Artist Zarina Hashmi looks at life, spiritual journeys in her Folding Houses

India -Art 

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New Delhi, Jan 2014   
Leading contemporary artist and printmaker Zarina Hashmi has turned to her inner self — to investigate her spiritual convictions and its impact on the greater universe — in her new solo exposition, “The Folded House” (at Gallery Espace in New Delhi). The 77-year-old artist has assembled from her signature Islamic iconography, minimalism, diversity of solid material, geometry and print-making techniques and — 24 carat gold — to craft a series of subliminal icons that speak of her life in hindsight, her journeys, crossing of borders and progress in life from Aligarh to United States in an evolution from paper, ink, wood, prints to gold which comes across as a glitering symbol of being on the centre-stage of “international contemporary arts”— reprersenting the power of Indian womanhood as a creator of new sensibilities and aesthetic triumph. 

The exposition (that opened January 23, 2014), is named after a seminal collage work— The Folded House which is the centrepiece of the show. The Folding House is a colony of closed doors with 25 collages on Indian handmade paper stained with gold and sumi ink – a Japanese pigment from pine wood soot —  mounted on Cover Buff Paper. The collages are of houses with pointed roofs that are closed in frontal profiles — like geometric pentagons that broadens at the base and tapers into angular roofs. All the houses have closed doors — in different stages of closings that are mute and curt in their rejections of the world.

“At my age, the closing house means I am looking at mortality,” Hashmi told this writer. The doors close in a gradual manner as the artist becomes more introspective and internal to explore the “self” , inured to the pressures of the material world.

Art historian and scholar Devika Singh in her catalogue essay of the exhibition says: “Drawings of houses have long acted as portable repositories of Zarina’s migrant biography. The variations she developed throughout her career on their shapes, sizes and floor plans form a recurrent presence in her prints. Zarina’s houses encapsulate through simple signs much of her relation to the world. Folding House (2013) thus charts the progression of a house as it swells and contracts”. 

Singh says much of Zarina’s work concerns the life she had before becoming an artist, which was marked by the aftermath of Partition and the experience of exile. With intermittent stays in India, Zarina has since lived in Bangkok, Paris, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz and New York where she settled in the late 1970s. 

“Perhaps as a consequence of this unique trajectory, her work is not bound by established forms and conventions. Across her career Zarina has borrowed with great confidence from different artistic traditions. Her works packs in the learned references of her childhood, including Urdu literature and calligraphy, but also Japanese printmaking and zen Buddhism, which she discovered while living in Japan in 1974,” Singh says. 

Looking back to reflect on a life meaningfully-spent sets Hashmi’s works in the “Folding House” showcase apart from the rest. They are minimal to the point of being stark— a trait that Islam teaches it legions of followers. The mathematic geometry which guides her forms is sharper than usual, reduced to strips of horizontal gold plates, comsic dots in a black night sky as lonely companions in twilight, zen circles of life, larger than life rosaries and native wisdom that age enganders with exprience. The richness comes from the material in use — 24 carat gold, exclusive handmade Indian paper, rare sumi ink, maple wood and archival print papers which she devices as “heft” in her simplistic and iconic repertoire of spiritual reflections. Most of her new works occur in collages.     

The artist’s grounding in Islamic texts trace its origin to her days on the campus of the Aligarh Muslim University, where her father was a teacher of medieval history. Family road trips to historic places nearby like Fatehpur Sikri sparked her interest in architecture and elements of which remain references in her work today. She studied mathematics in college because she wanted to work as an engineer.  Her family stayed in Aligarh for more than a decade after Partition, but left India in 1959. By then, Hashmi was married and was travelling extensively with her husband, a member of the Indian Foreign Service.

Aligarh occupies Hashmi’s nostalgic mindspace. A collage series, “Dreams from My Verandah in Aligarh – 2013” — a set of geometric shapes emanating from an arched balcony created with  pewter leaves gold dust on Somerset cream paper — connects to her childhood when Aligarh was a centre of secular learning and her  baptism rite to knowledge about  India, a moderate Islam and its global outlook. The arched patterns of her verandah open to a broad cosmos – lighted and infinite, bearing the winds of Sufism. 

A portfolio of Urdu proverbs in 10 woodblocks on handmade paper with explanatory icons — from Islamic aesthetics — shows Hashmi’s crossover across cultures combining her Urdu and Hindustani sensibilities. The visual and textual manifestation of simple proverbs   — like “Nauso CHuhe Marke Billi Haj ko Chali (The Cat goes for Pilgrimage After Slaughtering 900 mice), Raat Gayi, Baat Gayi (Night over, words over), Saap Mar Gaye, Par Lathi an Tute (The Snake is Dead, but the stick is intact), “Sanjhe ke hundiya, chowk mein phute (The evening jar splinters at the cross-sections)  and several more — is an intelligent portrayal of Indian common wisdom tempered with humour and easy iconography, refreshing and wise reflecting the “kitty” of Hashmi’s silver head. 
 
Gallery Luhring Augustine of New York, which has hosted Hashmi’s works, says the artist explores “geographical borders and contested terrain, particularly those areas scarred by political conflict” in her work. Language plays a vital role in her art  — as a tribute to Urdu, her mothertongue as a language in decline.     
Hashmi is now working on a new series of work, “Crossings”. “It is about the major crossings in my life – straddling  India,Pakistan and United States – and the various countries I have visited and the borders I have crossed. The crossings have stayed with me,” she said. Hashmi’s crossings do not have a “definitive narrative”; they are spontaneous and karmic. 
 
“There is nothing we create on our own, because you don’t have anything when you are crossing,” Hashmi introspected about her lifetime’s as an artist traveller.
 
-Madhusree Chatterjee
                          
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