Zarina speaks with Professor Andreas Huyssen at the Guggenheim on her notion of home as a foreign place.
On 1 March 2013, in conjunction with her first retrospective “Zarina: Paper Like Skin” at the Guggenheim in New York, Indian-born American artist Zarina spoke with Andreas Huyssen, Professor at Columbia University, about her influences, travels, paper and her notion of home.
Zarina‘s discussion with Professor Huyssen formed part of the Elaine Terner Cooper Education Fund Conversations with Contemporary Artists series and took place at the Guggenheim on 1 March 2013. Huyssen began the conversation with an intimate description of the artist’s works,
With sustained formal rigour her work draws emotional affect, even sensual opulence, from austerity.… How does she achieve creating such a strong bond with the viewer? … On the one hand, the work is richly autobiographical, sustained by the experiences and memories of an exile and travel, but then this autobiographic dimension is not articulated in self indulgent or even nostalgic figurative ways, it is rather worked through formally, relying on a carefully crafted, largely abstract, non-figurative vocabulary that interweaves … spatial geometries with calligraphic writing…. Image and writing, picture and script, create a subtle tension in her works.
As the conversation opened, Huyssen asked Zarina to speak about her early years before becoming an artist. Zarina recalled growing up during the period leading up to the Partition of India in 1947, and how she was surrounded in her childhood by Indo-Islamic architectural ruins which she said were near her home in the city of Aligarh, fifty miles south of New Delhi, where she was born in 1937.
She spoke about how this inspired her to want to become an architect. According to ARTINFO, Zarina went on to receive a degree in mathematics, with the hopes of becoming an engineer. During the discussion, she emphasised that even while studying mathematics, she had to draw shapes in order to understand the concepts.
Zarina has lived in numerous cities across the world including Bangkok, New Delhi, Paris, Bonn, Tokyo, Los Angeles and Santa Cruz. In 1975, she moved to New York where she lives today. She left India for the first time in 1958 and, as she pointed out in the Guggenheim talk, it was during her travels between 1958 and 1961 that she drew practical, directional maps to get from one place to another, a concept that later became central to her art practice.
An established printmaker, Zarina also spoke about her exploration of woodblock printing in Bangkok in 1961 and of her apprenticeship under master Parisian printmaker Stanley William Hayter in the sixties. Zarina had been interested in working with Hayter since she had first read about him in printmaking books, and when her diplomat husband moved to Paris for work, she finally got the chance, studying at Hayter’s workshop Atelier-17 for three years.
Huyssen noted that the artworks Letters from Home (1984), a stained terracotta and cast aluminium sculpture, Homes I Made/A Life in Nine Lines (1997), an etching on handmade Nepalese paper, and Home is a Foreign Place (1999), a set of woodcuts with Urdu text on kozo paper, each speak about the concept of home, whether it is depicted in the form of maps, horizons, thresholds, borders or frontiers.
In particular, he suggested that Home is a Foreign Place speaks about exile. Exhibition curator Allegra Pesenti seems to agree with Huyssen. Speaking about this work in a video on the Hammer website, she says,
It’s a work that represents a very difficult moment in Zarina’s life, she made it shortly after she was being threatened to leave her home in New York, her working space, her life space…. What does the home mean for her?… When you think about the title, ‘Home is a Foreign Place’, it represents so much of what Zarina’s work is about. Home is a confused notion for her. She represented India at the Venice Biennale yet she doesn’t have an Indian passport. Her family … lives in Pakistan but that country too is somewhat alien to her.
Huyssen then went on to talk about the work Dividing Line (2001), a woodcut print on handmade Nepalese paper that represents the delineated border that separates India from Pakistan, and references a period of turmoil in which Zarina was personally affected. As explained in the Guggenheim news release about the exhibition,
… the border between India and Pakistan that was demarcated by the 1947 partition caused the displacement and death of millions of people, and eventually forced Zarina’s family to leave their home in 1959.
In each of the 36 woodcut prints that make up the artwork Home is a Foreign Place (1999), there is an inscription in Urdu, the language from Zarina’s childhood. MoMA’s website suggests that the use of a single-word inscription in Urdu
… represents another element of Zarina’s memory and references the artist’s notion that home can be described as a foreign concept. Language is central to the artist’s work, and in this series the Urdu text pays homage to a place she has left several decades ago.
When asked by an audience member, at the closing of the museum talk, where she feels her home is, Zarina said that home is wherever she is, that she carries her home with her.
When Huyssen asked Zarina to elaborate on the printmaking process and the role of paper in her works, she spoke about how she collected different kinds of paper from India and the other parts of the world that she visited. She talked about immersing herself in the possibilities of paper through printmaking and unconventional uses of the medium: she would scratch, fold, cut, knot and sew paper. This exploration led her to experiment with paper pulp, which she moulded and cast into sculptures as in Pool (Terrarosa), (1980) and Traces (1981).
Zarina’s most recent works explore spirituality with a series of sculptures based on Muslim prayer beads, Tasbih III, (2008), Tasbih IV, (2008), Tasbih (2011) and Blinding Light (2010), a paper work that Zarina gilded with 22-karat gold leaf. When Huyssen questioned the artist on her spirituality, Zarina said that although she tries to fight spirituality, with old age, and when faced with mortality, spirituality came to her.
The artist will also continue to work on an ongoing artwork called Ten Thousand Things, which is based on miniature recreations of works from her oeuvre which she has yet to finish. During the talk, she noted that the inspiration for creating miniature versions of her work came from Duchamp’s boite-en-valise (or box in a suitcase), a portable miniature monograph including sixty-nine reproductions of his work.
To date, Zarina’s work has been included in recent major exhibitions throughout the United States, including
- “Mind and Matter: Alternative Abstractions, 1940s to Now“, Museum of Modern Art, New York (2010).
- “The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia“, 1860-1989, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2009).
- “Gouge: The Modern Woodcut 1870 to Now“, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2008 to 2009).
- “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution”, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2007), P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center (now MoMA PS1) (2008) and Vancouver Art Gallery (2008 to 2009).
Internationally, she participated in the Gwangju Biennial, South Korea in 2008, and the Istanbul Biennial in 2011, and was one of four artists to represent India at the 2011 edition of the Venice Biennale.
This first retrospective, “Zarina: Paper Like Skin”, comes to New York from the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and was curated by Allegra Pesenti, the Curator of the Grunwald Centre for the Graphic Arts, where it opened in 2012. The Guggenheim presentation was organised by Sandhini Poddar, former Associate Curator of Asian Art, with Helen Hsu, Assistant Curator, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
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- Words in Art: How Indian-born painter Sujata Bajaj uses Sanskrit on canvas – December 2011 – interview with Indian painter Sujata Bajaj who uses variations of printmaking
- Indian art season in France: installation dominates 2 major museum shows – July 2011 – work by a plethora of Indian artists on show
- Indian artist Anish Kapoor’s solo at Royal Academy – what did the critics call it? Performance art and Turkish toilet – January 2010 – Anish Kapoor’s mid-career retrospective at Royal Academy in London
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