Zarina was the celebrated printmaker and sculptor, her work a witness to the most grievous conditions of our modern world. She worked in intaglio, woodblock, lithography, and silkscreen on handmade paper on which she rendered the human conditions of separation and belonging.
I remember standing in front of one of her pin drawings at the National Gallery of Modern Arts in New Delhi a few years ago. By sight, I could feel the drawing between my fingers. The more I looked at it, the more the paper felt like my skin, the texture like goosebumps on my arm. That is what she loved about paper– its fragility, its resilience. “In my work I have witnessed how paper changes colour, and wrinkles just like skin.”
It is the only piece by Zarina I have seen in person.
Her work is essentially on exile; a commentary on the adversity of borders and nationalism. Yet her work is not violent or predatory or explicit. Her work is graceful, tender and vulnerable.
It is poetry of empathy, visualised.
What is probably her most well known series, Atlas of My World, derives its title from Adrienne Rich’s An Atlas of the Difficult World. In this book of poems, Rich interrogates devastation and longing; national identity and patriotism.
Zarina’s series depicts the borders she has crossed; she started with the border that affected her life the most—the border between India and Pakistan. The other 5 pieces in this series are that of the North American Continent, Europe, Tokyo, Bangladesh-Myanmar-Thailand, and the Middle East (Turkey to Saudi Arabia).
It was also about the barriers one crosses in life–where you come from, where you go, the risk you take in life to live the way you wish to.
Both works, Rich’s and Zarina’s, are about the same thing.
Zarina Rashid was born on July 16, 1937, in Aligarh. She was the youngest of four children of Sheikh Abdur Rashid, a history professor at Aligarh Muslim University and Fahmida Begum, a homemaker. She was only 10 when the country was partitioned. Zarina once spoke about the burning of villages surrounding Aligarh. Which is why her family would then move to a refugee camp in New Delhi.
Unlike most people who were exiled from their homes, towns, and nation due to the Partition, Zarina’s family would return to Aligarh. In an interview, Zarina said, “After we were displaced during the Partition, I still felt at home when we returned to Aligarh.” Her father would resume teaching History at AMU, from where she would later pursue a bachelors in Mathematics.
Her family would occupy the Aligarh home of Zarina’s childhood till the late 1950s, when her father retired. They would then take the decision to move to Pakistan.
At the age of 21, after her bachelors degree, Zarina was married to an Indian diplomat, Saad Hashmi, after which a life of travel began.
Zarina and Saad were posted in Bangkok in 1958, when her interest in printmaking began. It was here, at Silpakorn University where she first learnt woodcut printing.
In 1963, Saad’s job took them to Paris which marked an important time in Zarina’s artistic career. “I always say that I came of age in France; I lived there for four years. Mr Hayter was so good to me.”
Stanley William Hayter was an English painter and one of the most significant printmakers of the 20th century. He founded the legendary Atelier 17 in Paris in 1927. Mr Hayter, as Zarina adoringly called him, sought to awaken in each individual artist of the atelier their particular ‘song’.
Recalling the first time she met Mr Hayter in an interview, Zarina said, “I walked in with a couple of woodcut prints I had done, and I said, “I have never been to an art school, and I have studied science,” and he said, “I have never been to an art school, I am a science student too!”
In Paris, she learned intaglio techniques and viscosity printing and became good friends with Krishna Reddy, a fellow legendary printmaker.
She then went to Bonn, Germany, in 1971, where she learnt to make silk screens and spent 1974 in Tokyo, working as an apprentice to Toshi Yoshida and learnt Japanese woodblock printing.
In 1977, when Saad suddenly passed away, she found herself contemplating moving to Pakistan, where her family lived, or India, where her life with Saad was when they weren\’t away. So, she moved to New York City.
“I had very little money, was depressed and never wanted to leave my house. I felt eaten away,” she wrote of the early years in the city. But eventually, over the 43 years she lived in New York, she became part of its art world, largely due to her involvement with the feminist art movement.
When Zarina had left Aligarh in 1958 she didn’t know that would be the last time she would live in her country, in her home with her family, with her language. The idea of home was central to her work; her childhood home in Aligarh made countless appearances throughout her career. “Some people who have come and settled in the United States don’t look back, but I am not one of them,” she said in a 2017 interview.
The courtyard, her mother’s garden, the fragrance of khas (velvetier), and the arches are all revealed in her work. Most famous of all her series dedicated to this house is Home is A Foreign Place. It was a collection of 36 woodblock prints, including a miniature floor plan of the house.
Zarina once declared, “Urdu is home.” Her life with her family was in Urdu; her mother only knew how to read and write in the language, and her family would read Urdu poetry to each other.
She once said that the biggest loss for her was the loss of Urdu. She lived in a country where Urdu was non-existent; in the country where she was born, Urdu was increasingly being displaced due to sectarian politics. So she made it her duty to hold on to Urdu.
Most of her work features words, poetry and even personal letters in the language. In an interview she talked about finding some kind of solace by going to sleep, listening to recitation of urdu poetry on YouTube.
During one of her shows in New Delhi in 2000, she decided to visit Aligarh and the house that inspired most of her work: the House with Four Walls. The visit was profound for Zarina: “I felt so close, and yet very distant. My parents were no longer there, my brothers are now scattered all over the world. I didn’t know how to connect with my own feelings…in a way it was like closing the book.”
From then on, a lot of her work was focused on mapping the dislocation of other people across the world.
The first of such series was These Cities Blotted into the Wilderness, a portfolio of aerial maps of Sarajevo, Beirut, Ahmedabad, Grozny, Srebrenica, Kabul, Jenin, Baghdad, and New York–cities violated, desecrated. In an interview she recalled, “I was watching TV and there was this Chechen woman who said ‘the world has forgotten us.’ I had a conversation with myself and I said no, I haven’t.”
She then made the series of collages Refugee Camps, Temporary Homes as a response to the increasing displacement of people due to violence.
Another such work was Without Destination. “I began using the image of the boat after reading about the Rohingyas trapped on the water because no country wanted to take them in, and the sinking escape rafts of Syrian refugees. I couldn’t help thinking of a boat lost on the vast sea, carrying heartbeats that may be lost forever, floating without destination,” Zarina explained in an interview with Asma Naeem, the associate curator at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.
Zarina died on 25th April, 2020 in London at the age of 82.
When I look at what is one of her iconic series, Cities I Called Home, I can hear these lyrics by Riz Ahmed:
They ever ask you “Where you from?”
Like, “Where you really from?”
The question seems simple but the answer’s kinda long
And how appropriate, with Zarina in mind. This series is a collection of aerial maps of cities she lived in.
As a child, Zarina’s father took her flying in a single-engine Tiger Moth biplane and she fell in love. Years later, she joined the Delhi Flying Club and learnt how to hand glide. That is where her love for aerial maps was rooted.
Art historian and curator Cordula von Keller recalled Zarina’s love for flight: “She just wanted to fly, in order to have a sense of absolute freedom.”
In some way, Zarina had always worked with the theme of flight. Besides the aerial maps, this is also reflected in the way she composed the empty spaces in her work; the silence of being mid-air. One of the first sculptures she made is a piece called Flight Log.
When asked in an interview in 2000 about a piece that has a line vanishing away from her series on Delhi, Zarina responded, “ I was thinking of the sensation when the plane takes off and the city disappears…” Perhaps like the giddiness in the pit of your stomach as the plane ascends.
Zarina felt that the role of the artist was to be a witness to the times they lived in. Her own interest in politics rose from the fact that she was a child of the Partition.
Today, the idea of belonging has become gunpowder for politics that seeks to divide; the toxic masculinity of nationalism, borders and otherness reverberating loudly around the world. Zarina’s work is a witness to these violations on human life; her own and that of others. Increasingly so, Zarina’s art resonates with those isolated, ignored, othered in their own countries as well, communities declared foreigners at home.
“I have had people come to my show and start to cry. I always ask them why, and usually they would say, “that is our story too,” she recalled during an interview with the Metropolitan Museum of Arts.
I reckon, that is how her work will always be received, increasingly so.
Zarina bared her life in her work. She made art that captured the vulnerability she felt, but also that of so many others. Zarina did not sentimentalise the hardships, but instead revealed the fundamental empathy in her art and in her life.
She contemplated what her life would have been like if she never left home: “Suppose I hadn’t left. I don\’t know where I would be now…but I wanted to leave. I wanted to see the world. And travelling is our destiny–‘sitaron se aage jahan aur bhi hain”–as a child, we were supposed to memorise and I memorised Iqbal. ‘Abhi ishq ke imtihan aur bhi hain.’”
If there is an overarching message in Zarina’s work, it is perhaps this: the only thing that we belong to, ultimately, is to ourselves, and that is whom we ought to dream for. Maybe that is how she ought to be remembered.