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Zarina. Photo: Ram Rahman.
Zarina. Photo: Ram Rahman.

Zarina (1937–2020)

Zarina, the mononymous artist whose uncategorizable five-decade practice unsettles ideas of home, memory, and unsettledness itself, has died at age eighty-three. Best known as a printmaker, the Indian-born artist’s spare and often language-based imagery draws from Minimalism, Zen Buddhism, and Sufism, as well as the historical ruptures and migrations that shaped her own peripatetic life. Although wider recognition arrived late in Zarina’s life, she became one of the most celebrated South Asian artists of the past century and was among the first artists to represent India in the Venice Biennale, for its fifty-fourth edition in 2011. A survey of the artist’s output, “Zarina: Atlas of Her World,” opened at the Pulitzer Art Foundation in Saint Louis in September 2019 and closed this February.

Born in 1937 into an erudite Muslim family in Aligarh, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Zarina earned her university degree in mathematics, a field that, along with architecture, strongly informs her artmaking. She was separated from her family in the 1950s, when her parents and siblings moved to Karachi following the violent 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. Wed in an arranged marriage to New Delhi–based diplomat Saad Hashmi, Zarina stayed in India, but traveled constantly alongside her husband, to London; Bonn, Germany; Santa Cruz; and Los Angeles (she eventually separated from Saad, but they remained married until his sudden death in 1977). After learning printmaking methods in Bangkok, Paris, and then Tokyo—her mentors included Stanley William Hayter and Toshi Yoshida—she finally moved, in 1976, to New York, where she quickly established herself in the city’s feminist art community, joining the Heresies collective, cocurating an exhibition at A.I.R. Gallery with Ana Mendieta and Kazuko Miyamoto, and eventually serving as a board member of the New York Feminist Art Institute. She remained New York–based for the rest of her life but felt uprooted. “New York is not my home, this is someone else’s home,” she said in 2017. “I’ve lived here for forty years but my identity is basically that of an exile.”

“Zarina’s visuals refuse to serve as simplistic illustrations of art, history, or theory,” wrote Zehra Jumabhoy in a feature on Zarina for Artforum’s September 2019 issue. Considering Letters from Home, 2004—a series of facsimile prints of unsent letters from her sister Rani, written in states of mourning and overlaid by Zarina with bold floorplans and architectural outlines—Jumabhoy suggested that the work “hovers between political loss and private grief—floating in the unbridgeable gulf between nation and self.”

Although she primarily made woodblock, lithographic, intaglio, and silk-screen prints, Zarina also crafted papier-mâché, metal, wood, and terra-cotta sculptures. Her art—which resides in the collections of numerous institutions worldwide and was the subject of a retrospective, her first, at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in 2012—revels in a multitude of references, from the American Minimalism of Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt to Urdu poetry and her own biography. “I think we are witnesses to the times we are living in,” she told an interviewer when recently asked about the role of the artist in society. Describing Home Is a Foreign Place, 1999, a major portfolio of thirty-six geometric woodcuts, she called it “my narrative of the house I was born in and left in my early twenties never to return.” The archetypical house form, as well as thick lines suggesting geographic boundaries and psychic fault lines, is a recurring motif in her oeuvre. “I work in small scale,” the artist told writer Lisa Liebmann in 1984. “I know the work has density of emotion and it will create its own space around it.”