Short Features

Contemporary Art, From the Collection, Art and Ideas

Zarina’s Abyss and the Veil of the Beloved

An artist who lived in New York from the 1970s until shortly before her passing away in 2020, Zarina was born in Aligarh, India, before the 1947 Partition. The scission came when she was child, and while she grew up in India, the area her family hailed from was now in Pakistan, and over the years some moved to Pakistan, some stayed in India. She speaks of the void left in her by this drawing of lines—not just the national border, but how people lined up on one side or the other: “You couldn’t just call them on the phone. You didn’t know when you would see them,” as travel between the two countries became increasingly difficult.

When I spoke to Zarina in October 2014 about her work in the Menil exhibition Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence, she spoke about two authors she was reading: Theodor Adorno, the 20th-century German philosopher, “who says very much about what it’s like to have wounds,” and Rumi, the 13th-century poet and Sufi mystic who lived in Turkey and wrote in Persian. Zarina says that Rumi speaks to the way she understands the universe. And he is part of a broader Muslim culture, “a way of life” that she identifies with, rather than Islam as a religion (“I’ve been made a Muslim by others”).

Zarina, Veil, 2011. Gold leaf on bamboo blinds, 142 x 48 inches (360.7 x 121.9 cm). Bequest of the artist [click for full image]

The two artworks are Veil, 2011, and Abyss, 2013—both now promised gifts to the museum. The first is flat rectangular panel of gold leaf that stretches up eleven feet, the second an inky black woodcut whose frame could be easily held in your two hands as you look into a field of darkness ripped in two by a jagged line of white ground.

When she named the large gold piece Veil, she was thinking of the veil in Sufi writing: “They talk about the seven thousand veils of the Beloved, the veil over the divine that keeps the human from seeing it.” Not the veil of the Muslim woman, as people think, she says. In Sufi poetry, just as one is besotted with love for the divine, the veil stands for the phenomenal world that overlays the divine, which seems hidden. The veil is a sign (ayat)—just as a veiled face reveals hints and guesses of who is behind it: through the eyes of the lover, all the world appears divine. Read "The Phrasing Must Change" by Jelaluddin Rumi.

Abyss, however, speaks directly to the artist’s own experience:

I had made a print quite a while back called Dividing Line, 2001, which is a black line on a white ground, and Josef Helfenstein, the exhibition curator, asked to have that for the Gandhi show. But they’re almost all gone, and I wanted to do something else. The Radcliffe Line is the same, but I thought the white background wouldn’t show very well. I decided to do a new version. So I made a white line on a black ground, and call it Abyss. It’s much better.

I’ve been asked a lot about where the line came from. But only by people from India. Maybe I changed it, maybe I put a little more in Pakistan, I don’t know. But I do know this: I don’t need to look at an atlas, the line is inscribed on my heart.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Partition and when I was young. I was ten, and I was separated from some in my family. I’ve been thinking about that and how it affected me. And being defined as a Muslim from outside. And then also being outside since I came to this country. Adorno is good for that, he speaks to those experiences.

I was having a dream that occurred again and again: I pay a lot of attention to my dreams. I was walking on a flat plane, and I would get to a point where there’s a drop off, and if I go any farther I will be lost. It came again and again.

Do I still dream that after making the print? No, it stopped. I didn’t take that extra step.

The Radcliffe Line was drawn by a British official in August 1947 to create a border between the newly independent nations of India and Pakistan.

Related exhibitions

Oct 3, 2014 – Feb 1, 2015
Main Building
Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence