“Sorry!” said a soft voice in a familiar accent, “I hope you weren’t waiting too long!” A short woman walked in carrying two cloth bags stuffed with supplies.
“Good morning everyone,” she said, flinging the bags on the table with ease and beaming. “My name is Zarina Hashmi and we are here for Introduction to Printmaking. Now,” she looked around quizzically “where did I put my glasses…”
I felt I had known her all my life. It might have been because she was dressed in a simple black kurta and white scarf (her abiding commitment to monochrome extended from the shock of white hair to the subtlety of her prints). She asked us to tell her something about ourselves, and her eyes lit up when she heard that I was from Lahore. Later, when the class was busy practicing how to make a woodcut, she asked me how I was settling in to New York, and gave me advice about where to get the best art supplies in my neighbourhood. She spoke affectionately of Pakistan, Pakistani art, about my times in India and hers in Pakistan and Japan. At some point, I asked her if she could read Urdu. She laughed and said “yes”. I didn’t know then what a silly question this was.
Zarina Hashmi was born in Aligarh in 1937, where she matriculated with a bachelors in Mathematics at Aligarh University before moving abroad to study printmaking, first in Paris and then in Japan. She eventually settled in New York in the mid-1970s, where she remained involved with both feminist and minimalist movements for most of her life. Her works - testament to the beauty of economy - were often rooted in the personal trauma that the 1947 Partition inflicted on her. She spoke often about how her family were scattered across borders, and with them dispersed her sense of home. When she eventually brought her own work to class as an example (imagine a world before instagram), it made complete sense to me that she used Urdu letters that she wrote to her family in Pakistan as the basis for the compositions.
I admired the ease with which she wore her otherness from the other American professors, uniformed in their white tweed and Western-centricism. I admired her calmess, her grace, her courage and her kindess
Despite her decades in New York, she never considered the city her “home”. Part of that was because as a brown woman making work in a white, male art world, she was ignored - liked so many remarkable women artists through history, brown or otherwise - until she was venerable enough to matter to trendy curators. But in her exploration of home I recognized so fully my the issues I too was grappling with, and would do for the rest of my life. I suspect her interest in what constituted ‘belonging was because the place she really thought of as home i.e. partition united India, no longer existed. Home to her was Pakistan and India both, and neither.
I admired the ease with which she wore her otherness from the other American professors, unformed in their white tweed and Western-centricism. I admired her calmess, her grace, her courage and her kindess. This was scarcely a year or so after 9/11. That she was the first teacher of my first course in my NYC college made me feel at ease when so little else did.
When she eventually brought her own work to class as an example (imagine a world before instagram), it made complete sense to me that she used Urdu letters that she wrote to her family in Pakistan as the basis for the compositions
We became close through the semester. I would bring her tea during the break, and she would chortle as I complained about my other courses. One day she she said that she noticed other students glaring at us whenever we spoke in Urdu, which was probably her kind way of letting me speak English. Once classes ended, we stayed in touch and over the years I would drop by her studio/home in Chelsea. When the time came to apply to graduate schools, she was the first person I thought to ask to write a recommendation for me.
In the last decade I moved to Pakistan and she became increasingly unwell, retreating from public life, even as her work became more and more venerated. But she always sent me a note to congratulate me when she saw that I’d done something, including the first time I published this column. I remember that specifically, because it was the same year her work had been chosen as India’s entry to the Venice Biennale, and I never forgot that she had not forgotten. She was like that.
Zarina Hashmi died early last week. The news has hit me hard, not simply because I am in isolation, but also because of how much she changed my life. A few days before she passed away, I had coincidentally shared some of her work online. One person, a huge fan of her work, asked me what was it like to be taught by her.
The truth is: it felt like coming home when I needed home most; for that - and for her - I will be forever grateful.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org