New Delhi

Zarina, My Dark House at Aligarh, 2017, woodcut on paper, 10 x 8".

Zarina, My Dark House at Aligarh, 2017, woodcut on paper, 10 x 8".


Gallery Espace

Zarina, My Dark House at Aligarh, 2017, woodcut on paper, 10 x 8".

An inky blackness descends and shrouds Zarina’s woodcut My Dark House at Aligarh, 2017. Only slivers of light illuminating an arched entrance hint at the presence of a building lurking in the darkness. This image recalls a place the artist once called home: the Indian city of Aligarh, where Zarina was born in 1937. This was before the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947, when she, like millions of others, faced the prospect of displacement and rupture. While her liberal Muslim family finally moved from Aligarh to Pakistan in 1959, Zarina opted to stay on in India. Having married an Indian diplomat, she later settled in New York, where she continues to explore the notions of home, homeland, and her identity as an artist in exile. Using minimal means—often simple geometric shapes such as triangles or squares—she conveys potent themes of nostalgia, loss, and dislocation, with paper as her preferred material.

For Zarina, the idea of home is a fluid one. It is at once everywhere and nowhere, a constant state of negotiation between construction and disassembly. For instance, the rectangular lines in the glinting coppery collage Laying Bricks, 2017, created a weave of units not unlike patterns created by bricklayers as they build the foundation of a house, while another collage, the pewter-leaf-flecked Debris of Destruction, 2016, spoke of broken homes or devastated cities. In several Untitled collages, all 2017, architectural floor plans rendered in spare black and red lines conveyed the notion of home, both real and imagined. Borders and boundaries often feature in Zarina’s work, for example in the black-and-white diamond-shaped patterns in the woodcut Behind the Fence, 2017, or the bar-code-like arrangement of collaged strips of black paper of varying thickness in Fence, 2017. These speak of the exclusionary politics of boundary walls just as they do of the separation of families and the trauma that results. Only the birds are free of these constraints, as in Birds in Flight, 2017, which may refer to the poem “The Conference of the Birds” by the twelfth-century Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar.

This recent exhibition was called “Weaving Darkness and Silence,” and several of the prints in it included the word dark in their titles. Zarina has often said that, for her, words precede images. Black seeps into her art as fluidly as the sumi inks she employs to stain the Indian handmade paper. Her romance with these inks began when she lived in Japan in the 1970s. The minimalist Zen aesthetic she encountered there continues to reverberate. In three striking small-format Untitled geometric abstractions, 2017, strips of black paper created austere patterns reminiscent of some of Josef Albers’s works. In other collages she wove, crushed, or crumpled black paper. One of the most poignant works in the show was Dark Mirror, 2017, in which a gilded border frames the jet-black darkness of sumi ink. What is it that Zarina espies when she looks into this mirror, one wondered—the heavens on a moonless night, the terrifying abyss of a black hole, or a soothing space of silence and tranquillity?

Meera Menezes