The House That Zarina Built


The exhibition under review deals with the house as interpreted by Zarina Hashmi on view at the Chawkandi Art Gallery from August 24 to September 4. Zarinas house is a shelter, even a home, but marked with the vagrancy of its inhabitant. Not the house of classic and cubist provenance, but a Jungian archetype which expresses itself, by its very nature, in abstract signs and arcane symbols. Zarinas image is skeletal, stripped visually of anecdotes, description, and emotional association. lt binds her to her past even as it reminds her of separations and distances. lt gives her freedom to change houses, live her own life, and to express herself. The stopovers from house to house are many. But, like punctuation marks, they help to give grammatical order to the full flow of her wanderings. The story is told in sign language in her etchings and houses of cast aluminium, in a style which is wed to silence.

There were actually two exhibitions in one. The etchings were a rare feast for the eyes, something one has not enjoyed since Sadequain etched the crow-nested head of his own double (hamzod) in the sixties. Then there were the sculptures, small toy-like metal cubes with triangular tops on wheels. They were arranged serially in neat lines against white boards. Another set of houses, metamorphosed to look like embracing couples, reminded one of a pre-Raphaelite painting of the heavily cloaked Dante and Beatrice by Rossetti. Zarina said that Giacomettis stretched man on two wheels could have been her subliminal promptings for the house on wheels. She was treating her house as some kind of an anthropid.

But she also added that the wheels of the primordial Moenjodaro bullock cart have been a long-time fascination with her.

The wheel is a mandala of time and change. The great English poet Eliot sang about time present and past, wheeling one upon the other. The future in this dance is fortuitous. Zarina has moved away from her land and people too far and strange lands, but she wheels back to her past in her memory, the only home she has known. Whereas in Giacometti, there is an ironic twist to the figure of a wheeling clown which hints at the existential angst of the image, Zarina is innocent of irony as a tool of intellectual distancing. She appears to be a stoic, one who would not see life as tragedy because her art does not go for the grand gesture of despair and defiance. The scale on which she seems to have worked is intimate and under control.

The second set of houses, she says, are a variation upon Brancusis The Kiss. ln sharp contrast to Rossettis romantic and flowery narrative style, hers is in the nature of bailing out from tradition and old customs. The only possession she appears to have is her vow of visual poverty. In the words of the great. French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard, her house occupies the terrain of being. In this space, exile and freedom accord with the dialectics of life; voluntary nomads do grow roots in the air.

Each of Zarinas houses has a frozen narrative. What she “shed of non-essentials” lies veiled behind the insouciance of her images. Again, Bachelard strikes home with his words, “a house constitutes a body of images that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability. We are constantly re-imagining its realilty: to distinguish all these images would be to describe the soul of the house; it would mean developing a veritable psychology of the house.” Zarinas house may not have an overt psychology but used as a metaphor it is pregnant with meaning.

Zarinas work may be seen in critic Quinten Bells words as, “psychomorphic design”. The house images are geometric and totemic. They invite enquiries from viewers in eloquent silence, who can give them the body of their own experience and reminiscences. But Zarina would direct their attention, and to do this she has used titles of recall. The titles are displayed on the full page opposite the etchings. They could be deciphered against white, obliterating spaces, as if Zarina was embarassed with words but could not do without them. The titles anchored the images in our minds as Zarinas stories. Far Awoy was a House with Four Walls, was a design of utter denial of all human and cultural associations, but was dependent on words charged with nostalgia. The Black Snake Come in the House, On Long Summer Afternoons Everyone Slept and The One-eyed Maid went back to her childhood and girlhood in Aligarh.

What was noticeable, apart from the academic preciosity and pulsing energy of her style, was the use of words which, like mantras, opened doors to treasure hoards of personal memories and sentiments, making the house a veritable treasury. Words also revealed how introverted her art was. They were pressed, as in the minimal and conceptual arts, to mediate between the artist and the viewers. Those who knew her Aligarh of the past were with her. Others, not familiar with the basic foundation of an eastern house with an angan and service quarters around the square, could use the image to trigger their own memory.

A perceptive viewer said that Zarina was a book illustrator. She readily agreed and pointed out that her house series etchings were portfolio pages. Reading, therefore, was central to her art, metaphorically and literally. What existed on paper took on full personal and cultural body when viewers read themselves into it to supply the missing link between art and existence. Any numbers of readings are possible. For example one could choose Zarinas interpretive authority or allow Bachelard the privilege of a learned guide Zarinas images call for words to come to their rescue. She invites us to enjoy the contrapuntal passage between reading and seeing.

Zarina teaches etching in America. She is also a printmaker and papermaker of long experience. Her first foray into sculpture was in paper which she moulded from pulp. She now uses aluminium to cast her faceless houses. What impressed one most was her control over the medium. But pedagogic preciosity tolerated obvious mistakes by design and the artists own occasional impatience with the stern demands of the discipline which feeds and houses her. Zarina obviously knew the pitfalls of perfectionism. She had no use either for weighty trans-cultural statements, a la Zahurul Akhlaque, which Mansoora Hasan favours us with on her yearly junkets through Pakistan.

Zarina was asked if she subscribed to minimalism as one may surmise from the appearance of her works. She denied this and added that the absence of traditional images from her paintings was the result of a personal choice from experience. She believes in the wisdom that “less is more”. lf her work looked minimalist, this had nothing to do with fashion. Nomads carry minimal baggage on the move. Nomadism, physical and mental, is is a post-colonial phenomenon, and Zarina is a part of the culture of self-exiled poets, intellectuals and artists who thrive on interpreting their own culture from a distance. Perhaps this gives them a sharper vision of things, but it also raises questions about their intimate touch with their land and its people. Zarina says that she is her own culture, meaning thereby that hers was a portmanteau culture, packed up and ready to move at any time. This is why her sign is the house on wheels.