Artist to Know: Zarina

Liz Catalano
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Christie’s Presents Minimalist Prints Exploring the Concept of Home

Indian-American artist Zarina Hashmi, known professionally as ‘Zarina,’ spent a lifetime in transience. Born in Aligarh, India, Zarina often traveled around the world, settling and resettling in Bangkok, Tokyo, Delhi, Paris, Los Angeles, and New York. Her art engaged primarily with the Minimalist movement, employing woodblock prints of crosshatched lines and unidentified shapes. Always, though, Zarina circled back to the physical and emotional qualities of a home. 

“I do not feel at home anywhere,” she said, “but the idea of home follows me wherever I go.” 

To mark her recent passing, Christie’s will open the upcoming South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art auction with a portfolio of seven Zarina prints. Bidding will take place on September 23rd, 2020, at 11:30 AM EDT. Find out more about the artist before the sale begins.

Zarina Hashmi. Image from Ram Rahman for The New York Times.
Zarina Hashmi. Image from Ram Rahman for The New York Times.

Zarina’s childhood revolved around her family’s home in Aligarh, a space that would inspire her for years to come. At ten years old, Zarina experienced the Partition of India that split the former British colony into present-day India and Pakistan. Though her family was temporarily displaced by the change, they soon returned to a degree of stability on the Indian side of the border. However, the Partition left a lasting impact, one that art critic Holland Cotter suggests “cut her loose from her roots and haunted her life and work.” 

It was not until her early 20s that Zarina began developing her artistic style and themes. She earned a degree in mathematics, joined a flying club, and learned to appreciate city architecture from the height of the clouds. These experiences drew her toward Minimalism, then in its post-war infancy. Zarina learned printmaking techniques from Stanley William Hayter in Paris and Toshi Yoshida in Tokyo while traveling with her diplomat husband.

Zarina, House with Four Walls, 1991. Image from Christie’s.
Zarina, House with Four Walls, 1991. Image from Christie’s.

Zarina began exploring the capacity of printmaking, developing her signature style after settling in New York in the late 1970s. She made prints with pieces of driftwood, created three-dimensional sculptures with the pulp of her paper, and used her art to explore themes of isolation, migration, and home. Zarina also began breaking into an artistic movement that had previously been dominated by men. 

Available in the coming Christie’s auction is a set of seven prints that Zarina executed in 1991. Titled House with Four Walls, each print was pressed on handmade Nepalese paper and paired with lines of text. They tell a story that runs parallel to Zarina’s life: “Far away was a house with four walls… On long Summer afternoons everyone slept/ One night we heard the owl in the trees/ The one-eyed maid said/ We would have to move far away.” Each print matches the words of the story, starting with four unevenly-lined walls that gradually meld into a cacophony of circles. The series was completed during a residency at the Women’s Studio Workshop in New York. It is offered with an estimate of USD 12,000 – $18,000.

Despite her frequent moves and eventual establishment in the New York art and academic scenes, Zarina continued to revisit themes of home and belonging in her work. In a 2017 interview with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she considered the role of loss in her life: “New York is not my home, this is someone else’s home. I’ve lived here for 40 years but my identity is basically that of an exile.”

Zarina, Letters from Home, 2004. Image from Christie’s.
Zarina, Letters from Home, 2004. Image from Christie’s.

Her 2004 Letters from Home series brings together the personal and collective loss of home. A map of Manhattan, the floor plan of a house, and bold black lines overlay personal letters of tragedy written by Zarina’s sister. One Letters from Home set reached GBP 50,000 (USD 64,800) at Christie’s in 2014. The seven works, which opened the auction, reached well past their high estimate of GBP 18,000 (USD 23,300). 

Prices for Zarina’s art have steadily climbed with the turn of the century, a pattern consistent with a growing international appreciation for South Asian women artists. A set of 22-karat gold leaf, paper, and ink pieces reached USD 53,625 at a 2014 Sotheby’s auction just two years after its completion. Recent exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, and the Whitney Museum of American Art also boosted Zarina’s reputation in the last years of her life. 

Zarina passed away earlier this year after a long illness. The artist who always treasured her own memories is now remembered by her friends, colleagues, and admirers. Dr. Mariah Lookman, an artist and South Asian art historian, recalled a long and memorable night of conversation. “As Zarina walked us to the door in customary old-world fashion, we settled for the closest phrase we have to avoid saying goodbye in India and Pakistan; phir milenge: we shall meet again.” 

Zarina’s House with Four Walls portfolio comes to auction with Christie’s on September 23rd, 2020. The auction will begin live and online at 11:30 AM EDT. Visit Christie’s for more information.