Dark Roads, Darker Times

by Sanjana Srinivasan

November 29, 2017

Zarina Hashmi. Sinking Boat with a Heartbeat (2015); collage of woodcuts printed on BFK light paper, mounted on Arches Cover buff paper; sheet size: 9.25 x 11 inches, image size: 5.75 x 8 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

What is home when you have been displaced from your homeland? What is home when you spend your life traversing borders, geographical or otherwise? Where is home when it is irrevocably lost?

To mark the 70th anniversary of the Partition of British India, the A|P|A Institute at New York University is hosting Zarina Hashmi, an India-born, New York-based artist as its Artist-in-Residence for the year, and has put together an exhibition titled Dark Roads, commemorating three decades of the artist’s struggle with the idea of home.

The show—a single room divided into three sections—reads right to left, perhaps as a reminder that Zarina’s mother tongue—Urdu—is written right to left. The first work on view, I went on a Journey (1991) is the only sculpture amongst collages and woodcut prints. Made of bronze with patina, it looks like a home that little kids draw and establishes the narrative for the rest of the show.

Zarina Hashmi. I Went on a Journey I (1991); bronze with patina; 11.5 x 6 x 6 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Journey is a heavy word, one that implicates time as well as distance. Born in Aligarh, India in 1937, Hashmi’s family was forced to move to Pakistan after the Partition, and the experience left her permanently scarred. The legacy of the Partition of British India, one that was based on religion (Hinduism vs. Islam) after its independence, left millions of people displaced. Driven back and forth between borders, this show, like all her other work, is organized as a narrative that recounts her personal tragedy/trajectory as epiphanies.

Dividing Line (2001),for example, is a single black line—a cartographic line and the fiercely contested border line of India and Pakistan—meandering at a slant on handmade paper, though not by carving out the border, but by gouging out the spaces on either side to illustrate the scars borne by both the people as well as the lands. Created after 9/11, this woodcut speaks to the legacies left behind in wake of religious conflicts all over the world.

Zarina Hashmi. Dividing Line (2001); woodcut on Indian handmade paper, mounted on Arches Cover white paper; sheet size: 25.5 x 19.5 inches, image size: 17 x 12 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

If Zarina draws on metaphors of exile and estrangement, one soon realizes that her works are also metonyms for the very same experiences. The artist, with her penetrating words and minimalist abstractions, reconstructs the migrant experience for us. It is enough to just look at them.   

Sinking Boat with a Heartbeat (2015) is a print of the outline of a boat, one that is delicate, unstable, and ill-fated. It is a rendering of a dying heartbeat; an EKG occupies the center of the form and brings to mind a horizon that is simultaneously filled with hope. Made as a series during the time of the Syrian refugee crisis, it renders palpable the loneliness inherent in occupying a space that is at once nowhere and everywhere.

Apart from the tender images, the titles of her works render the narrative more visible—Lost Boat, Year of the Sinking Boats, Almost There, andStarting Over—and offer a response to the desensitizing flow of images.

Zarina Hashmi. Starting Over (2016); crushed Indian handmade paper, mounted on Arches Cover buff paper; sheet size: 25.5 x 19 inches, image size: 18.5 x 14 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
Zarina Hashmi. Year of the Sinking Boats (2015); collage with pewter leaf and BFK light paper printed with black ink, mounted on Arches Cover buff paper; sheet size: 12 x 12 inches, image size: 8 x 8 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

The show takes what is Zarina’s effortless convergence of words and images to considerable effect, and uses it to build an argument about our present, which is one of exile. Beirut, Grozny, Ahmedabad, Sarajevo, New York and Baghdad are among the many conflicted places depicted in her work.

In a recent panel discussion hosted at NYU, the artist claimed that she did not believe in the notion of restoration. Rather, what her works really offer is an invitation to stay with loss, or the sense of loss.

But this is only one of the many ways to consider her work. Curiously, there is no dearth of material to work with when it comes to Zarina—and this is exactly why curators and critics have always found it difficult to categorize her: either as a feminist (she was part of the New York feminist art scene in the 70s), or as a minimalist, or even an Indian modernist.

What is perhaps most compelling, considering the pace of our technological advancements and a world that is increasingly tuned to the idea of travel, is this feeling of home.

What is home, when you have been displaced from your homeland? What is home, when you spend your life traversing borders, geographical or otherwise? Where is home, when it is irrevocably lost?


Zarina: Dark Roads
Curated by Zarina Hashmi and Alexandra Chang, A|P|A Institute Curator of Special Projects & Director of Global Arts Programs
A|P|A Institute at NYU
October 6, 2017—February 2, 2018


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