How Zarina Hashmi's Minimalist Art Intersects Identity, Memory, And The Idea Of Home

Zarina Hashmi's work left an indelible mark on the Minimalist art movement.
Zarina Hashmi's work left an indelible mark on the Minimalist art movement. L: The New York Times R: Zarina

"I just made my personal life the subject of my art. So I have to write about what I have gone through. Oh, it’s very painful! I have opened up my life, as I say, to the scrutiny of strangers."

Zarina Hashmi, in the short film 'Zarina Hashmi – 'My Work is About Writing' by Tate Modern.

This quote wonderfully brings out the immense power of art to channelize our own struggles into something more universal that transcends the realm of the personal. To understand Zarina Hashmi’s work — its origins, its inspirations, its message, we must first delve deeper into the course of life that shaped her artistry.

Zarina was born in Aligarh, British India, on July 16th, 1937. Nestled in the heart of Uttar Pradesh, 100 miles southeast of the bustling metropolis of Delhi, Aligarh served as the backdrop for Zarina's formative years. As the youngest member of her family, she grew up alongside her four siblings: Hamid, Saeeda, Aslam, and Kishwar, affectionately known as Rani. Tragically, Zarina's bond with Hamid was destined to remain unformed, as fate had snatched him away prematurely, even before her arrival.

Top Row – Left to Right:  Zarina, Aslam, Saeeda, Kishwar (Rani)

Bottom Row – Left to Right: Fahmida, Abdur Rasheed
Top Row – Left to Right: Zarina, Aslam, Saeeda, Kishwar (Rani) Bottom Row – Left to Right: Fahmida, Abdur RasheedZarina

From her early days, Zarina found herself ensconced in the embrace of Aligarh Muslim University's faculty housing. Her father, Abdur Rashid, a distinguished Professor of History, had provided them with a home that stood as a testament to the interplay of gender and culture. Within those walls, a captivating dichotomy unfolded. The male quarters exuded a distinct Western influence, while the female domain emanated a more traditional ambiance, steeped in the rich tapestry of Indian Muslim values and adorned with decor that whispered tales of yore. This very abode, resonating with architectural grace and spatial arrangement, served as the wellspring of inspiration for Zarina's evocative masterpiece, aptly titled The House at Aligarh.

Zarina’s Childhood Home – House at Aligarh
Zarina’s Childhood Home – House at AligarhZarina
The artwork 'House at Aligarh'
The artwork 'House at Aligarh'Zarina

"In the house at Aligarh, I grew up surrounded by books. My father was a professor of history at the AMU, we had a large collection of books at home. Even before I learned to read I loved to look at the printed words and images. This is what drew me to printmaking and the book. One is influenced by so many things, words, images sounds and smells. For me prints are part of the book, I see no need for prints to compete with painting on canvas. These are two different means of expression, two different sensibilities."

Zarina Hashmi

But it wasn't only the architectural and literary wonders that kindled Zarina's artistic spirit within those hallowed walls. The enchanting allure of her mother's garden cast its spell upon her young heart. In an abode where nature was revered, Zarina imbibed her parents' love for the natural world, and a garden bloomed forth, a testament to their shared appreciation. It was amidst these fragrant blooms that Zarina discovered her enduring passion for scents, forever rooted in the petals that graced her childhood sanctuary.

"Zarina began to chant the names of flowers: “Raat ki rani, din ka raja, harsingar…”. Sitting with her in the neatly organised apartment that had long served her both as home and studio, Ranjit (Hoskote) and I were reminded that it was located in New York’s once-flourishing Flower District. But the flowers whose names she was recalling, like an incantation, had perhaps never been sold in these once-fragrant streets. In her art, too — her woodcut portfolios, etchings, sculptures in metal and cast paper, and mixed-media productions — she would bring the names and devices of distant cultures into the heart of the West.

Zarina, in an interview with author and curator Nancy Adajania, for Stir World

This interview was conducted in the fall of 2016 in New York. At that time Zarina was 83 years old. Even then her fondness for flowers had not diminished and one can trace it back to her childhood. This is a testament to the power of childhood, its memories and experiences, and how it shapes us, and by extension, our creative process.

Yet, amidst the myriad influences that shaped her creative path, one bond stood unrivaled in its significance — the unbreakable connection between Zarina and her beloved sister, Rani. Inseparable allies, they traversed life's journey hand in hand, their synergy leaving an indelible mark on Zarina's artistic pursuits. Together, they embarked on countless ventures, their collaborative spirit breathing life into their shared projects. Zarina would often seek Rani's discerning eye, eagerly soliciting her input on her work, and on occasion, the dynamic duo would unite their talents to forge artistic marvels. This bond, profound and unyielding, endured until fate dealt a cruel blow in 2013, snatching Rani away, and leaving Zarina bereft of her most cherished confidante.

From Left to Right:  Zarina and Rani
From Left to Right: Zarina and RaniZarina

"I first came to New York in 1973. At that time, the country was divided. Millions of people move from one side of the world to the other but when you are young, you don’t get it because I was only ten years old. It hit me much later and it is not just about writing your life story. It is not just my story but the story of all immigrants and that’s where the home comes in — the idea of homes, the maps, the floor plans. I have often been questioned why I call it 'Letters from Home'. My sister wrote to me and she will always be my home because we shared a childhood. Most of the writing has been done in black ink and so it’s black and white. For me, the image follows the words and they all have a reference somewhere, mostly in poetry."

Zarina Hashmi, in the short film 'Zarina Hashmi – 'My Work is About Writing' by Tate Modern

'Partition' by Zarina Hashmi
'Partition' by Zarina HashmiZarina

One of Zarina’s seminal works, Letters from Home is a portfolio of eight monochromatic woodblock and metal cut prints, produced using original letters written in Urdu to Zarina Hashmi by her sister Rani. With impeccable craftsmanship, Hashmi harnessed the power of original letters, penned in Urdu by her beloved sister Rani, to create a mesmerizing collection that transcends time and language. These heartfelt missives form the very essence of her artistic expression, serving as the catalyst for a profound exploration of textuality, native language, memory, childhood, diaspora, the concept of home her and her identity as a Muslim-born Indian woman artist.

'Letters from Home' by Zarina
'Letters from Home' by ZarinaZarina

In her New York studio in 2004, Hashmi meticulously crafted these prints, breathing life into the intimate connections between family and place. She transformed the letters themselves into printing plates, each stroke preserving the essence of her sister's words. Onto the canvas of handmade Kozo paper, she delicately imprinted the letterforms, surrounded and adorned by the evocative contours of houses, floor plans, or geographic maps, meticulously rendered through the artistry of woodblock printing. The result is a poetic interplay, a dance between the tangible traces of correspondence and the symbolic imagery of dwelling, inviting us to navigate the interwoven tapestry of her existence.

A close look at 'Letters from Home' by Zarina
A close look at 'Letters from Home' by ZarinaZarina
A close look at 'Letters from Home' by Zarina
A close look at 'Letters from Home' by ZarinaZarina

Hashmi's artistic odyssey is enriched by her formative years in pre-partition India, where the notion of home held profound significance. Yet, as fate would have it, her path diverged as she embarked on a nomadic life, following her husband Saad Hashmi, an esteemed military officer engaged in the realm of international diplomacy. Bound by duty, she traversed cities, countries, and continents, etching her memories across a constantly shifting landscape. The partition of India and Pakistan brought about a wrenching displacement for her family, stripping them of their ancestral abode and ushering them from Aligarh to Karachi. This tumultuous experience ingrained within Hashmi a deep-rooted fascination with themes of home and the poignant longing for a sense of belonging. As she poignantly declares, "Home is the centre of my universe; I make a home wherever I am."

New York, Delhi, Bangkok, Aligarh & Paris’, from the show ‘Cities I Called Home’ (2010) by Zarina; woodblock printed in black on handmade Nepalese paper
New York, Delhi, Bangkok, Aligarh & Paris’, from the show ‘Cities I Called Home’ (2010) by Zarina; woodblock printed in black on handmade Nepalese paperGallery Espace
Saad and Zarina
Saad and ZarinaZarina

In her long and illustrious artistic career, Zarina created several brilliant works through the mediums of drawing, printmaking, and sculpture. However, Letters from Home is the most personal among them and is crucial to understanding her oeuvre. Although primarily known as a printmaker, she also worked with puncturing, scratching, weaving, sewing on paper and created sculptures using a variety of media such as bronze, aluminum, steel, wood, tin, and paper pulp. Her contributions to the Minimalist movement are undoubtedly astounding and her works have this innate ability to evoke almost spiritual reactions from their viewers. On 25 April 2020, Zarina passed away, but her legacy continues to influence young artists. Her life and artistry are a testament to the fact that no matter the abyss of our personal struggles, we can always find an honest outlet for it through art.

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