In a recent essay in the New York Times, Pakistani-born artist Shahzia Sikander recalls the first question she was asked when she came to her MFA program in the US: “Are you here to go east to west to let? “
The question arose. What could these terms possibly mean for Sikander, whose work includes the magnificent and extremely detailed Central and South Asian miniature (or manuscript) painting of the 16th European Empire?
In the paintings, drawings, sculptures and animations seen in “Shahzia Sikander: Extraordinary Realities” at the Morgan Library & Museum, East and West, along with other seemingly contradicting terms – masculine and feminine, abstraction and figuration, traditional and contemporary, here and there – morph and bleed into one another. One becomes aware of the way 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 selection of works from her student days at the National College of Arts in Lahore, where she studied with Bashir Ahmad, a professor who revived the miniature tradition of court painters. In contrast to what ambitious young artists did at the time, she plunged into artistic language. Works like “The Scroll”, her thesis project and portraits of her sari-clad friend “Mirrat I” and “Mirrat II” (all 1989-90) made her the founder of the “neo-miniature”. Movement in Pakistan before it ever arrived in the United States.
Paper with tea stains; Vegetable colors and watercolors applied with incredibly fine, hand-made brushes; decorative borders; architectural settings; and the return of characters to indicate a story that unfolds over time – all of this traces back to miniature traditions. Even then there was an urge for feminism and abstraction that would characterize her later work. The art of the manuscript has long been a matter for the people as makers and subjects; Sikander’s protagonists here are women who haunt rather than occupy the houses through which they move. Her architectural renderings drive the unmistakable perspective composition of Mughal painting in an almost cubist direction.
After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1995, Sikander began isolating and even exaggerating features she found in traditional manuscript painting so that they acted as abstract elements – decorative floral motifs cross the edges of the page and become too Scrims or overlays, small dots or globes, screen surfaces, animals and grotesques float freely on the page.
Her work becomes almost like a collage – an effective way of conveying the strangeness of the immigrants’ experience, in which everything in the world is within one’s grasp and infinitely alien at the same time.
In the exhibition we see how she begins to translate this superimposition of images and styles into three-dimensional space through the use of layered tracing paper. Ink and color fluctuate between stubborn opacity and delicate transparency. She works in increasingly larger formats, including wall-sized installations. In one of the more recent works in the exhibition, “Epistrophe” (2021), she takes up many of her familiar abstract and figurative motifs and transfers them in gouache and ink onto strips of tracing paper in large, gestural strokes.
In 1993 an avatar emerges: a headless woman (sometimes an androgynous) whose arms and feet sprout tangled roots that dangle uselessly in the void instead of reaching into the ground, a poetic evocation of the diasporic experience. It is repeated in slightly different forms in the following years, including in the panel “A Slight and Pleasing Dislocation” from 2001, in which her many hands hold war weapons as well as the tools of justice. Durga, the many-armed Hindu goddess who embodies both male and female principles, appears frequently. Gopis – the lovable cowherd who exist in Hindu mythology in the role of flirters and lovers of the god Krishna – free themselves from their narrative inconsistency and become powerful and even aggressive instead of just decorative. In “Gopi Crisis” (2001), their distinctive, high-knotted hairstyles detach themselves from their heads and swarm on the surface like wild birds.
When she lived in Houston from 1995 to 1997, she worked with artist Rick Lowe on Project Row Houses in the city’s largely Black Third Ward. The result of this intensive introduction to American racial politics were works such as “Eye-I-ing These Armorial Bearings” (1989-97), in which the arms of the righteous Durga are made from a sensitive and finely rendered depiction of Lowe’s upside down Sprout head. This image appears alongside stereotypical black figures from European medieval manuscripts, a move intended to highlight the anti-blackness that is anchored in our most revered art-historical traditions.
As her career exploded, particularly after moving to New York City in 1997 when she became a major figure for curators interested in multiculturalism and “global” contemporary art, Sikander was haunted by the assumption that as an artist and Muslim woman, she was “liberated” by moving to the West. After September 11, 2001, due in part to the ubiquitous Islamophobia that accompanied American military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, their work became more explicitly political: less beautiful in some ways, but in their opposition to the hardening nationalism that was prevalent around the world World emerged, solidifying.
“No Fly Zone” (2002) is based on a work by the Safavid dynasty entitled “The Ascension of King Solomon to Heaven”. In Sikander’s version, the wise king – an important figure in Judaism, Christianity and Islam – disappears from his seat of power, which rises unoccupied on heavenly clouds. The throne is now surrounded not by a crowd of servants, but by angels with striped wings, striped in red, white and blue, misshapen, monstrous beings and fighter jets. An image of excitement and joy turns into an image of chaos and threat dominated by American aggression.
At the same time, she continued her mission to duplicate and complicate depictions of South Asian and Muslim femininity. In “Ready to Leave” (1997) she superimposed the image of the Greek mythological eagle-lion, the griffin, with a chalawa, a Punjabi word for poltergeist, which in folklore has small farm animals. In a recent email, she stated that she identified with the creature – “someone who is so quick and impregnable that no one can grab or pin her” – as part of her determination to withstand the categories that are constantly imposed on her : “Are you Muslim, Pakistani, artist, painter, Asian, Asian / American or what?” The answer is clearly yes – all of this and an endless number of other things.
Shahzia Sikander: Extraordinary realities
Through September 26th, Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, Manhattan; (212) 685-0008; theorgan.org.