Susan Friedman has described the homonym roots/routes as “two sides of the same coin: roots, signifying identity based on stable cores and continuities; routes, suggesting identity based on travel, change and disruption.” I have always visualized veteran artist Zarina Hashmi’s home on wheels as embodying this duality. Like much of her work, her piece entitled I Went on a Journey explores the concept of “home” and self-location. As she puts it, “I make a home wherever I am. My home is my hiding place, a house with four walls, sometimes with four wheels.”
Zarina Hashmi was born into a Muslim family in Northern India. After marrying a diplomat officer, she traveled widely in Asia, Europe, Latin America and the United States. Even after making New York her base in the 1970’s, she continued to travel. This restless journeying profoundly influences her work, which bears the influence of Sufi, Zen and Buddhist thought, evoking a range of emotions through an austere and tactile minimalism, using a variety of materials including wood-block prints, sculpture, and papier mâché. Last year, her works were featured at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in “Mind and Matter: Alternative Abstractions, 1940s to Now,” and it has recently been featured at The India Art Fair, 2012 held on 25-29 January.
Quoted in The Times of India, art critic and curator Roobina Karode notes that when Zarina, (who uses only her first name) first came to New York, she “was upset by the fact that American viewers expected her to offer Indian cliches – like vibrant colours and ornamentation. Her sparse, frugal and white canvases were seen as ‘un-Indian’.” The issue of perceptions of authenticity and aesthetics are ever-present. For example, in the same article, Ashok Vajpeyi of Copal Art compares Zarina to Nasreen Mohamedi and argues that “Both Zarina’s and Nasreen’s canvases are very secular. They should not be viewed as Islamic artists.”
However Zarina’s work could only be “uncharacteristic of a Muslim woman artist,” if there is such a thing as art characteristic of Muslim women. Secular and religious, personal and political, words and images, collide in Zarina’s works, such as in Letters from Home where she uses a set of letters written by her sister in Urdu and surimpososes Islamic calligraphy over themes of partition, exile and migration, to capture “everyday life in Pakistan and India from an Islamic perspective at a time when the country was in a transformational state.”
Many of her works have titles that evoke thinking about borders, such as Home is a Foreign Place, Dividing Line and Cities I Called Home. In other works, there are spiritual or medidative connotations, such as in her show The Ten Thousand Things which references Ts’en Shen’s words, “When the ten thousand things have been seen in their unity, we return to the beginning and remain where we have always been.” Her work Multiple Silences interlaces image with the Nastaliq calligraphy of Urdu. Another work, a vertical screen gilded with gold leaf, is titled Blinding Light; as Zarina explains, this work was
inspired by the legend of Moses asking God to reveal himself. God warned him that he would not be able to stand the light of his presence but Moses insisted. When God revealed himself Moses fainted and the surrounding hills and bushes burned…
In these and many other ways, Zarina re-interprets artistic and spiritual traditions. As Zarina’s work has evolved over three decades, the themes of displacement, travel and memory that are a recurrent trope of her work have been taken up by a new generation of women artists from the subcontinent, artists including Shabnam Shah, Hamra Abbas, Seher Shah, Shahzia Sikander, Naiza Khan, Huma Mulji, Asma Mundrawala, Aisha Khalid, and Asma Ahmed Shikoh, their work encompasses a wide range of artistic expression ranging from Persian miniatures to black and white iconicity to popular kitsch, yet many draw from tradition to engage with and address contemporary realities. As Amal Allana, director of the Art Heritage Gallery, notes, “there is a large body of women trying to create a new language of modernity from the Islamic background, finding a voice of their own with their own tools.”