Zarina, “Abyss” (2013), woodcut on BFK light paper mounted on Somerset Antique paper, edition of 20 with two artist’s proofs and one printer’s proof, 16 3/4 x 13 inches (photo by Farzad Owrang, © Zarina; courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York)

In her exhibition Dark Roads, Zarina Hashmi commemorates the 70th anniversary of the 1947 Partition of India that created the nations of Pakistan, and later, Bangladesh. Zarina — born in 1937 in Aligarh, a city in north India, and who now lives in New York — prefers to go by her first name. Along with co-curator Alexandra Chang at the Asian/Pacific/American (APA) Institute at New York University, she selected works from the past three decades that speak directly to the ongoing impact of the upheavals resulting from Partition, as well as the underlying disruptions created by colonial powers, subsequent wars, and internal divisions.

Zarina’s etchings, woodcut prints, and handmade paper sculptural works circle around her personal narrative of displacement and her own subjectivity. As she put it in an interview last year, her works are colored by the “vocabulary of flight, borders, what it is to be separated from your family,” and the realities of being a peripatetic, dissident “other” in the US. But her work also reflects on the exodus of contemporary refugees, exiles, and migrants from locations where power, resources, territories, and borders are contested.

Zarina, “Cities I Called Home” (2010), portfolio of five woodcuts and text printed in black on handmade Nepalese paper and mounted on Arches cover buff paper, edition of 25, 26 x 20 inches (© Zarina; courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York)

Partition — an exercise in cartography undertaken by an outgoing colonial power and internal political elite — was ill-conceived from the beginning. The delineation of a new nation was intended to alleviate the fears and insecurities of the Muslim minority in the region. But Partition resulted in a brutal historical moment marked by one of the largest recorded forced migrations, with 15 million displaced, well over one million lives lost, uncounted sexual assaults, and blazing destruction of property. The violence was so deeply etched into the memory of a generation that it continues to surface in visual art, films, and literature.

Zarina’s “Abyss” (2013), a woodcut print on BFK light paper, does not specify a particular landscape or border-making exercise. The zigzagging, shimmering silver line on a matte-black background appears the way a river might on a full-moon night, from an airplane; it is a route a lost traveller might follow in their blackest hour. Yet the attractive simplicity of that line — as well as the crude expediency of colonial border-making — belies the disruptions created by such easy delineations. This is an elegant topographical map of messy loss; that silver line speaks of a sharp line of suffering, and the failures of conventional words and images — so much so that the artist leaves the field surrounding it a black that absorbs all light. 

Zarina, “Flight Log” (1987), cast paper with burnt-umber pigment, text printed on Nepalese handmade paper and bound with silk cord, edition of 5 8 x 9 3/4 x 2 3/8 inches (photo by Robert Wedemeyer, © Zarina; courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York)

Despite her works’ subtlety and minimalist approach, Zarina clearly directs our attention to the reasons for mass migrations, be they drone bombings or local despots, as well as to their effects on individuals. Her works take us to a faceless “Refugee Camp” (2015) — four rows and four columns of handmade, uniform paper tents, which nonetheless display small signals of individuality — and to perilous seas that tantalize the un-free with boundless liberty. The small boat she made for Alan and Ghalib Kurdi, who lost their lives to the Mediterranean before they reached the Greek island of Kos, reflects on the ways in which their lives were treated as though they were expendable, as well as the fragility of their parents’ dreams.

Zarina’s intricate works are necessary meditations during times when those who have lost everything remain on the coalface of political and social debates, which only paint them as threats and further efface their subjectivities.

Zarina: Dark Roads continues at the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University (8 Washington Mews, West Village, Manhattan) through February 2. 

M. Neelika Jayawardane is Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York-Oswego, and an Honorary Research Associate at the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa (CISA), University of...