I learned about artist Zarina Hashmi (known only by her first name, Zarina) in 2017 when I was in graduate school and selected a class named after one of her works, Home Is A Foreign Place. It didn’t matter that the second part of the class’s title was “Writing on Art, Conflict, and Estrangement,” a beat to be trudged along as selflessly and anonymously as possible—despite a wealth in my autobiography on the matter—in service of good writing. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for me to do well in that class, but I had to take it.”Home” was an open-ended category I sought to maneuver my life around, rather than circumscribe and my plan was much like the series of short emails I sent myself, written on the go, sent when necessary. While the content was brief, their resolve was clear and in medias res. It conjured a commitment to “figuring it out,” with time, work, and even art as intermediaries. So when I looked at a picture of Home Is A Foreign Place (1999) on the front page of the syllabus, I saw an abstract, minimalistic, and non-imposing invitation to enter. I had to send, Yes.
In the wake of the 1947 Partition of the Indian subcontinent, 10-year old Zarina, together with her Muslim family, left her home in Aligarh, India on a truck and witnessed the dead bodies left along the road or thrown into the river that ran alongside it. “When I was traveling, I always thought that one day I would go home. But over the 40 years, there was nothing to go back to because my family was scattered all over the world,” said Zarina, in an interview for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), many years later.
Zarina’s Home Is a Foreign Place is made of 36 woodcuts mounted on paper. The woodblock prints are ordered into rows and are meant to be read from left to right. “Actually this piece I just did for myself just to understand how I got here…so language is as important in this piece as the image. It has to be read as a poem,” Zarina said in the same MoMA interview.
To make the woodcut prints into a poem, Zarina sent a list of words she thought meaningful to the idea of “home” to a calligrapher in Pakistan. The calligrapher wrote the words in the traditional script of her native Urdu language, a language she had long forgotten. In a different conversation for the Metropolitan Museum, she noted that, “The biggest loss for me is language, specifically poetry. Before I go to bed lately, thanks to YouTube, I listen to the recitation of poetry in Urdu. I jokingly say I have lived a life in translation.” The life in translation Zarina mentioned were her years spent in Paris, Bangkok, Tokyo, and Los Angeles. In 1975 she settled in New York.
In Home Is A Foreign Place, words in Urdu are written in black ink at the bottom of each panel, captioning a corresponding image. For instance, afternoon is represented by three black lines converging into a structure resembling a ceiling fan while hot breeze comes about as almost-straight but sporadically interpreted black lines stretching horizontally across the paper. Border is a black rectangle split diagonally into four parts, creating a point of convergence in the center of the rectangle.
These 36 words—threshold, dew, dust, afternoon, rain, language, border, destination, among others—on 36 separate woodcuts—were labeled like light switches weird into my own chest, a breasted board of emotions that made me feel that I might be unprepared for what would happen if I was to work the toggles, one after the other. The same way I don’t need to touch the Kaaba’s covering to pray, but I kneel and prostrate in its direction, I won’t think, read, and write about the piece. I concocted a plan: I won’t work the switches till I’m a better writer, a gentler thinker, a wiser historian. I won’t go near the piece until I’m home. I may never succeed, I knew, even then, while laying out the terms of my own, internal peace.
A friend told me to go and see Zarina: Dark Roads at NYU’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute [in late October]. The show opened in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Partition. It made her cry, she said. Since I value the tears of my friends more than the New Yorker’s critics’ section, on a not-so-cold autumn afternoon, I biked down Fifth Avenue to Washington Mews, where the Institute is located. I had in my head the first sentence to a review nobody commissioned: A show about dark roads takes place in a gated street.
Have you ever looked at honey twirling away from a spoon in a transparent cup of hot tea? The sight comforts and soothes like the prospect of dying of old age. But even in death, “the impossibility of further possibilities,” as Heidegger describes it, is the end of everything possible—all the sorrows, their beautiful and potent meanings that will fall onto deaf ears.
That’s how it was to be at the show that afternoon. The sunlit galleries filled with Zarina’s work were like the light that augmented the richness of the honey, the firmness of the spoon, the gold of the tea. I was nothing but a hand holding the cup, smelling the herbs, licking the spoon. As for the sorrows that prevail at the end, those were Zarina’s roads paved with ink, in and out of a territory fragmented by all kinds of natural and manmade formations that give texture to geographical distance. They were dark, both on paper and as physically experienced.
Dark Roads opened with a work called Dividing Line (2001), a woodcut whose surface was split by a winding, black line. It looked like a river bisecting land into banks or carving a valley into a mountain. The line represents the border between India and Pakistan, forged in the bloodshed of the Partition. “In my family nobody was killed, but…a scar lives and comes to revisit you at the end of the day,” said Zarina in a voiceover, while a slideshow of her personal photographs played ahead of a panel discussion the Institute held on the occasion of the exhibition.
Dividing Line was exhibited next to These Cities Blotted Into Wilderness (2003), a series of prints mapping nine cities marked by past and current violence. Among them, Sarajevo, Beirut, Baghdad, and Kabul. Instead of its streets, the print of Srebrenica—a town where 8,000 male Muslim Bosniaks were killed—has rectangles that represent mass burials. In a print of New York, the city’s avenues are replaced by two bold stripes symbolizing the Twin Towers.
Remembering my friend’s tears, I stood in front of the map of Beirut longer than any other of Zarina’s maps. To stand in front of one map is to stand in front of any, when you, as Mahmood Darwish puts it, “belong to the question of the victim.” The line is from Darwish’s poetic eulogy of Edward Said.
The poem begins with “New York / November / Fifth Avenue.” It reads like a report of a peripatetic walk of two men who took the dark and long road that traverses the ocean and landed here, perhaps at Washington Square Park, across the street from the gated street where Zarina’s show took place. This is a conjunction not of time and space, but of spirit: Zarina often referenced Darwish. In fact, in her statement for Dark Roads, she quoted him.
A section of the exhibition, labeled “The Year of Sinking Boats” included a print showcasing a white boat, like the ones children make from paper, floating in a pitch-black sea. A Child’s Boat for Aylan and Ghalib (2015), notable for its poignant instrumentalization of the sculptural potential of the paper, is a tribute to the memory of Alan and Ghalib Kurdi, two Syrian refugees aged two and five, who drowned in the Mediterranean with their mother while attempting to reach Greece in 2015. This section of the exhibition was in a gallery overlooking part of Washington Square Park. Back then, in November 2017, Ai Weiwei’s Arch, an unpainted steel cage pierced by a mirrored opening in the shape of conjoined figures, was installed under the park’s arch. The piece was part of “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” a public art response to the ongoing international migration crisis and the political reaction to it. The art installations across the city were to transform “the security fence into a powerful social and artistic symbol.” The Arch under the arch provoked complaints from the residents of the area who didn’t appreciate that piece would displace their Christmas tree. In an unplayed game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, Zarina’s sinking paper boats won. Of the many reasons why Zarina’s response was more effective than Ai Weiwei’s, I will mention two: the gentleness of her material, paper, which she considered a “second skin;” and her practice, prone to working in series, which acknowledged the adherently multiplicitous nature of the concepts she responded to in her work.
Unlike Ai Weiwei’s heavy, steeled cast of human misery, Zarina’s paper boats are light and ever changing with the winds that blow, the hidden moon of her skies, the waves that crash at faraway, promised shores. No two sinking boats are alike. No two storms were the same.
The last time I saw Home Is A Foreign Place was at MoMA after it reopened in the fall of 2019. In geometry, the location of a point can be determined by forming a triangle to that point from two other known points. While standing in front of the 36 woodcuts, I was creating my own triangulation. The first point was ephemeral: these images flow from words. The second point was material: these images have a rectangular shape, associative of a house plan. The third point was the unknown: home. While waiting for an answer, all the switches were on.
For Flight Log (1987), a sculptural piece emulating a booklet, Zarina wrote a poem: “I tried to fly/Got lost in the thermal/Could never go back/Having lost the place to land.” In later years, she referred to the poem as her biography. On April 25th, 2020, Zarina passed away in London. No longer bound to the earthly triangulations of logging, distance, location, her flights are endless, her landing place in heaven.
Sumeja Tulic is Libyan-born Bosnian writer and photographer currently based in New York City.