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Viewing Zarina Hashmi’s retrospective at the Guggenheim feels like engaging deeply with a contemplative mind. She thinks and rethinks each artistic exercise — reliefs printed from collaged wood printed in burnt umber, a needle pierced again and again on laminated paper, collages mounted on Somerset white paper — until she has a set that’s technically similar while each piece is emotionally unique.
For designers, she reminds us that even if we have the same tools, the same constraints, the same media, our execution can create an end product that varies tremendously. Simplicity in style puts in relief the complexity of the idea behind it. In the case of Zarina: Paper Like Skin, the mathematical clarity of the artist’s lines, cuts and punctures, anchors the enormity of the subjects she’s depicting.
Zarina’s work has the calculated minimalism of Inge Druckrey, and one could learn something from their persistence. In Zarina: Paper Like Skin, the Indian-born American artist conjures five decades, more than a dozen cities and whole range of human emotions, usually in paper.
In a series of woodcut prints called “Home is a Foreign Place,” Zarina tackles separation in meditations on text in Urdu that includes “Distance,” “Border” and “Time.” Similarly in another print called “Dividing Line,” the artist imbues a snaked line with the loss inherent in national boundaries.
More granularly, her woodcut series “These Cities Blotted into the Wilderness (Adrienne Rich after Ghalib)” maps out war-ravaged areas: Sarajevo, Beirut, Baghdad, Jenin—curiously—New York.
In the “Homes I Made / A Life in Nine Lines” series, she abstracts her many homes over the years — Bankok, Paris, New Delhi, New York (she married a diplomat) — as simple floor plans made with etchings printed in black on handmade paper. It’s hard to make straight lines look like home, but with the wavering weight of her hand she does so with aplomb.
Indeed, despite their abstract nature, it’s clear Zarina has a very complicated and personal relationship with the concepts — shown through title, design and, less successfully, through text — her works represent. The pieces and their attendant concepts are outwardly evocative as well, tapping on a collective heartstrings, if not collective memories.
The pieces in Zarina: Paper Like Skin are about place and one’s relationships to them, told through the painstaking process and the unique voice of one’s hand.
Rani Molla has a digital media master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School. She’s a journalism reader, writer, photographer, videographer, data visualizer and general doer. Follow her on Twitter.