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Zarina Hashmi

Indian Contemporary Artist
Born 1937, Aligarh, India
Lives and works in New York

Zarina Hashmi’s life in an undivided India, the freedom struggle, followed by independence and partition and then travels around the world informs her works dealing with issues that concern her the most—home and exile. Her works are pervaded by a visual tension between image and text created by her use of non-figurative drawings, spatial geometry, woodblock prints and calligraphy.



Atelier-17, Paris


Bachelor of Science (Honours), Aligarh Muslim University, India

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Monochrome, geometry and symmetry are the most visible elements

Zarina’s works are monocromatic, filled with geometric shapes and almost always perfectly symmetrical. These works are the images of exile, displacement and search for one’s origin which have persistently concerned Zarina since her childhood. She consciously attempts to simply lay these concerns bare to her audiences. Thus she makes use of the starkness of paper and bronze and metamorphoses them in several ways, embossing, casting or laminating and mixing patina with the bronze.

The several combinations of paper and other materials (generally inked fragments on wood) on paper giving rise to newer metamorphoses, symbolises the new identities that man acquires with every new displacement. The geometric shapes, often abstract, symbolise doors, boundary walls, floor plans, fences, jail (ornamental screens) and the archetypal house form abound her works, which are so full of a longing for lost shelter.

Zarina Hashmi, Shadow House I, 2006,Cut Nepalese paper, 69 x 39”.

Abandonment of ornamentation for a Western style minimalism is quite evident

Zarina came in contact with the different artistic movements in the United States in 1970s like minimalism , conceptualism and process art when she moved here. Her mature works look extremely stark, in your face and display interventions on paper that are at once fierce and delicate, she pierces, folds, scratches, and cuts monochromatic grounds creating textured surfaces that invite intimate viewing and extended contemplation. Thus even in works which display the indigenous objects like the prayer beads and the shrine are kept at the minimal.

Zarina Hashmi, Cocoon, 1993,bronze with patina, 12 x 45 x 12”.

Abundant use of Urdu in her works, focusing on the relationship between image and text

Recalling the tradition of Persian and Mughal miniature painting with the adjacent use of image and text, Zarina uses Urdu text to great radical efficacy in her works. The text, promptly drawing from Urdu poetry creates a wide array of architectural spaces and emotional conditions with her works. The text is often imbibed with the lines and space of her works, strengthening the notion of language and home. The maps within which the text resides evoke Zarina’s state of displacement not just in a physical sense but also in a linguistic sense.

The maps marked by Urdu poetry become more an even more heart rending plea for the artist to dissolve the artificial boundaries which have haunted her entire childhood and kept her away from the land and the language which she could rightfully lay claims on.

Zarina Hashmi, Travels with Rani (detail), 2008,Intaglio on Arches cover buff paper.

Works largely borrow from autobiographical frames of reference

Zarina was born to Muslim parents in Aligarh, India, who chose to stay back in India, rather than crossing the borders during the Partition. However they had to later relocate to Pakistan. Zarina was married to a diplomat and hence had to travel across the globe. However these numerous relocations on the face of the earth have only aggravated her sense of exile and permanent sense of displacement from her origin. The trauma of Partition and the subsequent migrations that she had to undertake informs all her works.

The titles of her exhibitions, “Home is a Foreign Place”, 2000, 2002, “Maps, Homes and Itineraries”, 2001, “Mapping A Life”, 2003, “Cities: Countries and Borders”, 2004, to her poignant desire to eke out a way back to her origin. These journeys undertaken to look for one’s origin are also spiritual in nature. Thus Zarina’s fascination with the prayer beads, which resemble the rudraksh (holy seed for Hindus) and the shrines symbolised by the bronze spherical work.

Zarina Hashmi, Tasbih, 2011,Maple wood stained with Sumi ink, covered with specks of 22 carat gold leaf and strung on black leather cord, each unit 1 1/2”.

The main medium of work is paper also making use of wood cuts and metal

Paper is central to Zarina’s practice, both as a surface to print on and as a material with its own properties and history. She refers to paper as “a second skin”. Her work is reminiscent of writing tablets, clear, precise and minimal Mughal architecture and design while at the same time using the diversity of terracotta, ivory, graphite and gold to exude textural density and rich colours. Using monochromatic prints, cast paper and metal sculpture Zarina images maps which traces her own journeys through memory, nostalgia, displacement and family.

With her preoccupation firmly entrenched in a “sculptural sensibility”, she uses printmaking technique to carve out textural diversity in relief. Even working with paper this sensibility is aesthetically evoked with paper dyed in ink and then inter-woven to create that element of sculptural surface. She uses different types of paper with different compositions to create the visible effect.

Zarina Hashmi, Dark Nights (detail), 2010,woven strips of Kozo paper dyed with Sumi ink and mounted on Arches cover buff paper, 21 x 21”.