Zarina: Paper Like Skin
Writen by Christine Ritenis
Dividing Line, 2001
Woodcut printed in black on Indian handmade paper, mounted on Arches Cover white paper, 40.6 x 33 cm, image; 65.4 x 50.2 cm, sheet, edition 16/20
UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum, Los AngelesPurchased with funds provided by the Friends of the Graphic Arts
Photo: Robert Wedemeyer
If you like only brash art that slams you in the face to make its point, the exhibition, “Zarina: Paper Like Skin,” is not for you. If you prefer subdued artistry that encourages quiet contemplation, visit The Guggenheim Museum in New York soon.
First, imagine that you are an Indian-born American artist—a woman, now 76—who left home at a young age, roamed the world, often by car on extended road trips, and ultimately made your way to the United States alone, initially to Los Angeles and then to New York, where you’ve lived for the past 35 years in a studio apartment that serves as workspace and residence. Five decades of art—what remains after a lifetime of worldwide exploration—is stored in this small space in boxes.
Trained as a printmaker in Paris, you create primarily in paper, a transportable medium, but also in other organic materials. The art is rooted in abstraction and minimalism, but profoundly individual, reflecting your travel as well as a strong concern with the sociopolitical environment. Whether personal, geographic, national, spiritual, or familial, the ineffable concept of home resonates throughout your work.
A major U.S. museum approaches you about a retrospective. Although you are uncertain why they are interested in an exhibition now, when you have been laboring quietly for many years, you agree. One by one, the boxes are emptied. Representative pieces are selected, and over time, framed. Maybe you visualize them on the museum wall. Likely you are unaccustomed to such intense interest and hope that the art will speak for itself.
Picture these circumstances, and you will begin to understand Zarina Hashmi, whose elegant compositions are on display until April 21, 2013. Zarina—who prefers to use her first name only—considers herself a sculptor, “in part because her works often begin with the activity of carving blocks of wood. Paper is central to her practice, both as a surface to print on and as a material with its own properties and history…Paper is also allied with literary tradition,” which was emphasized in her childhood home.
The body of work displayed in “Zarina: Paper Like Skin,” speaks softly, its tones largely muted or monochrome. Zarina’s art addresses the subjects that preoccupy her, including displacement, exile, memory, and nostalgia, but the themes are universal and the effect is powerful. It is difficult not to be moved by “Dividing Line,” a simple woodcut printed on black handmade Indian paper that has been called her most iconic composition.
“Dividing Line” was inspired by the 1947 partition between India and Pakistan that resulted in the deaths and displacement of millions of people. Over a decade later, in 1959, Zarina’s Muslim family was forced to leave India and relocate to Pakistan. Still in her early twenties—while vagabonding with her husband, a diplomat who has since died—she lost her native India, the family she loved lived in Pakistan, and neither country felt like home. The dividing line, Zarina has said, “ is traced in my heart.” She explores this seminal time in the 2001 woodcut. Five years later, she created “Shadow House” by cutting and folding Nepalese paper to fashion intricate “textured surfaces that invite intimate viewing and extended contemplation.” This construction focuses on Zarina’s desire to establish a home wherever she finds herself, whether on an extended stay in Bangkok, Paris, Bonn, or Tokyo, or even in the compact space of a car while traversing the globe.
Shadow House, 2006
Cut Nepalese paper, 175.3 x 99.1 cm
UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Purchased with funds provided by the Helga K. and Walter Oppenheimer Acquisition Fund
Photo © Lamay Photo, courtesy Luhring Augustine, New York
The exhibition also includes nine 2003 woodcuts, each specific to a metropolitan area that has undergone massive destruction. Detailed maps represent eight of the localities in the series, “These Cities Blotted into the Wilderness.” The New York representation differs. That image is dark and sad, stark but recognizable, suggesting a fierce attachment to her adopted home. Her emotional connection to the other locations, many with large Muslim populations, is apparent as well.
Zarina’s most recent compositions incorporate a wider range of elements, including gold and obsidian, which produce distinctive luminosity. The artist intended them to evoke a “meditative spirituality.” One can speculate that she was thinking about enlightenment when she created “Blinding Light” from Okawara paper gilded with 22- carat gold. The viewer sees herself reflected in this glowing work, prompting her perhaps, to consider her own notions of eternity.
Blinding Light, 2010
Okawara paper gilded with 22-carat gold leaf, 184.2 x 92.7 cm
Courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York
Photo: Robert Wedemeyer
There is more to study. Highlights include a serene and spectacular collection of 20 drawings that Zarina single-handedly pinpricked over the course of more than a year as well as the room size display, “Crawling House,” which consists of multitudes of four-wheeled migrating birds constructed of found tin.
It is engrossing to delve into the career of an exceptional artist through this selection of woodblock prints, etchings, lithographs, and a small number of sculptures in bronze and cast paper pulp. Zarina collaborated in conceiving the exhibition, but had little interest in dictating placement of her art. There was no need. Her passion is evident in the physical labor that went into carving the wood; the complexity of hand-printing in her New York apartment, where no press could fit; the endless and repetitive pricking, folding, scraping, cutting, and crafting of paper from around the world; and the subdued, yet thought-provoking results that provide a glimpse into her consciousness.
Allegra Pesenti from the Grunwald Center for Graphic Arts at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles curated the exhibition, which opened there in September 2012. Sandhini Poddar, former Associate Curator of Asian Art, and Assistant Curator, Helen Hsu, organized the Guggenheim presentation. All photographs and quotations were provided by The Guggenheim Museum and additional information can be found on its website, www.guggenheim.org.
Written by Christine Ritenis
New York Arts Correspondent