A collage of houses, each drawn on handmade paper, covers a wall at Gallery Espace, Delhi. A line runs through one, cleaving it as a border does countries. Another, splashed with dots, appears to be riddled with bullets. A third has been sealed, another bleeds in red ink, and towards the end of this grid of 25 houses, one appears to have been burnt. New York-based artist Zarina Hashmi’s Folding House, a part of her fifth solo exhibition of the same name, draws on the memories of her house in Aligarh, where she was born in 1937, a decade before Partition. Last month, she visited Aligarh with her niece to show her what remained of the house on 8, Shibli Road, which had collapsed years ago. All she found were trees and buildings she could not recognise and an Urdu school that had been built not very long ago. Only the road sign, and the number plate, helped her identify the site of the house, which remains clearly etched in her memory.
The house of the collage, a triangular roof perched on a square, does not resemble the house Hashmi, who uses only her first name professionally, lived in. “I never lived in a triangular house. Such structures did not exist in Aligarh at that time. It is symbolic of the house I lived in, in places like Thailand. I was also playing with geometry, making using of three basic shapes — a circle, triangle and a square,” says the 76-year-old artist. In her other work Echo (on display at the current exhibition), Hashmi, who was one of the five artists to represent India in its first entry at Venice Biennale in 2011, uses digitally printed fragments from a letter in Urdu written by her sister and arranged it in a square. The words, in her sister’s writing, speak of the crumbling walls of her house continuing to converse with her.
Hashmi’s primary medium of choice is paper. She sculpts, cuts, punctures or sews on them, and then prints over them using traditional and improvised methods influenced by Japanese print-making techniques among others.
The idea for Folding House came to Zarina’s mind when she decided to use every bit of paper in her studio, located at the Fur district, near Pennsylvania station in New York. She had been collecting paper from 1958, from the places she had lived in or travelled to — Japan, Bangkok, Paris and Los Angeles. This time, she decided to do collages extensively.
The daughter of a professor at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Hashmi was 10 when the subcontinent declared its independence from British rule, only to be consumed by the communal violence and bloodshed of Partition. A decade later, her family moved to Pakistan. That cataclysmic event and the move from Aligarh are recurrent themes in her work. Her art is marked by the visible presence continued…