"Memory is the only lasting possession we have. I have made my life the subject of my work, using the images of home, the places I have visited, and the stars I have looked up to. I just want a reminder that I did not imagine my experiences"- Zarina Hashmi
The enigmatic lines took innumerable forms in Zarina Hashmi's works – at times they appeared as political borders, on other occasions, they exemplified her interest in architecture. They were jagged veins that denoted vague and distinct memories that the artist gathered from experiences and interactions with people and places across the world. Zarina Hashmi lived in numerous cities, from Aligarh to Bangkok, Paris, New York and London, and in every place, she sought to create a home. She passed away in London, at 83, after a prolonged illness. Contemporary Indian poet, art critic, cultural theorist and independent curator Ranjit Hoskote made the announcement about the death of the celebrated Indian-born American artist on Twitter, on April 26.
"Heartbroken to hear that Zarina Hashmi has passed away in London," shared Ranjit Hoskote in his post. "She was magnificent: full of wit and shrewd wisdom, her work imbued with a tragic vision. I was privileged to have her as one of my artists in India's first-ever national pavilion at the Venice Biennale, 2011.
I was fortunate to see the iconic works by Zarina Hashmi in an exclusive art exhibition, titled 'Homelands: Art from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan', that showcased works by 11 contemporary artists of South-Asian origins, at Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge, UK, last January when I attended an international symposium to mark the exhibition. The exhibition, alongside various other programmes, was supported by Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation (DBF).
"I am a great fan of Zarina's works because of my keen interest in the print media. Most of iconic works were done in etching and relief prints. She was an artist who had identity and origin from India and Pakistan though she lived in USA until recently before she moved to the UK. Her traumatic experience with the Partition of 1947 and her subsequent nomadic life anticipated in many ways the world we live in today," says Durjoy Rahman, the founder of DBF.
"She would always miss her homeland and her works represent her diaspora feeling and longing for her motherland and close ones. Her works on refugees, titled 'Rohingyas: Floating on the Sea of Memory', are iconic."
Durjoy is also pleased that her last group exhibition at Kettle Yard, University of Cambridge, UK, was sponsored by DBF. Zarina was a name of rebellion and she always stretched her boundaries through her works and profession. She was very confident with her Identity, being a female artist from South Asia," he says. "Renowned Bangladeshi sculptor Novera Ahmed was her contemporary and had similar feelings about the country she left behind. I find that both of them have many similarities in their art practices."
Zarina Hashmi was born in Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh in 1937 and is known to be one of the very few Indian female artists of her time who made her mark with her printmaking and sculptures, distinctly identifiable with her minimal sensibilities. The daughter of a professor at Aligarh Muslim University, Hashmi was 10 when the Partition took place and was witness to the subsequent communal violence. Though her family relocated to Karachi in the late 50s, the artist had married and later, travelled with her diplomat husband during his various postings. In her early 20s, she began taking lessons in woodcut printing from a Thai artist.
A graduate in mathematics, with a keen interest in architecture and part of the feminist movement in New York in the '70s, Hashmi's art training was rather unconventional and included her learning from interactions with papermakers during her visit to Rajasthan in the '60s, studying printmaking with Stanley William Hayter at Atelier 17 in Paris and woodblock printing at Toshi Yoshida Studio in Tokyo. Later, she moved to the US, where she lived for most of the next four decades.
Partition, migration and the loss of home were all recurring themes in her works, which are marked by their stark and minimal quality, tempered by their texture and materiality. Like the places she lived in, her work too, gave her refuge. In her works, home was a fluid, abstract space that transcended physicality or location. 'Home is a Foreign Place', 'Tears of the Sea' and 'Letters from Home' are some of her best-known works. Urdu poetry, the essence of Sufism and the aspects of many extinct languages appeared in many of her works in the form of calligraphy.
Winner of numerous awards, including the 1969 President's Award for Printmaking in India, her works are in the permanent collections of Museum of Modern Art in New York, Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Tate Modern, Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art and Hammer Museum.
The Hammer Museum organised her retrospective exhibition in 2012, followed a year later by Guggenheim Museum and Art Institute of Chicago. A large show of her works, 'Zarina: A Life in Nine Lines' was exhibited earlier this year at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art and at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation.