Home is a Foreign Place. The title of Zarina Hashmi’s perhaps most famous work, a set of 36 ideograms, sums up many of the tensions that suffused both her work and her life.
Zarina (she preferred to be called simply by her first name), who died last month, was one of the most important postwar modernist artists, for whom displacement and loss was the key theme. ‘Memory’, she once said, ‘is the only lasting possession we have. I have made my life the subject of my work, using the images of home, the places I have visited, and the stars I have looked up to. I just want a reminder that I did not imagine my experiences.’
She was born in 1937 in Aligarh, near New Delhi. But what came to define her life, and haunt her imagination, was the 1947 Partition, which she witnessed as a 10-year old, and the horrors – physical, political, cultural and imaginative – that it spawned. ‘These memories’, she wrote in her 2018 memoir, Directions to My House, ‘formed how I think about a lot of things: fear, separation, migration, the people you know, or think you know.’
Married to a diplomat, she lived a peripatetic existence, until she settled in New York in the mid-1970s. She produced a series of haunting, evocative drawings, engravings, woodcuts and sculptures, many of which combined increasingly abstract images of houses and cities with Urdu, or semi-Urdu, inscriptions. While she retained a great attachment to Urdu, and in particular to Urdu poetry, and to the subcontinent, modernism came to be her home and her language of expression.
Zarina stands with Nasreen Mohamedi, as one of the great modernist women artists from India/Pakistan. Here is a small sample of her work.
Homes I made, a life in nine lines
Letters from home
Journey to the edge of land
My dark house in Aligarh