Beyond the narrative in miniature: Pakistani artist Shahzia Sikander’s “Apparatus of Power” at Asia Society Hong Kong Center

Pioneering contemporary miniaturist exposes narratives of independence and authority at first major solo show in Hong Kong. 

Pakistani-American Shahzia Sikander employs critical thinking, creativity and collaboration to flesh out identity and postcolonial tensions at two historically rich locations. 

Shahzia Sikander, "The Last Post", 2010, single-channel HD digital animation with 5.1 surround sound (music by Du Yun), 10 minutes, edition 5 of 8, 2 AP. Image courtesy Linda Pace Foundation and the artist.

Shahzia Sikander, ‘The Last Post’, 2010, single-channel HD digital animation with 5.1 surround sound (music by Du Yun), 10 minutes, edition 5 of 8, 2 AP. Image courtesy Linda Pace Foundation and the artist.

Shahzia Sikander’s solo show “Apparatus of Power” opened on 16 of March 2016 at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center, with an additional exhibition focusing on the entrepôt’s maritime trade connections at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum. Curated by Claire Brandon and co-curated by the Asia Society Hong Kong Center’s Ashley Nga-sai Wu, the exhibitions run until 9 July 2016 and 5 June 2016, respectively.

According to Brandon in an article with Bilal Qureshi for Newsweek Middle East magazine, the exhibitions beg to be seen in what were once British-era ammunitions barracks and a branch of the Star Ferry at Central Pier 8, providing a layer of narrative regarding the “legacy of Western expansion in the East”:

The confluences between the exhibition and the city go beyond the ‘Asia Society’ site and extend to Hong Kong’s position in the maritime trade. For this reason we installed the show across two venues: The Asia Society and the Hong Kong Maritime Museum. The Maritime Museum is a former ferry terminal. The building literally extends onto Victoria Harbor.

Shahzia Sikander, 'I am the Exact Imitation of the Original', 2009, graphite and gouache on paper, 58.4 x 50.8 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Shahzia Sikander, ‘I am the Exact Imitation of the Original’, 2009, graphite and gouache on paper, 58.4 x 50.8 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Shahzia Sikander was born in 1969 in Lahore, Pakistan. She completed her BFA in Miniature Painting from the prestigious National College of the Arts Lahore (NCA Lahore) in 1991, where her thesis painting ‘the scroll’ 1989 -90 changed the course of miniature painting. Working with techniques that had been considered by some to be obsolete and out of touch, Sikander found a connection between the traditions of the past, the challenging present and, as the artist told Art Radar, her future:

My interest in miniature painting in the mid eighties in Pakistan happened at a time when miniature painting was more of an anomaly amid the highly Westernized teaching methods. It represented the “other.” Regarded as non significant and dismissed for its inability to be avant-garde it represented the unpopular. Its history was trapped in its silenced narrative.

It was precisely its status as the underdog that inspired me to launch an imaginative inquiry in deconstructing it from within its canon of historical representation. At that time, as a young artist I was intuitively seeking a catalyst for opening new territories and dialogue in an effort to transport myself from the mindless malaise injected and perpetuated by the dictatorial regime of Muhammad Zia-ul-haque. This impulse to go against the grain remains at the core of how I think and work. For me, art has been a catalyst for self-awareness as well as an instinct to imagine the future.

Shahzia Sikhander, 'Epistrophe' (Triptych), 2013-2015, gouache, ink and gold leaf on paper, 162.6 x 157.5 cm (each panel). Image courtesy of the artist.

Shahzia Sikhander, ‘Epistrophe’ (Triptych), 2013-2015, gouache, ink and gold leaf on paper, 162.6 x 157.5 cm (each panel). Image courtesy the artist.

Indo-Persian miniatures had been an important part of the Indian subcontinent’s culture during the Mughal Empire (1526-1862). Miniature paintings, were just that – diminutive works, depicting historical and sacred subjects with an extremely high degree of detail and vibrant colour, utilising handmade paper and fine, squirrel-hair brushes. With the fall of the dynasty and the rise of colonial rule, the technique fell into decline and out of favour. As the artist relayed in the Opinion Pages of the International New York Times, she was intrigued by the once proud tradition that had been relegated to kitsch status, finding it “ripe with potential”:

The practice shifted so dramatically after the fall of the Mughal Empire and the rise of colonial rule in South Asia during the 19th century that when I began engaging with the miniature in my work in the late 1980s and early ’90s at the National College of Arts in Lahore, it was regarded as tourist kitsch and derided as a craft technique. For years, the form had been ignored by many Pakistani artists. I found it ripe with potential — to change its status and its narrative and to deconstruct its stereotypes. What others saw as enslavement to tradition, I recognized as a path to expanding the medium from within, embracing the complexities of craft and rigor in order to open up possibilities for dialogue.

Shahzia Sikander, "Still from Parallax (5)", 2013, 3-channel HD digital animation with 5.1 surround sound (music by Du Yun) 15:30 minutes, edition 2 of 3, 2AP. Image courtesy of AAN Collection and the artist.

Shahzia Sikander, ‘Still from Parallax (5)’, 2013, 3-channel HD digital animation with 5.1 surround sound (music by Du Yun) 15:30 mins, edition 2 of 3, 2AP. Image courtesy AAN Collection and the artist.

Shahzia Sikander, "Still from Parallax (6)", 2013, 3-channel HD digital animation with 5.1 surround sound (music by Du Yun) 15:30 minutes, edition 2 of 3, 2AP. Image courtesy of AAN Collection and the artist.

Shahzia Sikander, ‘Still from Parallax (6)’, 2013, 3-channel HD digital animation with 5.1 surround sound (music by Du Yun) 15:30 mins, edition 2 of 3, 2AP. Image courtesy AAN Collection and the artist.

Because of her work at NCA Lahore, Sikander is credited with being one of the first artists to breathe fresh air into Indo-Persian miniature paintings and achieve international recognition. After graduation, Sikander headed to the United States in 1993, where she earned her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1995. After a short stint in Houston, Texas, she settled in New York.

The artist’s work is populated with contemporary themes of a complex, ever-connected modern-day existence. As a Muslim woman living in the West, her work often takes a look at sexuality and politics and “communicates the hybridity of her experiences”. The ebola virus (The World is Yours, the World is Mine), the opium trade and subsequent enslavement of the Chinese nation to the British (The Last Post) and the “colonial legacy of trade” (Parallax) are all narratives that have all been examined under Sikander’s gaze. In an interview with Art Radar, Sikander said that three tenets guide her multimedia pieces:

Critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration are the three tenets on which I have built my entire understanding of being an artist, a narrative that continues to investigate discourse styles, verbal and poetic language, migration patterns, cultural quarantine, interaction, and, ultimately, human identity.

Shahzia Sikhander, 'Empire Follows Art: Endless Inventiveness', 2009, gouache, ink and colored graphite on paper, 96.5 x 78.7 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Shahzia Sikhander, ‘Empire Follows Art: Endless Inventiveness’, 2009, gouache, ink and colored graphite on paper, 96.5 x 78.7 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Due to Sikander’s interest in “colonial legacies”, a solo show in Hong Kong presents a particularly relevant backdrop. Like Pakistan, Hong Kong was once part of the British Empire, with the entrepôt returning to the Chinese government in 1997. As the artist told Art Radar, her research in the East India Company led to some interesting findings about today’s global economy:

Hong Kong encapsulates an erupting, evolving and challenging notion of identity and autonomy via the complex push and pull between its English history and relationship with Mainland China and its international status.

Colonial legacies and the effects of partition have been a subject matter for my work for years and the impact of the East India Company specifically has dominated recent studies of mine. The focus on economics is of relevance to the visual content of my work.  Over the past four years, I have been exploring the histories that have informed our modern economy.   The East India Company’s trade strategies from the seventeenth century continue to inform today’s commercial activities and some of the biggest corporate monopolies operate under some of the same entrenched mechanisms. The animation, “The Last Post”, specifically addresses China, the opium trade and the exploitative means by which demand for the commodity was established.

Shahzia Sikander, 'A Slight and Pleasing Dislocation', 1993, gouache and gesso on board, 78.7 x 48.3 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Shahzia Sikander, ‘A Slight and Pleasing Dislocation’, 1993, gouache and gesso on board, 78.7 x 48.3 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Much like Sikander’s fusion of traditional technique with contemporary media and imagery, the artist continues to seek the connection between past and present. At the epicentre of her work is how history impacts others – across cultures and throughout time. This fascination with history, as Sikander relayed to Art Radar, is not just about events but runs much deeper:

History occupies a central theme in my imagination. I am interested in the relationship between language and translation and how history is written.  Who gets to write history?

What is a colonial narrative? In addition to exploring the factors involved in historical redaction, what also interests me is the linguistic aspects of historical writing, i.e., language and translation.  How is translation related to the idea of the original?  Is original just a concept?  What is the distance between the original and its translation and at what point does the translation become an original?

Shahzia Sikhander, 'Many ways of seeing a side', 2011, gouache and ink on hand-prepared paper, 228 x 152.2 cm. Collection of Inner and Tucker Highfield. Image courtesy the artist.

Shahzia Sikhander, ‘Many Ways of Seeing a Side’, 2011, gouache and ink on hand-prepared paper, 228 x 152.2 cm. Collection of Inner and Tucker Highfield. Image courtesy the artist.

Behind this desire to see above and beyond the narrative, lies the desire to “filter for truth”. As an artist, Sikander told Art Radar that she continues to forge ahead, seeking an identity across countries, beyond genders and despite the past:

Imagination and intuition inform my process and words validate my experience.  Art at times a solitary practice is sustained by the desire to connect and communicate, the pendulum between conformity and freedom, craft and culture, fragility of emotion and tenacity of control.  Art engages the heart and heart functions as a filter for truth.

My art is built with a lexicon of information, which grows and expands, is reused, edited, discarded and new ideas added.  To move forward is to re think and to be able to detach to explore something new.  Identity is not a given but a fluid process that unfolds over time.

Lisa Pollman

1101

Related Topics: historical art, Hong Kong, miniatures, news, Pakistani artists, women power

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