Zarina: Paper Like Skin at the Hammer Museum

Guest Blogger Tracy Buck visits the first retrospective of artist Zarina Hashmi at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles

Los Angeles: On September 30, The Hammer Museum, located in Westwood near the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles, opened the first retrospective of artist Zarina HashmiZarina: Paper Like Skin is currently on view until December 30, 2012; it then travels to the Guggenheim in New York in the early spring of 2013 and to the Art Institute of Chicago in summer 2013.  Zarina’s elegant and understated works, executed sculpturally and via the manipulation of paper, include woodcuts and etchings, paper that has been cut and pinpricked and woven, an original cut block, and bronze and tin sculpture.

Zarina, born in India in 1937, has lived in the United States since the 1970s.  The exhibition’s curator, Allegra Pesenti, worked closely with Zarina in her studio/home in New York City to select pieces that represent her large body of work dating from 1961 to the present.  Within these works – undertaken not only in her New York studio but in her various former homes in Thailand, India, Pakistan, Europe, and Japan – are quietly and poignantly woven themes of memory, displacement, movement, dislocation, and the intimate and pliable connection to homes current and remembered.

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Among her works are woodcut explorations of the trauma and loss during the India/Pakistan Partition (Dividing Line, 2001); the jagged Radcliffe Line here appears as a scar cut beyond even the otherwise contained boundaries of map and land mass.  A separate series (These Cities Blotted into the Wilderness [Adrienne Rice After Ghalib], 2003) envisions and commemorates various cities that have been bombed in recent years.  Homes I Have Made/A Life in Nine Lines, 1997 is a series of floor plans of houses and apartments throughout the world, rented and made into homes, however temporary, and now remembered.  An engagement with line, with darkness and white, with paper and its materiality and subtlety, are at the heart of these works.

Although most often associated with paper, one might consider Zarina to be an artist who works in the “medium” of Urdu as well.  In several of Zarina’s works (Letters From Home, 2004; Atlas of my World, 2001, These Cities Blotted into the Wilderness [Adrienne Rice After Ghalib], 2003; Travels with Rani, 2008, among others) the Urdu script becomes a raw material, visually manipulated, recalling both the histories of Independence and Partition of the subcontinent, as well as Zarina’s own story of her family’s move to Pakistan some years following Partition. It also recalls, to those who can read it, the ghazal tradition and its thematic weight of melancholy and loss, of separation and longing, of displacement and disconnect.

One might consider the medium of printmaking itself to work in a similar way.  The printmaking process is a series of elisions, of secrets, its final printed product a sort of masking of the intense physicality of carving a block and running a press. Unlike gestural painting, for example, that draws attention outright and purposefully to the physical effort of its production, printmaking operates via a system of reversals, removing rather than adding material to ultimately produce an image out of this void, obscuring the repetitive gouging to produce not scarred lines but rather the lack they result in, the finished product in the form of white emptiness of paper. This repetition and physicality is revealed in her pinpricked, knotted, and scarred paper works, but subtly – in slightly raised white surface and shadow on white page; they record persistence rather than proclamation.

The fact that the show was lovingly and painstakingly conceived and researched by curator Pesenti is clear in the beautiful execution of the exhibition and in its quiet and respectful design. The exhibition’s catalog, with notable essays by Pesenti and by UCLA professor of Comparative Literature Aamir Mufti, replicates this care and attention and offers further insight into the work and life of Zarina, her choice of paper as medium and her connection to, and implications of, her use of Urdu. This retrospective, a first for the artist and, it may be said, long overdue, speaks quietly but powerfully of home and memory and its various definitions and delineations, in an abstract but deeply evocative language.

Watch Zarina talk about her work and this retrospective in a conversation with the exhibition curator here.

Tracy Buck holds MA degrees in South Asian Cultures and Languages and in Museum Studies, and has worked in the Collections Management and Curatorial departments of several history and art museums.  She is currently pursing a PhD in Art History at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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2 Comments

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