشاندن باید و خاموش بود
چند خواهی بحر جان در جوش بود