The creative possibilities of paper unfold in a retrospective of artist Zarina Hashmi's work at UCLA's Hammer Museum, where approximately 60 pieces are now on view. In her hands, what some may consider an ordinary material, is transformed into inventive woodblock prints, papier mâché and sculptural pieces that pop off the walls.
Zarina (who uses only her first name professionally) was born in a small town in northern India. Her father was a teacher, and his extensive library made a strong impact on her young life:
"Because my father loved books, either old books or new books, we didn’t have room to store them," she says, "so we played with books before we could read and write."
Tradition of the time might have dictated that she enter purdah as an adult (a practice where a woman is kept separate from men). Instead, her father didn't resist when she expressed a desire to travel, and be an artist; though she says he considered art a "craft," not an "intellectual endeavor." To partly satisfy his emphasis on academics, Zarina entered university and studied math and geometry, training which would later influence her artistic practice.
In 1958, Zarina married a diplomat officer, and moved to Thailand. This is where she would see handmade paper for the first time, ("I didn’t use it, but I...made a note of it in my brain somewhere"), and where she would pursue her interest in Buddhism. Travels to New Delhi, Paris, Bonn, Tokyo and even Los Angeles would follow, artistic training absorbed along the way (she studied with influential printmaker S. W. Hayter in Paris, and learned woodblock cutting in Japan).
Since the 1970's, Zarina has for the most part, called New York City home. But she says frequent uprooting makes her feel alive:
"It informs my life, my work. And if somebody tells me to go back or forwards, I love going to new countries because it’s so exciting. The language, how they live, and then you can talk to them, but you imagine their lives."
But it's not just the people and cultures that inspire her, it's also the geography. In the mid-1990's, Zarina taught studio art and printmaking at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and out of that experience came a series of prints.
She says one particular evening was a catalyst for the series:
"There was the Monterrey Bay, and the sun was setting, and the lights were up. And then I thought of a poem that, like God is talking to you, and he has filled you with beauty of the world, but there’s a place in your heart which always stays lonely. Because even outside beauty doesn’t really go anywhere, or doesn’t go that far."
Now in her 70's, Zarina says it's her "playtime" a "time to pursue ideas which I haven't before," though like her work so far, she anticipates new work will continue to ultimately come from her personal experience:
"You know, when you fly or when you’re in a car and the landscape just passes by. So all those things somewhere end up in the work. And you don’t even know where it will end up. Like road lines, because I like to drive, and sometimes you are on a long road, it’s like holding onto the line which keeps you going. Because it sort of guides you, like you’re holding a rope or something, coming out of the cave or finding your way in a labyrinth."
Paper Like Skin, the first retrospective of the Indian-born American artist Zarina, is on view at UCLA's Hammer Museum through December 30, 2012. For more information, visit hammer.ucla.edu.