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A Border Runs Through It

India-born New York artist Zarina Hashmi chronicles her life and her migrant biography through her primary medium of choice — paper

Updated: February 16, 2014 10:03:35 am
Zarina Hashmi Zarina Hashmi

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.

zarina-hashmi-workHashmi’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.

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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 of a thick black line, depicting the capriciousness of political borders. Viewers familiar with her work will recognise it as the border between India and Pakistan. She says, “When Cyril Radcliffe was drawing the borders for the new nations of Pakistan and India, he did not realise that they were running through homes. There were houses, whose one half lay in Punjab, India and the other in Pakistan,” she says. Other themes present in her work are of journeys and displacement, home and history, migration and memory.

Hashmi’s father, who taught medieval Indian history, wanted his children to get an education and considered art to be a craft. So, she got a degree in mathematics. Sometime after graduating from AMU, Hashmi married a member of the Indian Foreign Service in 1958, which led her to travel, living in Thailand, France, Germany, Japan and the United States.

In 1961, she carved her first woodblock in Bangkok. During her stay there, she began reading about printmaking and came across the works of the well-known Irish printmaker Stanley William Hayter. Two years later, in 1963, her husband was posted in Paris. She joined Hayter’s Atelier 17 workshop, where prints were regarded as important as paintings, and for the next three years, studied under him. “Hayter was very good to me and a great teacher. Once he said, you are the only organised woman I have ever met,” she says.

Through those years, she found her home in a sheet of paper, on which she chronicled her migrant biography. She quotes an 11th century Sufi saint to describe her home: “The home is not real. The real home is where we die. That is where we will live for eternity.”
Despite the distance from India, her works resonated with childhood references visible in Home is a Foreign Place, and Letters From Home, where she used Islamic calligraphy in black-and-white prints to reveal her fractured past. The latter was based on Urdu letters written by her sister, marking important moments like the death of a parent. Often, she combines Islamic calligraphy she learnt as a child with quotations by notable poets like Ghalib, to invoke the idea of home. The house and its architecture is essential to her work. Her nine etchings titled Homes I Made / A Life in Nine Lines (1997) are an illustration of the floor plans of the nine apartments and houses where the artist had lived in, around the world.

When her husband died in 1977, Hashmi had to make a choice — to stay back in New York or return to India. She says, “I could have come back and I thought that I would, one day.
But then I wondered, what am I dreaming about? I do not have a family there. So I took the opportunity to make a new home. Being scared is not a part of my vocabulary. My father believed in me and had a lot of confidence that I could do anything. My mother thought I was making a mistake.” But what made her stay was her belief that even if she failed as an artist, she would have tried. She says, “That became my choice even if I had no money and nobody knew who I was. I got lucky. I don’t have a huge ego that would say ‘I did all this’. There are thousands of artists who never get noticed and discovered.”

Hashmi’s tryst as a curator for shows at the feminist AIR gallery in Brooklyn and her stint as a teacher at the New York Feminist Art Institute made her a prominent figure in feminist circles of the art scene in the 1970s. She says, “I believe women have rights to equal pay and to choose for themselves. When you go to an arts school in the US, there are more women than men. But in galleries, there are not that many women. That is shocking. The work of women is sold at a much lesser price, because women don’t fight. If my works are in a gallery, my prices are much lower. First, I have to compete with white women and secondly, I am old. I fight for it. If they can’t sell it, they should send it back to me. You should be satisfied and should not simply accept such things.”

Her upcoming series Crossings, will deal with borders that she has crossed and how it felt moving across countries and deserts. “It deals with what I experienced when I crossed the Wagah border, moved from Thailand to Cambodia, India to Japan,” she says.

But the artist believes that she is the best judge of her works. “It is for me to decide if my work is beautiful. That is the pleasure of being old. It is not about a career choice and I never ran after money,” says Hashmi.

Had she continued staying in India, would her visual vocabulary have been different? She pauses for a moment and says, “I don’t know. If you are sitting in your courtyard, maybe it could be different. It is the distance that makes you think about it. Memory plays tricks on you. For me, it was the loss of family and not staying in the country after I was 21. I see a whole new generation here now and I do not know them.”

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