Mapping the Dislocations: Zarina’s Maps

by Mary-Ann Milford Lutzker

Zarina (1937-2020) created maps that provided her with touchstones to help her find meaning in her life. She was born in India and lived all over the world; for her making maps was an important need for the life of a traveler. She remarked that, “When maps were not available, I would draw my own from books at the library. Maps became a necessity to chart my destinations and find my way.”

In these three prints Zarina drew maps that reflect the political, social and personal traumas that she witnessed throughout the world. ln Hindustan, she has drawn a meandering line that floats over the South Asian subcontinent like a discarded umbilical cord. When questioned about this line that has brought heartache, hardship and death to millions of people, her response was, “Perhaps I distributed territory incorrectly, but I always say, ‘It is drawn on my heart, I didn’t have to look at a map.’ I have crossed many borders and I know there is nothing on the land that delineates the difference… it affects people who have lived the separation.”

New York, from the series ...these Cities Blotted into the Wilderness is one of the maps that Zarina made of places violated by conflict. Here the lines have a nuanced ambiguity as they can be read in different ways: as the Twin Towers; the danda, the period in devanagari Hindi script; and as the gesture of a hand held high signifying, “enough, no more.”

The most personal and poignant map is Manhattan, where Zarina lived since 1976. Since she left home in her early twenties, her sister’s letters were a connection to her family, culture and to Urdu, a dying language––for Zarina, they were about saying goodbye to memories.

Zarina Hashmi (1937-2020) ~ In Memory

Zarina, one of India’s most distinguished contemporary artists, whose work is in major museums and collections around the world, passed away in London on April 25, 2020, after a long illness. She studied with leading artists and printmakers in Bangkok, Paris and Japan, who encouraged and influenced her innate aesthetic minimalist abstract style in her paintings, prints and sculptures. After living through the traumas of Partition and the death of her husband, she moved to New York in 1976, where she became an integral part of the art scene, and especially with the Women’s Movement. She was beloved by her students at New York University and the University of California at Santa Cruz, for her wisdom, generosity of spirit and sense of humor.

Through her art and poetry, Zarina addressed the universal sense of loss of identity and culture experienced by immigrants everywhere, which makes her work speak to so many on a multitude of levels. In a book she made of compressed handmade paper entitled Flight Log, 1987, she wrote a haunting poem in her elegant calligraphy:

I tried to fly

Got lost in the thermal

Could never go back

Having lost the place to land

As a young girl living in Delhi she had learned to fly gliders, when asked about these lines she said, “These four lines are my whole biography. I can’t go back because there’s no place to land. Where will I go?” Later in a small print entitled Directions to My House, she wrote,

Memory is the only lasting possession we have

Zarina was loved, inspired and admired by all her knew her--she will remain forever in our memories.

Mary-Ann Milford-Lutzker, May 2020

Atlas of My World IV: Hindustan

Zarina, Atlas of My World IV: Hindustan, 2001. From the portfolio Atlas of my World. Woodblock with Urdu text, printed in black on handmade Indian paper. Mounted on Arches cover white paper. Image courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

A line appears to float over the South Asian continent. It is the ephemeral Radcliffe Line that demarcates the border dividing Pakistan from India. It is an artificial border that has brought heartache, hardship, and death to millions of people who have suffered the consequences of political divisiveness. This ragged line meanders across the paper like a discarded umbilical cord. We don’t know where it starts—nor where it ends. The harshness of the dense black cut strokes against the slivered textured surface lends a certain ominous tone of apprehension to the print. It is innocent in its aesthetic abstraction, yet offers a potent reminder of colonial disintegration. In this print Zarina pursues the meaning of borders. There are those that are defined by nature, such as rivers, and those defined by man, such as nations and political boundaries—those that are evident, and those that are invisible and psychological. Arbitrary lines are drawn in the sand to become markers of difference and exclusion.

Letters from Home VII: Manhattan

Zarina, Letters from Home VII: Manhattan, 2004. Woodblock and metal cut print; metal cut made from original letters in Urdu. Printed on handmade Kozo paper and mounted on Somerset paper. Image courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

This is the seventh letter in the series Letters from Home. These letters were written to Zarina by her sister, Rani, but were never posted. The letters were to let Zarina know about deaths in their family, selling her home, and how much she had missed her at those times. Zarina has reflected that maybe her sister wrote these letters to herself, hoping that putting her emotions on scraps of paper might have helped her to cope with loss. Since Zarina left home in her early twenties, her sister’s letters have been a connection to her family, culture and to Urdu, her native language. She has observed that few people read Urdu today; it is a dying language and, for her, Letters from Home is about saying goodbye to memories. The seventh letter is printed within the map of downtown Manhattan, where Zarina has lived since 1976. Floating across the streets of Manhattan, Rani’s letter reads:

This year the summer just went by. When you visit, summer becomes spring. Ami, Abba and Baji are gone, sometimes I used to talk to Baji. Aslam Bhai is not doing well, I am thinking of visiting him in October. Who know whose turn it is next to go. Talking to you warms my heart and then I miss you very much. Saad has been gone twenty years. You have spent your life quietly, I never had the courage to ask you about this phase of your life, but I have kept count of each and every moment which you went through. There is so much talk over and a long wait until we meet.

New York

Zarina, New York, 2003. From the portfolio ...these Cities Blotted into the Wilderness (Adrienne Rich after Ghalib). Woodblock printed in black on Okawara paper and mounted on Somerset paper. Image courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

In this woodblock print Zarina has rendered the Twin Towers that were destroyed in New York City on September 11, 2001 as two white parallel lines that divide the deep black field. It is the ninth print in the series ...these Cities Blotted into the Wilderness. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, each city in this series was completely obliterated or damaged and violated in immeasurable ways. Here, the lines are a nuanced double-entendre as they can be read as the danda, the period or full stop; in the devanagari script of Sanskrit and Hindi grammar, they are like the gesture of a hand being held up signifying “enough, no more.” The impact these prints leave is haunting and inescapable. They provide grim records of senseless destruction and violence. Yet, Zarina’s characteristic spare monochromatic approach distances the events as reality. For her hope is in the memory of events, and that by drawing the places and recording the names in Urdu, she is ensuring that they leave an indelible impression upon our minds.

Mary-Ann Milford-Lutzker, Professor Emerita of Asian Art History, held the Carver Endowed Professorship in Asian Studies in the Department of Art and Art History at Mills College. She received her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. Her early work focused on traditional Indian and Indonesian art for which she wrote on and curated exhibitions including The Image of Women in Indian Art, and Myths and Symbols in Indonesian Art. In 1997 she curated Women Artists of India: A Celebration of Independence, an exhibition that was part of the Festival of India that celebrated India’s fifty years of independence from British colonial rule. She has written extensively on and curated exhibitions of Asian American artists. She has received many fellowships and awards and recently was an NEH fellow at the Institute for Asian American Art, New York University. She is a founding member of SACHI (Society for Art and Cultural Heritage of India) and serves on the Advisory Committee for the Society for Asian Art, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. She also serves on national and international art organization boards.