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Dark Roads

Zarina Hashmi


Zarina Hashmi, “The Cage.” 1970
Zarina Hashmi has made her life the subject of her work, drawing on memories of trauma, separation and uprooting from her Home. Her show at the A/P/A institute at NYU Gallery is a personal narrative, offering up her emotions for anyone willing to feel. In light of the global refugee crisis, a personal account of an artist who spent her life being exiled and displaced stands out with a certain humility and regard for intimate experiences. “Dark Roads” follows the artist’s journey throughout her travels, in constant search of Home. Much like most displaced people, Zarina never felt at home anywhere, but the idea of “home” followed her wherever she went. This exhibition is a humble yet pungently heartbreaking chronicle of a life spent in displacement.

The show is modest in size: a rectangular room split into three sections. The work is minimal, but starkly charged through texture, materiality and words that punch you right in the chest. Most of the work on display was done during a residency at the A/P/A institute, but some selected pieces dated back to 2001. The show starts on the left of the room. A glass box displays both Directions To My House, a digital print piece on Indian Paper and Book of Travels, a unique accordion folded publication. In these two pieces, the artist sheds light on distance, and what it means to be away from one’s home, through a process of mapping the places she’s been. Directions To My House concludes in a sarcastically penetrating verse: “It should not take you very long to get there / It is only seven thousand four hundred / And thirty eight miles away.”

At the opening reception of the exhibition, Zarina was surrounded by many admirers, all of whom were waiting for their turn to converse with her. In a Sophie Calle-esque manner, I eavesdropped on one of the conversations. “You know, I didn’t want to show this work. It’s too personal,” she said. She paused for a minute and then continued: “But it was necessary.”

In her work, Zarina represents the marginalized and forgotten. She sheds light on the “border” as a tool of control and continual violence. Through this representation, Zarina insists on reminding the viewer of the loss of human life and the notion of “home”, that results from politically manipulated conflicts and divisions.

The exhibition consisted mostly of prints and handmade carved papers. Year of the Sinking Boats and These Cities Blotted into the Wildernessare a testament of works that are constantly reminding us of the atrocities that displacement can create. Year of the Sinking Boats, a collage with pewter leaf and BFK light paper printed with black ink, pays close attention to materiality and the symbolic use of icons. Her work displays a bold minimalist aesthetic. It is through the materials and a special relationship with the paper that Zarina gets her message through. Her work is to be experienced intimately. It creates a relationship with the audience that varies from a person to the other. I couldn’t keep myself from going up to her during the opening reception. I had to share with her the experience that I had with the works. Each carefully selected title bringing with it a well of emotions. As I conversed with her, my eyes welled with tears. It was the beauty of pure expression and humility in her voice that made me feel a real human connection with the artist.

In an interview for the Met Museum’s blog by Courtney Stewart, Senior research assistant at the Department of Islamic Art, Zarina was asked: “What do you hope people will bring away from your work?” to which she answered: “I have had people come to my show and start to cry. I always ask them why, and usually they say ‘that is our story also.’ A lot of them were people who were exiled from their own country: Holocaust survivors, or people who had the desire to return home. I realize that if you tell your story and if someone can come and cry on your shoulder, I think that is sharing.”

What is the purpose of art if it’s not a humbling human experience? Zarina’s is a testament of the artist’s presence, human kindness, and connectedness in the midst of a withering humanity.

New York, Beirut