The exquisite and entangled worlds of Shahzia Sikander

In a recent New York Times essay Pakistani-born artist Shahzia Sikander remembers the first question she was asked when she arrived at h...

In a recent New York Times essayPakistani-born artist Shahzia Sikander remembers the first question she was asked when she arrived at her MFA program in the United States: “Are you here to bring East to West?” ?

The question annoyed. What might these terms mean for Sikander, whose work borrows and disrupts lavish and extremely detailed miniature (or manuscript) painting of Central and South Asia from the 16th to 19th centuries – an art form woven from the blend of Safavid, Mughal and European empires?

In the paintings, drawings, sculptures and animations exhibited in “Shahzia Sikander: extraordinary realities” at the Morgan Library & Museum, East and West, as well as other seemingly opposing terms – masculine and feminine, abstraction and figuration, traditional and contemporary, here and there – transform and merge into each other. We come out hyper-aware of how 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 years at the National College of Arts in Lahore, where she studied with Bashir Ahmad, a professor who revived the tradition of miniature painting practiced by court painters. Contrary to what young ambitious artists were doing at the time, she threw herself into the artistic idiom. Works like “The Scroll”, her undergraduate thesis project and portraits of her friend in sari, “Mirrat I” and ”Mirrat II(All from 1989 to 1990), established her as the founder of the “neo-miniature” movement in Pakistan even before her arrival in the United States.

tea stained paper; vegetable stains and watercolor applied with incredibly fine hand-made brushes; decorative borders; architectural frames; and the recurrence of figures to indicate a story that unfolds over time – all of this harkens back to miniature traditions. Even then, there is an impetus towards feminism and abstraction that would characterize her later work. The art of the manuscript had long been the preserve of men, as creators and subjects; Sikander’s protagonists here are women who seem to haunt, rather than just occupy, the homes they move into. His architectural renderings 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 isolate and even exaggerate the features she found in traditional handwritten painting, so that they functioned as abstract elements – floral designs. decorations go beyond the borders of the page and become canvas or overlays, small dots or screen globes, animals and grotesques float freely on the page.

Her work becomes almost collage-like – an effective way of communicating the strangeness of the immigrant experience, in which everything in the world is there to be caught and endlessly alien at the same time.

In the show, we see her begin to translate this overlapping images and styles into three-dimensional space through the use of layered tracing paper. Ink and paint oscillate between tenacious opacity and delicate transparency. She works in increasingly larger formats, including wall installations. In one of the most recent works in the exhibition, “Epistrophe”(2021), she revisits many of her familiar abstract and figurative motifs, rendering them in gouache and ink on strips of tracing paper in broad gestural strokes.

In 1993, an avatar emerges: a headless (sometimes androgynous) woman whose arms and feet grow tangled roots that hang unnecessarily in the void instead of reaching the ground, a poetic evocation of the diasporic experience. He returned in slightly varying forms over the following years, most notably in the 2001 panel “A Slight and Pleasing Dislocation,” where his many hands held both weapons of war and tools of justice. Durga, the Hindu goddess with many arms who embodies both male and female principles, makes numerous appearances. Gopis – the adorable cowherds who exist in Hindu mythology as flirtatious and lovers of the god Krishna – break free from their narrative inconsistency, becoming powerful and even aggressive rather than just decorative. In “Gopi Crisis” (2001), their distinctive top-knot hairstyles stand out from their heads and swarm like wild birds on the surface.

When she lived in Houston from 1995 to 1997, she worked with artist Rick Lowe on Project Row Houses in the city’s predominantly black neighborhood. The consequence of this intense introduction to American racial politics has been works like “Eye-I-ing These Armorial Bearings” (1989-97), in which the arms of the righteous Durga spring from a sensitive and finely rendered representation of the Lowe’s upside down. This image appears alongside stereotypical black figures from medieval European manuscripts, a movement meant to highlight the anti-Blackness rooted in our most revered historical art traditions.

As her career exploded, especially after moving to New York City in 1997, when she became a key figure for curators interested in multiculturalism and “global” contemporary art, Sikander was convinced that as an artist and a Muslim woman, she was “liberated” by her move to the West. After 9/11, in part because of the pervasive Islamophobia that accompanied US military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, his works became more explicitly political: less beautiful in some ways, but strong in their resistance to hardening nationalisms that were emerging in the world. .

“No Fly Zone” (2002) is based on a work from 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 above the heavenly clouds. The throne is now surrounded not by crowds of servants but by angels with starry striped wings of red, white and blue, monstrous and monstrous beings and fighter planes. An image of exhilaration and joy turns into an image of chaos and threat, presided over by American aggression.

At the same time, it pursues its mission of increasing and complicating representations of South Asian and Muslim femininity. In “Ready to Leave” (1997), she superimposed the image of the mythological Greek lion-eagle, the griffin, with a chalawa, a Punjabi word for poltergeist who possesses small farm animals in folklore. In a recent email, she explained that she identified with the creature – “someone who is so quick and elusive that no one can grab or pin her” – as part of her determination to resist. to the categories constantly imposed on her: “Are you a Muslim, Pakistani, artist, painter, Asian, Asian American or what?” The answer, clearly, is yes – all of these, and an endless number of other things besides.

Shahzia Sikander: Extraordinary Realities

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

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