Blood and Paper: Zarina and the Currencies of Violence in India

Zarina: A Life in Nine Lines
Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi
30.01.20 – 10.04.21


The winter of 2019 was a tumultuous one for India. Braving police brutality and state repression, protests raged against draconian anti-Muslim legislation and a forthcoming National Register of Citizens. Round-the-clock sit-ins led by Muslim women across the country – initiated in New Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh neighbourhood – became an international symbol of resistance to tyranny. But across the capital city, at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, there are symbols of another sort on display. The late, Indian-born artist Zarina’s retrospective, A Life in Nine Lines, holds up an elegiac mirror to the political crisis that has unfolded in her home country, linking the historical trauma of the Partition of India in 1947 to the threat of displacement that stirred the nation.

The central currency of South Asian bureaucracy is paper, a fact that has seldom been more glaring than now, as the Urdu slogan ‘kaagaz nahin Dikhayenge’ ( we won’t show our papers ) echoes through the streets. In December 2019 the BJP’s Hindu majoritarian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, passed the Citizenship ( Amendment ) Act, a law that discriminates against Muslim refugees from neighbouring countries seeking Indian citizenship. This was strategically timed, alongside the pending implementation of the National Register for Citizens – ostensibly a system to identify ‘illegal’ immigrants. The government’s lack of clarity regarding what constitutes adequate proof of legal status has been a point of outrage; the minimal information made public suggests that Indians from poor, marginalised communities, including Indigenous peoples, oppressed castes and women, will most likely struggle to provide sufficient documentation to be declared legal citizens. Those who are paperless face the prospect of being declared stateless.

Against this backdrop, A Life in Nine Lines weaves between decades, revealing Zarina’s engagement with paper, her play with its potential as a material both fragile and potent. She draws on metaphorical similarities between that medium and memory: its frailty as a material, and the expressive possibilities of collage, inscription and cutting. The poignancy of the relationship between paper and home is most apparent in two works. Folding House ( 2013 ) is a twenty-five-part series of house-shaped collages made of black and gold paper stained with Sumi ink, each uniquely patterned – the dazzling pictograms evoke the process of nostalgia, a word that literally means ‘longing for home’. The two-toned arrangements, suggestive of night and day and decorated with designs like the Radcliffe Line, seem to narrate the memory of a house as it mutates over the course of the artist’s life. The longing for a mythical home( land ) is rendered into paper, the suite of collages a case for memory as handcraft.

Indeed, as the retrospective shows, Zarina’s work was animated by the remembrance of familiar terrain made alien by distance and time. Home is A Foreign Place ( 1999 ) is a thirty-six-part series of woodcut and letterpress prints, which features bold monochromatic graphics, denoting the idea of home. Inked at the bottom of each print is its corresponding Urdu word, translated into English in museum labels. Zarina transforms her recollections of home – as architecture, geography, atmosphere and language – into spare visual riddles. In some instances the reference to ‘home’ seems synecdochical: a black square with edges slightly extended is captioned darwaza, or ‘door’ in Urdu; a pair of thick black lines criss-crossing the top quarter of the page is ‘afternoon’, a depiction of the ceiling fans that provide ventilation on warm middays. In other cases, home is a metaphor for identity: a black music sheet design, with incomplete white ‘notes’ placed on the white lines, meant to show the disappearance of zubaan ( language ). Spoken on both sides of the border, Urdu continues to be an important part of the classical and film music heritage of the subcontinent. Like a song from childhood that fades with age, language, and the home it represents, disappears without community. Elsewhere, an enigmatic black-and-white-checked pattern opens up the definition of home to include watan ( nation ). The design made up of small squares brings to mind the processions of Partition refugees, memorialised in news images of the time, black and white bodies walking in long lines or travelling by train. With the new CAA-NRC laws, the ghosts of the past have been resurrected and many human lives reduced to the black and white legal regime of identity papers.

In a catalogue essay for the 2009 exhibition Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space, Aamir R. Mufti described Zarina’s work as the ‘art of dispossession: aesthetic practice concerned with the dialectic of rooting and uprooting whose most emblematic and ubiquitous figure in our own times is the stateless refugee’. Zarina has alluded to the Partition of India and Pakistan as being an enduring preoccupation in her work – her own family briefly relocated from Aligarh to Karachi in its wake, an event that led to her lifelong fixation with exile. The woodcut maps of Countries ( 2003 ) and Cities I Called Home ( 2010 ) both speak to loss, albeit in contrasting ways. Referencing the lines that divided the subcontinent, cartography is a recurring motif: in the former work, white-on-black images of lands marred by conflict seethe with a darkly reticular aspect, while in the latter, sunny, black-on-white diagrams of cities where the artist lived feel more like souvenirs.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Zarina trained in printmaking in Tokyo and Paris, and was part of the New York art scene. The linear abstraction of her work as a draughtswoman and printmaker, vaguely reminiscent of Nasreen Mohamedi and Agnes Martin, drew from Minimalism and Conceptualism. In Zarina’s hands, Minimalism captures the émigré life, marked by the experience of having left behind. The pain of loss goes sublimated in austere works that emphasise materiality. This quality is most apparent in an untitled mixed media series ( of which the earliest works are from the 1970s ) that features embroidery. One of them, a lone white vertical stitch like a sutured wound in the blanched paper, exemplifies Zarina’s ability to sharpen melancholia into mourning. The geometry of the artist’s prints and etchings hints at a grief not easily communicable, yet, as Zehra Jumabhoy noted in Artforum, her ‘visuals refuse to serve as simplistic illustrations of art, history, or theory’.¹

Zarina herself has said that her practice is about writing. Image follows word, and this is the reason for her fascination with black and white. Her use of the Urdu language and calligraphy and citation of a poet such as Agha Shahid Ali, a famously eloquent exile, prove the importance of words in her process. This is underscored in Letters from Home ( 2004 ), a remarkable suite of eight monochromatic woodblock and metal-cut prints made from letters that Zarina’s Karachi-based sister Rani wrote to her. On these are imprints of typical spatial schemas such as maps, floor plans, the silhouette of a house. Intensely intimate ( ‘When you visit, summer becomes spring’ ), the tiny squiggles of the nasta’liq script ( Urdu’s writing system ) adorn mysterious terrains and interiors reduced to planimetry. Revealing and retreating, the artist is turned inside out, both host and guest in this epistolary home. In one of these works, thick black lines streak across the sentences, censoring them. The association of Urdu with India’s Islamicate culture ( though it has been the language of the North Indian elite across religions ) has made it a target of the Hindu right-wing government’s hostility, once again bringing the retrospective into conversation with the contemporary moment.

In April 2020, Zarina passed away in London at the age of eighty-two; looking back on the past fifty years through the perspective of one who yearned to return to a homeland in which she witnessed destruction, I wonder what remains of this home’s promise. In the last week of February 2020, the capital city of the world’s largest democracy experienced a pogrom in response to protests against the CAA-NRC legislation. With the spread of the novel coronavirus in India soon afterwards, the country’s government now had an excuse to continue its authoritarian rule without resistance, using the pandemic to target dissidents and demonise Muslims as carriers of the virus.

In Modi’s India, amid fears of deracination, the concept of home as a place of safety and security is being repeatedly undermined and replaced with the knowledge that one is seen as an enemy in one’s own land. The very first work in the exhibition encapsulates this paradox: a floor plan of Zarina’s Father’s House 1898 – 1994 ( 1994 ) in Aligarh, set against a huge print strewn with words like ‘pain’, ‘night’ and ‘terror’, is a reminder of the many painful and horrific nights that the current Hindutva regime is visiting upon its citizenry. The mid-century progressive Hindi poet Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena asks in his poem A Nation is not a Map drawn on Paper ( 1948 ): ‘If in your house / A room is on fire / Can you / Go to another room?’ Zarina’s oeuvre poses similar questions to a nation grappling with its past and future, demanding that we pay attention to a home under siege, where the dividing lines are no longer metaphorical.

1. Zehra Jumabhoy, ‘Far from Home’, Artforum, 58:1 ( September 2019 ), p. 233<>.



去年冬天对印度来说是如此动荡飘摇。因为严厉的反穆斯林立法和即将到来的一项国家公民登记,面对警察的残暴和政府的镇压,一阵阵抗议活动爆发了。由穆斯林妇女发起的24小时静坐最先从新德里的沙欣巴格社区开始,最后逐渐蔓延至全国各地,成为反抗暴政的国际象征。但在首都的基兰·纳达尔美术馆( Kiran Nadar Museum of Art ),我们遭遇的却是另一种象征。已故印度裔艺术家扎里娜( Zarina )的回顾展“九行诗的人生”( A Life in Nine Lines )如同挽歌般泣叙了她的祖国正在发生的政治危机,将1947年印度分治以来的历史创伤与震撼了印度整个国家的移民威胁联系起来。

当乌尔都语的口号“kaagaz nahin dikhayenge”( 我们不会出示我们的证件 )在大街上回响时,使南亚官僚机构运转的东西是纸,这一事实比以往任何时候都更加引人注目。2019年12月,纳伦德拉·莫迪领导的印度人民党的印度教多数派政府通过了公民(修正案)法案,这是一项歧视寻求印度公民身份的邻国穆斯林难民的法律。与此同时,“国家公民登记册”( National Register for Citizens )正在实施,这一计划在表面上搭建出了一个用来识别“非法”移民的系统。但令人愤怒的是政府对于什么才能构成足够的法律身份证明缺乏明确的指示:最低限度的公开信息表明,来自贫穷、边缘化社区的印度人,包括土著居民、受压迫的种姓和妇女群体,很可能难以提供足够的文件以证明自身的合法公民身份。那些没有证件的(paperless)人将面临被宣布为无国籍者的未来。

在这样的背景下,于几十年之间交织和酝酿的“九行诗的人生”展现了扎里娜对纸的运用,她激发出纸作为一种既脆弱又有力的材料的潜能。扎里娜利用了这种媒介和记忆之间的相似性隐喻:作为材料的脆弱,以及拼贴、铭刻和切割在表达上的可能性。纸和家之间沉痛而哀伤的关系在两件作品中表现得最为明显。《折叠之家》( Folding House,2013 )是一个由25组房子形状的拼贴画构成的系列,由黑色和金色的纸以及黑墨水着色而成,每幅都具有独特的图案—令人眼花缭乱的象形符号唤起了怀旧的过程,它们在字面意义上组成了文字“渴望一个家”。两种色调的安排让人联想到白天和夜晚,并辅以印巴分界“雷德克里夫线”般的设计,似乎是在讲述这座房子在艺术家一生中不断变化的记忆。对一所虚构家园(土地)的渴望被渲染于纸面,一套拼贴画作为亲手制作的记忆箱子。

事实上,正如展览所展现的那样,扎里娜的作品因对土地的熟悉记忆而充满活力,而距离和时间使这些土地变得陌生。《家是一处异域》( Home is A Foreign Place,1999 )是一套由36件木刻和凸版印刷作品组成的系列,以大胆直白的单色图形阐述着家的理念。每幅版画的底部都印着相应的乌尔都语,并被翻译成英文写在美术馆的展签上。扎里娜把她对家的回忆—建筑、地理、氛围和语言—转译为简朴的视觉谜题。在某些情况下,“家”作为提喻显现在作品中:一个边缘略微向外延伸的黑色正方形的标题是“darwaza”,即乌尔都语的“门”;在距画面顶部四分之一处两条粗粗的黑线纵横交错,这是“下午”,描绘的是在温暖的下午提供通风的吊扇。而在另一些情况下,“家”成为了隐喻:一张黑色的乐谱,白色的线条中间被插进不完整的白色“音符”,意味着“zubaan”,或“语言”的消失。边境线两旁的人都讲乌尔都语,它仍然是南亚次大陆古典音乐和电影音乐遗产的重要组成部分。宛如一首童年的歌曲随着岁月的消长而褪色,语言和它所代表的家园,在没有社群的状况下消失了。还有一张神秘的黑白格子的图案,它打开了“家”的定义,甚至诠释了“watan”,国家。由小方格组成的设计让人想起分治时期难民的游行队伍,那个时代的新闻图像纪念了这段历史:黑人和白人的身体排成长队向前跋涉,或乘火车迁徙。伴随着新的CAA-NRC法律出台,往昔的幽灵又复活了,许多人的生活被禁锢在非黑即白的和身份证件有关的法律制度中。

在为2009年的展览所撰写的一篇画册文章《控制线:作为生产性空间》中,阿米尔·R. 马夫蒂(Aamir R. Mufti)形容扎里娜的作品代表的是“剥夺的艺术:一种关涉生存与迁离的辩证关系的美学实践。而在我们这个时代,最具代表性和最无所不在的形象便是无国籍的难民”。扎里娜指出印度和巴基斯坦的分治已经成为她在工作中长期关注的议题—扎里娜的家人因为分治从阿里格尔短暂搬迁到卡拉奇,而这一事件导致了扎里娜被终生流放。《国家》( Countries,2003 )和《我称之为家园的城市》( Cities I Called Home,2010 )中的木刻地图都在以截然不同的方式讲述着失去。制图是艺术家作品中反复出现的主题,并且参考了那些在现实中分割了次大陆的线条:在《国家》中,被冲突破坏的土地的黑白图像呈现出一种黑色的网状结构,而在《我称之为家园的城市》里,艺术家描绘了自己生活过的城市中的阳光,那些黑白图像则更像是一种纪念品。

20世纪六七十年代,扎里娜在东京和巴黎接受过版画训练,也是纽约艺术圈的一员。作为一名女绘图师和版画家,她从极简主义和概念主义中汲取灵感,创作线性抽象作品,隐约让人想起纳斯琳·穆罕默德迪( Nasreen Mohamedi )和艾格尼丝·马丁( Agnes Martin )。在扎里娜的创作中,极简主义捕捉到了流亡者的生活,以留下的经验作为标志。失去的痛苦在强调物质性的朴素作品中得以升华。这种品质在以刺绣为特色的无标题混合媒介系列(其最早的创作来自20世纪70年代)中最为明显。其中一幅是白色的垂直缝线,如同漂白的纸上被缝合的一道伤口,展现了扎里娜将忧郁升华为哀悼的能力。艺术家在版画和蚀刻版画中描绘的几何形状传达着某种不易言说的悲伤,然而,正如泽拉·朱马布瓦( Zehra Jumabhoy )在《艺术论坛》( 2019 )中指出,扎里娜的“视觉实践拒绝将自身视为艺术、历史或理论的简单说明”。¹

扎里娜说她的实践关乎书写。图像跟随文字,这是她痴迷于黑白的原因。扎里娜使用乌尔都语及其书法,还引用了阿迦·沙希德·阿里( Agha Shahid Ali )这样的著名流亡诗人的话语,证明了文字在她的创作过程中的重要性。2004年的作品《家书》( Letters from Home )强调了扎里娜的创作倾向,这是一套由8件单色木刻及金属版画组成的系列作品,取材于扎里娜在卡拉奇的妹妹拉妮写给她的信件。作品刻画了典型的空间模式,比如地图、平面图、房子的轮廓。乌尔都语书写系统里细小而潦草的字迹让神秘的地形和室内空间变得更加平面,也带有更为浓烈的亲密感( “当你回来的时候,夏天会变成春天” )。在这座被书信构建起的家园中,艺术家既是主人又是客人,既展现自我,又退避三舍。《家书》中的一件作品里,粗粗的黑线横亘于句子之间,仿佛对句子进行了审查。乌尔都语与印度伊斯兰文化的联系使其成为印度教右翼政府敌视的目标( 尽管持不同宗教的北印度精英一直将其视为生活语言 ),这再一次把展览带入某种当代的对话。


在莫迪领导下的印度,灭绝的恐惧四处弥漫,作为安全和庇护的象征,家的概念正在被不断削弱,取而代之的是这样的现实:一个人在自己的土地上被视为敌人。展览呈现的第一件作品巧妙地总结了这一悖论。《父亲的房子 1898-1994》( Father’s House 1898-1994 )展现了扎里娜的父亲位于阿里格尔的一处房屋的平面图,艺术家让这张图纸与布满“痛苦”“夜晚”和“恐怖”等字眼的巨幅印刷纸张相对照,它提醒着人们,当前的印度教政权在许多痛苦和可怕的夜晚,正四处窥探着它的公民。上世纪中叶的印度进步诗人萨维什瓦·达亚尔·萨克塞纳( Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena )在《国家不是画在纸上的地图》( A Nation Is Not A Map Drawn on Paper, 1948 )中问道:“如果你的房子里/一个房间着火了/你能/去另一个房间吗?”扎里娜的所有作品向一个正在努力应对过去和未来的国家发出了相似的质问,她要求我们关注一个没有出路的家园,在那里,分界线不再只是停留于隐喻。

1.泽拉·朱马布瓦《背井离乡》,刊载于《艺术论坛》( 2019年9月 ) p230