By Julia Barber
The Shahzia Sikander: Extraordinary Realities The exhibition currently on display at the RISD Museum explores the first 15 years of Sikander’s career, following her development from a young painter in Pakistan to an artist based in New York. During these years, Sikander delved into the marginal spaces between countries, languages ââand mediums to explore what could be harnessed to build an artistic identity, albeit constantly evolving and evolving.
Sikander began his 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 mineral hues resembling jewelry, made by male court painters in the region since the 13th century.
For a viewer trained in the tradition of Western art, these paintings may initially be difficult to decipher. Space and perspective are handled in unexpected ways, and multiple narrative events can occur simultaneously in a single panel. As in European miniature painting, a central narrative image is often surrounded by a decorative border depicting flowers and other botanical subjects, writing or geometric patterns; many pages are decorated 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 per page, leaving few of these masterpieces in Central and South Asia. The deliberate destruction of these traditional artistic practices is keenly felt by Sikander and others working against the legacy of colonialism.
Sikander National College of Arts thesis work Parchment (1989-90) revitalized the long-abandoned medium, leading to the birth of the neo-miniature movement in Pakistan and abroad. After graduation, she moved to Rhode Island and received her MFA at RISD in Painting and Printmaking in 1995. Her multimedia work uses classic Indo-Persian motifs to combat the complex legacy of British colonialism and current US imperialism in and around Pakistan. regions, as well as his own experience of racism and Islamophobia in the United States.
In Sikander’s painting, traditional subjects such as gopis (handsome cowherd servants of the Hindu god Krishna), griffins, peacocks, and angels are overturned and abstract, sometimes dissolving entirely. The central images regularly encroach on and beyond decorative borders. The architectural elements project vertiginously towards the viewer, while the bodies are deconstructed and reassembled in disturbing configurations. The female figures in Sikander’s paintings have power and agency, inner worlds, complex identities. By deconstructing and reimagining the conventions of miniature painting, Sikander began the monumental work of decolonizing the medium and the cultural heritage of South Asia and Central Asia in general.
A salient feature of Sikander’s work is the rejection of the fixed definitions, dichotomies and categories that define the history of canonical art. Citing the “mercurial nature of identity,” she explores the ways in which personal, cultural, and national identity is both self-determined and externally defined – and how they might be reconstructed by those who concern them most. Extraordinary Realities is on view at the RISD Museum until January 30, 2022.