The Shahzia Sikander: Extraordinary Realities exhibition currently on view at the RISD Museum explores the first 15 years of Sikander’s career, tracking her development from a young painter in Pakistan to an established artist in New York. During these years, Sikander delved into the marginal spaces between countries, languages, and mediums to explore what might be mined to build an artistic identity, albeit an ever-shifting and evolving one.
Sikander began her studies at the National College of Arts in Lahore during the reign of conservative President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. There she received a formal education in traditional miniature painting: small works on paper in jewel-like mineral-based hues, made by male court painters in the region since the 13th century.
To a viewer educated in the Western art tradition, these paintings can initially be difficult to decipher. Space and perspective are handled in unexpected ways, and multiple narrative events may occur simultaneously within a single panel. As in European miniature painting, a central narrative image is often surrounded by a decorative border featuring flowers and other botanical subjects, script, or geometric motifs; many pages are enlivened with gold leaf. These paintings were initially bound in albums for wealthy collectors, but under European colonial rule many albums were cut up and sold by the page, leaving few of these masterpieces in Central and South Asia. The deliberate destruction of these traditional art practices is keenly felt by Sikander and others working against the legacy of colonialism.
Sikander’s National College of Arts thesis work The Scroll (1989-90) revitalized the long abandoned medium, leading to the birth of the neo-miniature movement in Pakistan and abroad. Following graduation, she moved to Rhode Island and earned her MFA at RISD in Painting and Printmaking in 1995. Her multimedia work uses classical Indo-Persian motifs to grapple with the complex legacy of British colonialism and present-day American imperialism in Pakistan and the surrounding regions, as well as her own experience with racism and Islamophobia in the United States.
In Sikander’s painting, traditional subjects such as gopis (beautiful cowherd servants of the Hindu god Krishna), griffins, peacocks, and angels are upended and abstracted, sometimes dissolving entirely. Central images regularly trespass into and beyond decorative borders. Architectural elements project vertiginously towards the viewer, while bodies are deconstructed and reassembled in unsettling configurations. Female figures in Sikander’s paintings have power and agency, interior worlds, complex identities. By deconstructing and reimagining the conventions of miniature painting, Sikander has begun the monumental work of decolonizing the medium, and South and Central Asian cultural heritage at large.
A prominent through line of Sikander’s work is a rejection of the fixed definitions, dichotomies, and categories that define canonical art history. Citing the “mercurial nature of identity,” she explores the ways in which personal, cultural, and national identity are both self determined and externally defined – and how they might be built anew by those they concern the most. Extraordinary Realities is on view at the RISD Museum until January 30, 2022.
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