Zarina’s Contemplative Art

Guest blogger Bansie Vasvani visits Zarina: Paper like Skin at the Guggenheim, New York

New York: Zarina Hashmi’s long overdue retrospective, Zarina: Paper Like Skin, at the
Guggenheim, New York, opened to an audience struck by the work’s serenity, quiet
dignity, and artistic impact. Combining her evocation of language and place to chart her
personal, itinerant trajectory, Hashmi’s work explores the notion of home and identity
with enormous depth and perspicuity. An established printmaker, she is often considered the precursor to a generation of artists for whom transience and its impact has permeated
through their work.

Zarina Hashmi
Homes I Made/ A Life in Nine Lines, 1997
Portfolio of 9 etchings and one cover plate printed in black on Arches Cover white paper, Chine Colle on handmade Nepalese paper; Image credit: Luhring Augustine, New York

In the front room, a portfolio of nine etchings titled Home I made/A life in Nine Lives, (1997) line the walls in geometric resplendence. Made on Arches Cover handmade Nepalese paper this series of simple, two-dimensional grids capture the structure of a basic dwelling. Zarina’s bare bone depiction can be best described by art critic John Berger’s definition of home as the center of the universe in an ontological rather than a geographical sense. Letters written by her sister Rani, that often described the passing of family members in Pakistan, become grist for her etchings and woodcuts. Her reductive images distill the sentiments of home to architectural forms and capture her nostalgia without being maudlin or dramatic. For Zarina, home becomes the place from which the world can be founded and it is the heart of the real. In these etchings, the original Urdu script of the letters is cut in metal for the prints, and the remainder of each image is rendered in woodcut. Zarina’s work underscores the sculptural aspect of her printmaking process acquired from the renowned British printmaker Stanley William Hayter while living in Paris in the 60’s. The painstakingly delicate renditions of Home I Made/A life in Nine Lives are steeped in a worldview inspired by the Minimalist tradition.

Zarina Hashmi, Cage, 1970. Relief print from collaged wood blocks.   Printed by the artist. Image credit: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Zarina Hashmi, Cage, 1970. Relief print from collaged wood blocks. Printed by the artist. Image credit: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Untitled (1970), Cage (1970), and Kiss (1968) are a series of relief print collages made by inking assembled pieces of wood. Each work is constructed on handmade paper distributed by an organization founded by Mahatma Gandhi to promote Indian
handicrafts. The varying tones of the papers obtained from different regional workshops impart a particular character to each print emphasizing the quality of the material as much as the concept behind her creation. Using bits of wood assembled together, she
ingeniously creates a corral, a home, and a shelter suggestive of a protective surrounding.
The fragments and wood pulp produce dense fields that highlight the material properties
and spatial presence of an object in the convention of European Constructivism. Reminiscent of Carl Andre, her work appeals at a very basic, emotional level. Even in Kiss, inspired by Constantin Brancusi’s stone sculpture, the two pieces of wood placed side-by-side capture the primitive, folkloric precedents that Brancusi’s work expresses.

Zarina. Kiss, 1968. Relief Print From Collaged Wood, Printed In Black And Burnt Umber On Bfk White Paper
Image credit: Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Perhaps one of the most riveting series in the exhibit is her Untitled (Pin
drawings), 1977. Here a sequence of works on pure white paper creates a meditative,
trance like effect on the viewer. Grid formations are devised through columns of
perforations from pinpricks. These three-dimensional mounds that rise above the paper
give the composition texture without disrupting its immensely soothing quality. Very
much in the vein of Agnes Martin’s biomorphic spiritual effect, and the visual impact of
Robert Ryman’s white on white paintings, Zarina’s personal, highly individualized art
stands out for the quality of its conception and the reductive feel of the cosmos on paper.

Zarina Hashmi, Home is a Foreign Place, 1999
Portfolio of 36 woodcuts with Urdu text printed in black on Kozo paper, mounted on Somerset paper
Image credit: Luhring Augustine, New York

Zarina’s most well known piece, Home is a Foreign Place (1999), examines the larger issue of identity by implying that a home is what you make of it. From her residence in many countries as a diplomat’s wife, the artist believes that the idea of home and identity comes from an amalgamation of diverse cultures and experiences without
attributing any one single influence. In this woodcut portfolio of 36 basic architectural
lines, the drawings reveal how evocative a simple gesture can be. Triggered by Urdu
words like door, threshold, warm etc. that are etched into the drawings, the geometric
abstractions of crisscrossing lines and circles evoke the actual experience of entering such
spaces. Deeply nostalgic of both the loss of moving away from her homeland, and the
gradual extinction of Urdu, her mother tongue, the artist is able to revive her memories
through the deliberation of her deft craftsmanship.

Zarina Hashmi
Blinding Light, 2009
22 carat gold leaf on Okawara paper
Irregular vertical and horizontal slits
Image credit: Luhring Augustine, New York

In Zarina’s art beauty and aesthetics push the viewer towards new modes of
enlightenment. Her gold leaf piece that she initially felt might turn out to be garish,
connotes a sense of purity and sublimity that relays the quality of the metal itself. In
Blinding Light (2010) a 6 foot by 3 foot sheet consisting of layers of fine gold leaf
Japanese paper hangs from a bar. Vertical slits in a grid like pattern allow light to enter
and create shadows against the shimmering reflective surface. Imbued by Sufi
philosophy, the work resonates with the poetry of her imagination. Ultimately, Zarina’s
brilliant machination of paper that she believes is as malleable as skin compels us more
than ever towards a fulfilling experience.

This exhibition traveled to the Guggenheim , New York from the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles and will be on view until April 21, 2013.

Bansie Vasvani is an independent art critic based in New York City.  She has a Masters Degree in Modern and Contemporary Art, and has traveled extensively to art fairs all over the world.

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.

2000 Years of Indian Art

The Indian subcontinent has nurtured some of the oldest human settlements and civilisations in the world. Having hosted countless cultural awakenings, innovations and exchanges since prehistoric times, the region boasts a rich and fascinating artistic history that continues to influence aesthetic movements and captivate spectators even today.

Beginning with the sculptural masterpieces of Buddhist and Hindu art from the first millennium to the ground-breaking modernist art of the 20th century, here we explore India’s captivating art history through a selection of works from Saffronart’s upcoming Winter Live Auction this December.

Early Buddhist Art

Some of the earliest records of artistic experimentation in Northern India during the Common Era can be traced to the Kushan Empire, which, during its peak, extended from Ujjain, Mathura and Sarnath, across the Hindu-Kush to Afghanistan and Bactria. Under Kanishka, their fifth and most famous ruler, the empire witnessed a period of great wealth and flourishing visual arts traditions. The Kushans are credited with some of the earliest depictions of Buddha in sculptural form, which includes the 2nd century red sandstone sculpture below.

(L-R) Head of Buddha, 2nd century, Red sandstone, Estimate: Rs 1.5 – 2 lakhs ($2,055 – 2,740);
Ganga, 8th century, Sandstone, Estimate: Rs 10 – 15 lakhs ($13,700 – 20,550)

Medieval Indian Art

From the 4th to 6th century AD, a large portion of northern India was conquered and ruled by the Gupta Empire, who produced some of the most recognised and celebrated works of sculpture and architecture in Indian history. The incredible developments in technology, literature, religion and visual arts during this period went on to shape the artistic productions of the many smaller dynasties that emerged in the following centuries.

One of the most significant characteristics of art produced during the medieval period, i.e., the 7th to 14th century AD, is the influence of religion and religious texts. As evident in the above 8th century sandstone carving depicting Ganga, the river goddess in Hinduism, the representation of religious figures, storylines and even philosophies through sculpture grew to become a significant practice. This tradition is noticeable even in the sculptures of kingdoms of southern India, especially the Hoysala Dynasty. As observed in the 12th century grey schist sculpture of Lord Ganesha, the sculptures produced under the Hoysala Empire showcase a classical style that is distinct to that of the northern schools.

(L-R) Uma-Maheshwara, 12th century, Bronze, Estimate: Rs 12 – 15 lakhs ($16,440 – 20,550);
Standing Vishnu, 14th century, Bronze, Estimate: Rs 9 – 12 lakhs ($12,330 – 16,440)

Along with stone, bronze was another prominent medium in the sculptures of medieval India. While stone sculpturing was often practised on temple walls and similar architecture, bronze works were smaller in size and relatively easier to transport – giving them a prominent role in the diffusion of Indian philosophies, practices and religion, especially Buddhism, in Southeast Asia. The 12th century Pala sculpture of Uma-Maheshwara, and the 14th century Kulu sculpture depicting Vaikunta Vishnu from our collection showcases that bronze sculpturing thrived not only in the realm of artistic innovations, but also in transmitting cultural discoveries and tradition.

Painting Courts and Indigenous Art

Kalighat Pat, Circa 1860s, Estimate: Rs 8 – 12 lakhs ($10,960 – 16,440)

Following the golden age of Indian sculpturing was a period that saw the development of a diverse range of painting schools including Mughal, Rajputi, Deccani and Pahari courts. The period also saw the resurgence of age-old indigenous art practices such as Pat or scroll painting. Developed in then-Calcutta, Kalighat Pat is a scroll-painting technique that gained momentum in Bengal during the 19th century as the port city transformed into a thriving industrial and commercial centre. As seen in the above Kalighat Pat from the 1860s, practitioners of the Kalighat art form traditionally depicted scenes from the life of Lord Krishna as well as other narratives from Hindu mythology.

Early Bengal School

The presence of British and European trading companies and governing bodies in India during the 18th and 19th century led to the creation of a new school of art known as the Company School. The school depicted Indian people, sceneries and subjects in a traditional Royal Academy-style of painting, thus recording life in Colonial India from a foreign perspective.

Untitled (Radha in Jamuna), Estimate: Rs 12 – 18 lakhs ($16,440 – 24,660)

The Early Bengal School of Art was launched as a response to the increasing prominence of the Company School. Artists of the Early Bengal School, who remain largely anonymous till date, combined the artistic styles of the East and West to forge a direction that was vastly different from any other artistic movement prevalent during this time.


The final phase of colonial rule in India saw many attempts by artists to merge the artistic traditions of European schools with the age-old traditions, themes and practices of Indian art. One of the most significant artists from this time, Raja Ravi Varma was known for incorporating oil as a medium and adopting European naturalism and realism to portray distinctly Indian mythological themes.

Raja Ravi Varma, Music Hath Charms (Kadambari), Circa 1900s, Estimate: Rs 12 – 15 crores ($1.64 – 2.05 million)

The movement towards India’s independence from colonial rule urged artists to launch a new style of art that accommodated the changing social, political and cultural conditions of the country. For Jamini Roy, this meant seeking a new aesthetic style that reflected his cultural roots and fulfilled his need for a more personal artistic identity. He went on to introduce a new style of modern painting that celebrated and preserved the country’s regional artistic traditions, particularly Kalighat patuas, while simultaneously reconceptualising them to adapt to the changing times.

Modern Art in Independent India

The year 1947, when India gained her independence, also welcomed the launch of one of the most influential artistic alliances in India: the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group. Initiated by artists S H Raza, F N Souza, K H Ara, M F Husain, H A Gade and S K Bakre, the group went on to lead the modern art movement in India. Although most of these artists began with a formal training in traditional realistic painting, capturing urban scenes, landscapes and still life through their art, the post-Independence era encouraged them to reach beyond the scope of European Realism and the Revivalist movements of the early 20th century. While the immediate response to their entry in the art world was shock and aversion, their presence was met with national and international respect, recognition and admiration in the years that followed.

K H Ara, Untitled, Estimate: Rs 30 – 40 lakhs ($41,100 – 54,795)

The 1960s

The 1960s were a period of great artistic experimentation and discovery. Increased exposure to European and American modern art movements, as well as a renewed interest in the imagery of classical and regional Indian art, aided the artists of modern India – such as Ram Kumar, Prabhakhar Barwe, M F Husain, S H Raza as well as the other Progressives – to develop their own independent styles that eventually came to define their careers.

Ram Kumar, Untitled, 1962, Estimate: Rs 70 – 90 lakhs ($95,895 – 123,290)

During this period, artist Ram Kumar moved from figurative works to an increasingly abstract renderings of cities and landscapes, whereas M F Husain developed an artistic style that efficiently brought together European modern art traditions and classical Indian forms, subjects and motifs. For S H Raza, the ‘60s were a key period of experimentation, aided by his exposure to the works of American Abstract Expressionists, whereas for Prabhakar Barwe, it was a period when he delved into the genres of Pop Art as well as Tantric philosophy and its imagery.

While many of the modernists were settling into their own unique artistic style and identity, artists such as Jagdish Swaminathan and Bhupen Khakhar were still in the early stages of their career during the ‘60s. Swaminathan, who was concerned with the creation of a truly Indian modern art that was developed by turning inward, explored and adopted the symbology of ancient cave paintings and the nation’s age-old indigenous art during this period. Meanwhile, Khakhar, who had just moved to Baroda from Bombay, would create an iconic style that featured elements of Hindu symbolism and elements of the Baroda School in formats that were inspired by Western Pop Art.   

Late 20th Century

The latter half of the 20th century saw Indian artists experimenting with diverse mediums, techniques and disciplines, as one can see in the works of Himmat Shah whose sculptures were made from materials as wide as brick, cement, plaster as well as terracotta and bronze. Despite their differences in medium, the majority of art produced in this period of Indian history were connected by a similar purpose – an examination of life in the modern age.

From exploring the aftermaths of the Partition of India to examining the contemporary struggles of migrants, refugees and the destitute, art became deeply relevant, conceptual and heavy in metaphors alluding to matters of social significance. These qualities are demonstrated in Krishen Khanna’s bandwallah series as well as Zarina Hashmi’s semi-abstract woodcut and intaglio prints.

Zarina Hashmi, Debris of Destruction, 2016, Estimate: 40 – 60 lakhs ($54,795 – 82,195)

“The history of art is the history of revivals.” These words by British novelist Samuel Butler powerfully resonate with the evolution of Indian art. Since its ancient beginnings, a plethora of artistic traditions and movements have prospered in the subcontinent, each reflecting the distinctive and diverse political, cultural and social influences of the period from which they were conceived. Nevertheless, as seen in this brief journey through India’s rich artistic past, these multiple independent aesthetic movements bear many similarities despite their differences in time, geographic origins, and socio-political circumstances. From the influence of the Ajanta frescoes and Mughal miniature on the Early Bengal School of Art, to Himmat Shah’s sculptures that were inspired by the prehistoric masterpieces of the Indus Valley Civilisation, Indian art has frequently touched upon the past when directing the future.

Autobiografia: Recluse of History

Ipshita Sen of Saffronart previews an exhibition at Gallery Art & Soul in Mumbai

New York: The exhibition, Autobiografia: Recluse of History, is an intriguing group show of artists from different eras. Simplistic and powerful, it stimulates one’s historical chord through classic drawings of soldiers during World War I, with titles such as ‘le commencement de la peur’ / ‘the beginning of fear’ made by artist Jean Louis-Forainto, striking drawings of the town of Lodz by the cubist artist Felicia Pacanowska, a survivor of World War II and the holocaust.

Additionally, the exhibition features works by artists such as Prabhakar Pachpute, depicting open cast mines in India and photographs and scriptures of a theater founded by artist Amol Patil’s father for the Bombay mill workers.

The exhibition is a sneak peek into history, portraying several autobiographies which span an ambitious timeline of significant historical events and offer varied nuances of their respective periods of time. The visitor is thus exposed to several time capsules simultaneously.

A self portrait by Felicia Pacanowska

A self portrait by Felicia Pacanowska

Artist Felicia Pacanowska was a Cubist artist born and raised in the industrial town of Lodz. Her parents were artists too, and part of the large Jewish population in Lodz. The city became an important hub for the Nazi’s occupation owing to its industrial attributes. The Lodz ghetto, the second largest after the Warsaw ghetto, was built for Jews and Romans in German ruled Poland. The ghetto served as an industrial center for the Jews, a gathering point and also as a manufacturing center for German army supplies. Very few Jews survived the dreadful holocaust. Felicia Pacanowska lost her family in the holocaust leaving her depressed. Until the end of the war, she lived in fear and in brutal conditions. Most of her works of art and tools were lost. She, however, continued her diligent work, which eventually staved off her depression. Pacanowska’s significant body of works displayed at the exhibition mainly comprises portraits in studied, clean, scalpel-succinct pencil strokes.

Shernavaz Colah, another artist showcased in this exhibit, has an intriguing series of drawings titled “it-so-ur-sco-pop-hob-ia”, an anxiety instigated whilst being stared at by other people. The exhibition also includes reproductions of works of art by reclusive Sri Lankan artist Justin Daraniyagala, who Shernavaz Colah had been researching.

Justin Daraniyagala, a cubist artist, part of the Sri Lankan avant-garde 43 Group, preceded several of his contemporaries in India in interpreting cubism through his own aesthetic eye. John Berger, a distinguished British writer and art critic, reviewed Justin Daraniyagala and his group and spoke of their outstanding practices. He noted: “…the story of the [‘43] Group’s attempt to achieve a synthesis between the work done in Paris by Picasso and Matisse and the ancient tradition of Sigiriya (frescoes)  which yet took into account the emerging power and equality of Asia in the contemporary work could be discovered through a careful, chronological study of their work.”

The exhibition also includes the works of Zarina Hashmi, Yogesh Barve, Poonam Jain, Akbar Padamsee, Salvador Dali, Prabhakar Barwe, F.N. Souza, Nikhil Raunak, George Braque, A.A. Raiba, Sachin Bonde, Francisco Goya, Mangesh Kapse and Carla Montenegro, with reproductions by M.F. Husain, Pablo Picasso and Fernando Botero.

The exhibition is currently on view at Gallery Art & Soul in Mumbai, India.

Companionable Silences at Palais de Tokyo

Shradha Ramesh shares a note on the new exhibition, Companionable Silences, at Palais de Tokyo, Paris

New York:  “Companionable Silences” is a group exhibition of artists from various trajectories on view at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, from June 21 to September 9, 2013.

The connections between these artists are their encounters with the city, Paris, and its ground breaking approach to art – a break away from western archetypes.

According to the curator, the main focus of the exhibit “…is on artworks and artistic lineages that are worthy of study in their own right, with particular attention drawn to the contexts in which the artists’ ideas were formulated and executed.”

Besides the global artist profiles the exhibition representss a visual congregation and interaction between primitivism, modernism and orientalism. An assorted list, the artists are of divergent geographies, ages and genders. The list is dominated by internationally recognized women artists including Tarsila do Amara (1886 – 1973) Brazilian, Saloua Raouda Choucair (b.1916) Lebanese, Camille Henrot (b.1978) French, and Zarina Hashmi (b. 1937), Anjalika Sagar (b. 1968) and Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941), Indian. The male artists included in the exhibitions are Adolf Loos (1870 – 1933), Kodwo Eshun (born 1967) and Umrao Singh Sher-Gil (1870-1954).

Self Portrait as Tahitian, Amrita Sher-Gil, 1934. Collection of N. and V. Sundaram

Self Portrait as Tahitian, Amrita Sher-Gil, 1934. Collection of N. and V. Sundaram. Image Credit:

Among the works in the exhibition is a film by Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun of the Otolith group titled “I See Infinite Distance Between Any Point and Another (2012)” which narrates the life of Etel Adnan -a poet, essayist, and painter, from Lebanon.

On the other hand, works by the Indian artists Zarina Hashmi, Amrita Sher-Gil and Umrao Singh Sher-Gil show their different relations and timeline with their art and Paris.

Among the vagarious arrangement, the most striking is the father daughter duo Umrao Singh and Amrita Sher-Gil. Umrao Singh Sher-Gil’s photographic portraits of his family and himself are of complete contrast to his daughter’s works, which are influenced by Ajanta cave paintings, Paul Cezane and Paul Gaugin. Born in Hungary, Amrita Sher Gil is well known in the Indian art circle for her modern and unconventional thinking. Born to a Hungarian mother and Sikh father, she trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris where she became influenced by Realism. Her time in Paris was era of experiment and exploration. She was the first Indian woman to be recognized at international art forums.

This exhibition is definitely a must see if you are in Paris. To learn more about the show, click here.

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