Shahzia Sikander’s Delicious Entangled Worlds


Pakistani-born artist Shahzia Sikander, in a recent article in The New York Times, remembers the first question she was asked when she came to the MFA program in the United States: “Are you here to connect the East with the West?”

The question was shaken. What might these terms mean for Sikander, whose work borrows and subverts the magnificent and exquisitely detailed Central and South Asian miniature (or manuscript) painting of the 16th and 19th centuries? European empires?

In the paintings, drawings, sculptures and animations exhibited “Şehzade Sikander: Extraordinary Facts” In the Morgan Library and Museum, East and West, together with other seemingly contradictory terms – masculine and feminine, abstraction and figuration, traditional and contemporary, here and there – they transform and mingle. One comes in hyper-awareness that our worlds, past, present, and even future are inextricably linked.

The exhibition focuses on the first 15 years of the artist’s career. It begins with a study from his student days at the National College of Art in Lahore, where he studied under Bashir Ahmad, a professor who revived the tradition of miniature practiced by court painters. Contrary to what ambitious young artists were doing at the time, he threw himself into the artistic idiom. Works such as his undergraduate thesis project “The Scroll” and portraits of his friend in a sari, “I’m Mirra” and ”Mirrat II” (all 1989-90) established him as the founder of the “neo-miniatures” movement in Pakistan before arriving in the United States.

Tea stained paper; vegetable paints and watercolors applied with incredibly thin, handmade brushes; decorative borders; architectural settings; and the repetition of figures to indicate a story unfolding over time – all this goes back to the miniature traditions. Even then, there is an impulse towards feminism and abstraction that would characterize her later work. Manuscript art has long been of interest to humans as creators and subjects; Sikander’s heroes here are the women who haunt the homes they pass through rather than simply occupy them. Its architectural depictions push the distinctive perspective composition of Mughal painting in an almost Cubist direction.

After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1995, Sikander began to abstract and even exaggerate the features he found in traditional manuscript painting so that these functioned as abstract elements – decorative floral motifs cross the borders of the page and form fine lines or overlays, small dots or small dots. turns into points. Screens of spheres surfaces, animals and grotesques float freely on the page.

His work becomes almost collage-like – an effective way to convey the strangeness of an immigrant’s experience, where everything in the world is simultaneously and infinitely alien.

In the demonstration, we see him begin to translate these overlapping images and styles into three-dimensional space using layered tracing paper. Ink and paint oscillate between stubborn opacity and delicate transparency. It works in larger and larger formats, including wall-sized installations. In one of the more recent works on the show, “Epistrophe”(2021) revisits many of his familiar abstract and figurative motifs, embroidering them in gouache and ink on large, gestural strips of tracing paper.

In 1993, an avatar emerges: a headless woman with tangled roots (sometimes an androgynous), a poetic evocation of diasporic experience, whose arms and feet dangle uselessly into space instead of reaching for the ground. It is repeated in slightly different ways in the years that follow, including the 2001 panel “A Slight and Nice Dislocation”, in which many hands hold both weapons of war and instruments of justice. Durga, the multi-armed Hindu goddess who embodies both male and female principles, has many appearances. Gopis – lovable shepherds who exist in Hindu mythology as the flirts and lovers of the god Krishna – free themselves from the inconsistency of their narratives, becoming powerful and even aggressive rather than simply decorative. In “The Gopi Crisis” (2001), her distinctive top-knot hairstyles are separated from their heads and swarmed on the surface like wild birds.

While living in Houston from 1995-97, she worked with artist Rick Lowe at Project Row Houses, located in the city’s largely Black Third Ward. The result of this massive introduction to U.S. racial politics were works such as “Looking at Those Armored Bearings” (1989-97), in which honest Durga’s arms sprouted from a delicate and elaborate depiction of Lowe’s upside-down head. This image sits alongside stereotypical Black figures in European medieval manuscripts, a movement aimed at highlighting the anti-Blackness embedded in our most revered art historical traditions.

As her career boomed, especially after she moved to New York in 1997 and became a favorite of curators interested in multiculturalism and “global” contemporary art, Sikander, as an artist and a Muslim woman, became obsessed with the assumption that she was “liberated” by her move to the West. After 9/11, in part because of the widespread Islamophobia that accompanied the American military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, their work became more overtly political: less beautiful in some ways, but strengthening their resistance to the hardening nationalisms that are emerging around the world. .

“No Fly Zone” (2002) is based on the work of the Safavid dynasty “King Solomon’s Ascension to Heaven”. In Sikander’s version, the wise king – an important figure in Judaism, Christianity and Islam – vanishes from his seat of power, rising empty above the heavenly clouds. The throne is now surrounded not by a series of servants, but by immature, monstrous creatures of red, white, and blue, and angels with striped wings starred with warplanes. An image of exaltation and joy is transformed into chaos and threat driven by American aggression.

At the same time, she pursued the task of multiplying and complicating South Asian and Muslim representations of femininity. “Ready to Leave” (1997) overlaid the image of the griffin, the Greek mythological eagle-lion, with chalawa, a Punjabi word for the poltergeist, who in folklore has small farm animals. In a recent email, he explained that as part of his determination to resist constantly imposed categories, he identified with the creature – “someone so fast and undetected that no one could get hold of or pin him down”. to him: “Are you Muslim, Pakistani, artist, painter, Asian, Asian-American or what are you?” The answer, obviously, is yes – all of these, plus an infinite number of other things.

Shahzia Sikander: Extraordinary Facts

Until September 26, Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, Manhattan; (212) 685-0008;


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