November 4, 2010  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
At Home with Zarina

Zarina. Home Is a Foreign Place. 1999. Portfolio of 36 woodcuts and letterpress, mounted on paper. Publisher: the artist, New York. Printer: the artist, New York. Edition: 25. The Museum of Modern Art.

My exposure to architecture can be partially summarized in this way: 1) As a child, my dad, who was once an architect, guided me through drafts of his blueprints; 2) In school, I took a few art history classes that focused on architecture, from the cathedrals of the medieval period to the designs by Frank Lloyd Wright, all of which included copious slides of floor plans; and 3) I live in New York City, where trying to avoid charming Manhattan brownstones, landmark monuments, and skyscrapers-in-development is just downright impossible. But I never considered how any of these experiences relate to my perception of my everyday surroundings until this past summer, when I was reminded of Zarina’s Home Is a Foreign Place (1999) while exploring MoMA’s recent exhibition Mind and Matter: Alternative Abstractions, 1940s to Now. Born in Aligarh, India, Zarina earned a degree in mathematics before moving to New York in 1975. She had always imagined returning to India, but over the course of some forty years, her family had settled in various parts of the world.

Zarina. Afternoon, from Home Is a Foreign Place. 1999.

Without further reason to return, Zarina created thirty-six woodcuts that demonstrate her interest in both the perception and remembrance of one’s place, or in her case, the memory of the house where she grew up. The six rows of prints, to be read from left to right, depict specific sites from her childhood home and abstractions of particular moments that the artist recalls. For instance, an image of a ceiling fan, titled Afternoon, refers to the fact that the artist “can’t think of an afternoon in India without a ceiling fan.”

Below each print is a corresponding single-word inscription in Urdu, which represents another element of Zarina’s memory and references the artist’s notion that home can be described as a foreign concept. Language is central to the artist’s work, and in this series the Urdu text pays homage to a place she has left several decades ago.

Zarina. Home, from Home Is a Foreign Place. 1999.

My attraction to Zarina’s portfolio comes from a deep appreciation for the minimalist sensibility she uses to communicate her personal attachment to and memory of a place. In Home, bold, definitive lines depict the space where she once lived. The image is immediately recognizable as a floor plan, with a clear entryway and path; you can nearly imagine yourself inhabiting or moving through the space. Her abstract representations of this particular period of her life powerfully evokes a time that has come and gone, but also heightens my own awareness of the places I’ve been.

For further insight, listen to the artist as she shares her impressions of the work on MoMA’s website.