Home is a Foreign Place

Zarina American, born India

Not on view

This suite of thirty-six woodcut prints is one of Zarina’s most ambitious series, weaving together many of the artist’s enduring conceptual preoccupations, while presenting key engagements with modernism and minimalism in its reduced palette and spare aesthetic. Each sheet in the portfolio has an abstract image plus a word written in Urdu, the artist's mother tongue. The carefully chosen words and accompanying spare graphics together culminate as a poignant work that evokes recollections of place, language, and home—from the areas of a physical space to the experience of weather in a particular place to the cosmic phenomena that mark the passage of time.

Zarina sometimes saw herself as an exile and knew a certain fragility of belonging in a life marked by a series of displacements, whether by choice or necessity. She was born in Aligarh, a university town in north India, but following the Partition of the Indian subcontinent, her family eventually settled in Pakistan. After living in many cities across the globe during the years when she was married to an Indian diplomat, she ultimately settled in New York in 1976 following her husband’s untimely death. An earlier series, Homes I Made / A Life in Nine Lines (1997), recounted this peripatetic life in sketched architectural outlines of her different homes, including her New York apartment, poignantly identified as "A space to hide forever." When facing eviction from this very apartment, both her home and studio, Zarina developed the expansive Home Is a Foreign Place.

The opening folio of the series is a floorplan of a structure labeled underneath in Urdu as "ghar" which has the sense of both "House" and "Home" when translated into English. Conscious of these interchangeable meanings, Zarina privileged the latter term, thus imbuing an architectural outline with a sense of belonging. The simplified diagram references the floorplan of her childhood home in Aligarh, which had also appeared in earlier prints including Father’s House (1994) and My House (1994).

Zarina often combined text and image in her practice, noting that the words came first followed by the image. Home is a Foreign Place continues this approach across its folios, creating a progression of words and images that weave together the memory of a specific home remembered from afar and the sense of what home can mean regardless of where in the world one is. As the artist recalled, "All the words I have chosen are triggers for memory. My memory is intertwined with the word…. I do realize that the home I’m talking about has become a foreign place to me, but I revisit it with the help of language." [1]

Zarina’s affinity for and use of Urdu was particular, as it was through it that the complex meanings of homes were best expressed—it was the language that echoed through the walls of her childhood home, and described intimacies across geographic and temporal divides—it was the language of letters to her favorite sister in Karachi. Urdu resonated at multiple levels with her life’s experiences, including being entangled in the cultural aftermath of the Partition of India, making it what has been described as a homeless language. In this series, Zarina chose her words and images carefully, translating the cultural significance of a term through a visual lexicon of simplified lines and shapes, resulting in a range of folios that evoke physical structures—such as doors or walls—or cosmic spaces, seen in the forms of mandalas or maps of the sky.

The series also demonstrates Zarina’s consummate skill as a printmaker, the practice of which she devoted much of her life. She studied etching with Stanley William Hayter at Atelier-17 in Paris (1963-67) and woodblock printing at Toshi Yoshida Studio in Tokyo (1974). The woodblocks created for this series produced a range of surfaces—from airy compositions in which much of the block was removed, leaving only small areas of relief to be printed, to their opposite, when the barest of lines was incised into the blocks’ surfaces to create inky fields. During her many travels, the artist also became attuned to different paper-making practices; she was especially drawn to specific kinds of handmade paper, often highlighting these through chine collé. This process, deployed by Zarina in this series, involved the printing of the plate on fine pieces of plant-based handmade papers found all over Asia that were adhered to the sturdier rag-based white American paper. The resulting folios manifest a "metaphorical weaving of cultures,"[2] wherein impressions upon the layered papers meld meaning and material towards an exquisite balance of forms and ideas that are simultaneously specific and open-ended.

[1] "The Garden of Dark Roses: Zarina in Conversation with Sandhini Poddar," Pesenti, Allegra, Aamir Mufti, Sandhini Poddar, and Zarina. Zarina: Paper Like Skin. Los Angeles, 2012, p. 163.

[2] Allegra Pesenti, " Zarina: Paper Like Skin," Zarina: Paper Like Skin. Los Angeles, 2012, p. 28.

Home is a Foreign Place, Zarina (American, born Aligarh, India 1937–2020 London), Portfolio of 36 woodcut chine collé with Urdu text printed on paper and mounted on paper

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