New Delhi

Zarina Hashmi, Untitled I, 2009, paper, gold leaf, 16 1/2 x 13".

Zarina Hashmi, Untitled I, 2009, paper, gold leaf, 16 1/2 x 13".

Zarina Hashmi

Gallery Espace

Zarina Hashmi, Untitled I, 2009, paper, gold leaf, 16 1/2 x 13".

What do you do when home is somewhere you will never be? You could bemoan your exile with hilariously depressing fiction à la Salman Rushdie. You could fashion crystal-studded paintings of hybrid beasts (neither fish nor fowl, but always glittering) in the vein of British-Kashmiri Raqib Shaw. Or you could aim for subtlety, as New York–based Zarina Hashmi did in “Recent Works,” her recent solo show of paper works and fragile installations. For all their pretty serenity—paper has been sliced and woven to resemble a cream-hued chatai (mat), or coated with black obsidian to imitate a shimmery night sky—Hashmi’s works hover around memories of personal and communal loss. She maps the falling-apart of secular India, a process that for most Indians was driven home by the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1992 and 2002. Urdu, once the language of the Mughal court, and Hashmi’s mother tongue, is today in decline within India; the high-minded Sufi Islam that Hashmi grew up with is despised by fundamentalist Muslims and Hindus alike. Perhaps this is why Hashmi wants to remind us of the raided treasures of a lost civilization. Coin, 1979–2009, is a large misshapen square, its corners blunted and its dark gold surfaces scratched and scarred as if by time. It is ironic that Hashmi has been selected for the Indian pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale: With her beautifully packaged paeans to homelessness, she questions national boundaries, and this is what has made her a role model for a younger generation of South Asian artists in London and New York.

Hashmi, who was born in 1937, witnessed the traumas of Partition in 1947. Later, she married a diplomat and led a nomadic existence, living in New Delhi (the former Mughal headquarters) and Bangkok (where she learned about Buddhism), traveling through Japan (where she studied printmaking), and eventually settling in New York in 1975. Cities I Called Home, 2010, charts her travels, its weblike maps becoming ways of abstract pattern-making as well as delineating identity. Buried in the maze of black lines that represents Bangkok, the silhouette of a meditating Buddha can be glimpsed. The diptych Travels with Rani, 2008, revisits the places Hashmi went with her sister. In these prints, maps melt into abstract shapes, recalling the spidery contours of Urdu calligraphy. Abstraction thus becomes interlaced with politics: Hashmi’s tracery plays fast and loose with national borders, suggesting their arbitrariness.

At times, Hashmi’s simple forms echo the Minimalist, monochrome line drawings of Nasreen Mohamedi (also a “child of Partition,” born the same year). Like Mohamedi, Hashmi probes the confluence between Zen Buddhism, Sufism, and modernist architecture—all of which evince an interest in the spiritual potential of geometric structures. In Hashmi’s Untitled 1, 2009, gold-leaf squares glimmer against a cream background, seeming to vibrate like the tiered staircases leading to Buddhist temples. Yet these glowing geometric shapes are mutable: Some have tiny triangles attached to them, so that they resemble mini-temples or domed mosques. Unlike Mohamedi’s spare drawings, however, Hashmi’s gold-flecked bulbs and beads flirt with the decorative and the nostalgic. In Tasbih, 2008, prayer beads, smothered with flaking gold foil, nestle in a corner; viewed in this light, the show evoked more than just a romantic vision of a past that can never be rescued from gilded memories.

Zehra Jumabhoy