Indian & South Asian Modern & Contemporary Art

Playing with the Medium: Zarina’s Evolution as an Artist and Printmaker

By Sarah Burney
Zarina Hashmi in the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photography by Jackie Neale. Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Image Source: Art Resource, NY

Z arina was a cosmopolitan printmaker. Born and raised in the small university town of Aligarh, India, she studied woodcut printing in Bangkok, etching in Paris, silk-screening in Bonn, Japanese woodblock printing in Tokyo, and lithography in New York City, where she settled in 1976. She brought a global perspective to the medium and created works that explore form, language, her personal biography, global politics, and spirituality. Her experiments with the process and materials of printmaking allowed her to push the boundaries of the medium, playfully subverting printmaking norms and transposing its elements onto her sculptures and works on paper. The works Zarina created between 1970 and 1990 capture how fundamental this experimentation was to her practice and the formation of her singular aesthetic and poetic voice.

Zarina’s innovative spirit is evident in Wall (lot 15), a relief print from her first major body of work. The matrix in Wall is not a block of wood that the artist has carved but an abstract collage of found wood. Zarina collected the small planks from a roadside then cleaned, oiled, inked and printed them, thus transferring the pattern of the wood grain onto her paper. Where she had been trained to impose an image onto wood, Zarina instead saw the beauty in the weathered organic material and identified with its damage and resilience.

“I would pick up old wood, eaten by insects, from the side of the road...I saw myself in that wood.”
Zarina, Zarina with Sarah Burney, Directions to My House, Asian/Pacific/American Institute, New York University, 2018, p. 63

Zarina's second major body of work, silkscreens, cemented what were becoming hallmarks of her aesthetic: a restrained color palette, minimalist abstract compositions, and an abundance of negative space. Her spare sensibility has often been credited to Western minimalism and while the artist cites Constantin Brâncuși and Kazimir Malevich as influences on her relief prints and American artist Carl Andre on her silkscreens, she always maintained that she encountered minimalism at the ruins of the imperial complex of Fatehpur Sikri - that the geometry, symmetry, open space, and restraint of Mughal architecture trained her eye before any Western artists.

Zarina's work reached its most spare and elemental expression in the 1970s when she removed color entirely. Working exclusively in white, she folded, punctured, blind-embossed, sewed or printed in white ink on handmade Indian paper. The minimalist interventions highlighted the textured grain of her paper. In choosing handmade Indian paper Hashmi was making a political and practical decision. European printmaking papers were becoming increasingly difficult and costly to source in India, where Hashmi was based when she began this body of work. Simultaneously, she was inspired by Gandhi's call to support local industries. In what was to become a life-long habit of gaining deep knowledge of her materials, Hashmi educated herself on Indian handmade paper by visiting the paper making centers in Sanganer, Rajasthan. She met the artisans making her material and, through them, learned every step of the papermaking process.

Zarina’s cast paper sculptures, created almost a decade later in New York, were a resolution of questions she had pondered at Sanganer.

“Watching paper being made and seeing the liquid paper pulp gave me all sorts of new ideas: What if I pour this pulp into my plate? Will my plate act like a mold? Will the paper dry in that shape? Can I cast paper? The papermakers said it couldn’t be done, but I kept thinking about it.”
Zarina, Zarina with Sarah Burney, Directions to My House, Asian/Pacific/American Institute, New York University, 2018, p. 63

Zarina engineered special plexiglass molds into which she poured her paper slurry concoction. She brought color back into her work by adding rich earth pigments to the wet mixture - the resulting dry solid surface evokes the organic texture and patina of stone walls; Untitled (lot 9) is especially reminiscent of the red sandstone walls of Fatehpur Sikri.

Hashmi’s white works on paper and cast paper sculptures illustrate how the artist applied the aesthetic and mechanics of printmaking onto other mediums. The multiple, arguably the core principle of printmaking, was a mainstay of Hashmi’s practice - her sculptures, wall installations, and works on paper were usually editioned and pieces that were made entirely by hand, and not an easily reproducible matrix, were often in an Edition Varie. The plurality of ownership that editions allow appealed to Hashmi. The daughter of a bibliophile professor, she was raised in a house of books - not art. Her childhood, where books were cherished playthings, primed her for an affinity to printmaking - for handling paper and ink, the narrative nature of portfolios, and especially, thinking in editions and impressions.

In the 1980s Zarina also returned to printmaking proper, producing numerous etchings that, like her cast paper sculptures, spoke of deeply personal and poignant themes. The title Spaces to Hide (lot 11) is a play on the term “Spaces to Rent”, evoking home as the ultimate refuge.

Zarina continued to grapple with the ideas of home and travel through the following decade while producing her most iconic body of work: print portfolios that document her life of travel, her deep longing for home, and the plight of displaced Muslim communities around the world. Her political voice grew bolder and sharper through the 2000s and 2010s alongside more introspective ruminations on spirituality and mortality. Through all her thematic inquiries, Zarina’s technical expertise as a printmaker, her affinity for handmade papers, organic materials, and craft processes, and her singular expression of minimalism remained mainstays of Zarina’s practice and hallmarks of her inimitable aesthetic.

All works © Zarina.

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