Shahzia Sikander’s “outburst of energy, imagination, and creativity” is on show at MAXXI in Rome until 15 January 2017.
The Pakistani artist’s diverse oeuvre is being displayed for the first time in an Italian museum, with an exhibition that illustrates her rich multicultural influences and her pioneering re-interpretation of the Indo-Persian miniature tradition.
The rich imagination, symbols, literature and history of diverse cultural traditions permeate Pakistani artist Shahzia Sikander’s oeuvre. These fundamental elements are at the core of her works on show for the first time in an Italian museum, in a solo exhibition entitled “Shahzia Sikander: Ecstasy as Sublime, Heart as Vector” running from 22 June 2016 until 15 January 2017 at MAXXI in Rome.
The exhibition is co-curated by MAXXI Artistic Director Hou Hanru and MAXXI Curator Anne Palopoli. Hou Hanru describes Sikander’s work as
[…] an outburst of energy, imagination, and creativity. Her art is an expression of the exiled – voluntarily and propelled by curiosity about what happened in the past at home, and, more importantly, what will happen next, anywhere in the world.
At MAXXI, her oeuvre is represented by a display of over 30 works spanning her artistic career from the early 2000s to the present day, ranging from miniatures and drawings to video and digital animation referencing the Indo-Persian miniature tradition in which she has specialised since attending the National College of Arts (NCA) Lahore.
Sikander’s diverse practice investigates the blurred boundaries between binaries like fiction and nonfiction, storytelling and history-writing, as MAXXI writes in the press release, questioning notions of “redaction, perception of authority and independence”.
Her oeuvre stems from critical investigations into historical, literary and political positions relating to the complexity of universal themes ranging from the pre-colonial to the post-colonial, geopolitical changes, migration, cultural quarantine and the birth of nations and religion. Ultimately she reaches into an exploration of human identity, what she calls its “mercurial nature” and its complex plurality, which she herself experienced as she negotiated a sense of belonging in the United States, where she moved in the early 1990s, as Pakistani, Muslim, woman, South Asian and Asian American.
Her work is far-reaching, relevant to anyone, everywhere in the world, as she strives to, in her own words, “make work that can exist in multiple contexts and iterations within geographical, historical, socio-political, cultural, gendered, and psychological transformations”.
Re-working tradition: conceptualising a neo-miniaturist art practice
New York-based Shahzia Sikander (b. 1969, Lahore, Pakistan) grew up in 1980s Pakistan, a reality that was heavily influenced by the neighbouring Soviet-Afghan war, which was creating new social, political and cultural ruptures in the country. At the same time, religion was quickly becoming institutionalised and women’s rights were greatly limited. She trained in and taught Indo-Persian miniature at NCA Lahore in the midst of such a restrictive environment, where art education was also seen as immoral.
Nonetheless, she paved the way for a new infusion of life in the miniature art tradition. Her thesis work The Scroll (1989-1990) launched the trend of large-scale thesis paintings in the miniature painting department at NCA, and was the catalyst for an exponential increase in the influx of applications to study miniature at the school. The department at NCA also spawned other influential neo-miniaturists like Imran Qureshi and Aisha Khalid, among others.
In an interview with curator Alvaro Rodríguez Fominaya published in the accompanying exhibition catalogue, Sikander reveals how she first approached art within this socio-political landscape and decided to make it her career as well as how she became interested in miniature art:
[…] growing up in Pakistan in the 1980s was a deeply conflicting experience. […] It was precisely the mindless malaise injected and perpetuated by Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorial regime that pushed me as a young woman into the direction of art. For me art is not just an impulse to make aesthetically pleasing objects. It has been an instinct to think and imagine the future. […] There was a prevalent emphasis on modernism and various iterations of abstract expressionism were around. I was not interested in a derivative relationship to the West via painting.
She met miniaturist and professor of miniature art Bashir Ahmed (b. 1954) at NCA Lahore, who as Sikander recounts, “challenged” her understanding of the difference between low and high art. She says in the interview that “His was a dedication and commitment that was rooted in tradition”, and Sikander was herself searching for a “sense of connection to history” in the midst of the turmoil in 1980s Pakistan. She decided then to pursue the miniature tradition, and while others saw it as “an enslavement to craft and technique”, she considered it as “a means to opening dialogue” and explore the “many possibilities of miniature painting” whose future as a contemporary mode of expression had not yet been imagined in the late 1980s.
The re-interpretation of traditional forms of art is a widespread phenomenon in the history of art. As Hou Hanru reminds us in his catalogue essay, the artistic traditions of Asia-Pacific, Africa and indigenous populations worldwide have greatly inspired and influenced generations of artists in the West for the last 150 years at least. Non-Western artists have also contributed to the shaping of avant-garde practices by critically including artistic sources of their own cultural traditions “to deconstruct and reconstruct the avant-garde experiments and turn them into truly global creations beyond the logic of Eurocentrism”, contributing to the creation of “truly global “modernities” […], a new reference for today’s artistic practices”.
According to the curator, it is in this landscape of global artistic innovation that Shahzia Sikander and her practice are situated, with a significant contribution to the shaping of new forms of global artistic languages. She has not only pioneered the revival of miniature painting art in Pakistan alone, but also has introduced a “highly personal language rooted in her cultural origins to enrich the global scene”. Sikander says that
As an artist I feel the burden to re-examine and reimagine the norms and to challenge my own knowledge. Besides, contemporaneity is about remaining relevant by challenging the status quo, not by clinging to past successes.
She did not treat miniature art as a model to merely copy in its original form, but rather her engagement with miniature painting was a “conceptual” one from the beginning, as she shifted in the early 1990s from miniature to murals, to installations in the mid-1990s and to animations from 2001:
My entire relationship to miniature painting had been on thought and idea. I was not afraid of skill or labor, but I also wanted to emphasize that my work was not one-dimensional. My interest in miniature painting from the very beginning had emerged to expand the medium from within, embracing its craft, technique, rigor, detail and small scale, as well as its historical contexts. I had chosen to work with traditional materials, language and methodology aimed at subverting the understanding of the “malaise” miniature (the un-hip, underdog of the late 1980s) with a polemic narrative outside of its accepted thematic discourse and to dislodge it from its dominant history.
Sketching animation, tracing multitude
A clear testimony to this dynamic approach is the work opening the show, entitled Parallax, the artist’s three-channel video animation created for the Sharjah Biennial in 2013, and adapted here to the curvature and inclination of MAXXI’s Gallery 5, where the exhibition is located. The work was inspired by Sikander’s trip to the Emirates and includes a score by Du Yun and the collaboration with poets from Sharjah. All of Sikander’s animations find an important element in the soundtrack, which at times is a juxtaposition of recitation and music, incorporating oral traditions. As throughout all of her work and various aspects of it, Sikander aims to disrupt binary oppositions, such as prose and poetry.
The work is an example of the artist’s distinctive technique of animating freehand sketches, which makes the process of creating an animation a dynamic rather than linear procedure. In the catalogue interview, Sikander reveals about Parallax:
Parallax deals with paradoxes and polarities, power and history. Aquatic pathways, aerial routes, the operations embedded in migration, both literal and symbolic, geographical borders that separate bodies of land, water, human bodies, commodities, and natural and man-made resources, such as oil, opium, and tea, all function as concepts that contribute to the sense of belonging or exclusion from a geographically determined space.
Parallax engages with the history of maritime trade in the Strait of Hormuz, and particularly the history of imperial control. In the video, there are landscapes of deserts, abstract caverns, water courses, maps and particle systems that originate from the hair of gopis, a recurrent element in Sikander’s work.
Gopis are the female followers of Krishna, the Hindu deity, a traditionally devotional subject of the Hindu court paintings. They first appeared in SpiNN (2003), a pun on the cable channel CNN, about which Sikander writes in a statement:
It depicts a mass of spiraling, abstracted forms, hovering like a swarm of angry black crows or bats that coalesce into the image of a Mughal durbar hall (the space where the Indian emperor would meet his ministers or subjects). The hall is incongruously populated by gopi women (devotees of Krishna), whose black hairdos comprise the central motif. This “hair bird” is a symbolic representation of feminist agency rather than a direct statement of political resistance.
The metamorphosis of symbols
More recently, gopis have appeared in Gopi-Contagion, which was screened in October 2015 on the monumental digital billboards in New York’s Times Square. Here, the gopi hair particles move like flocks of birds or reproduce the behaviour of cellular organisms, and there is no reference to the original female form of the gopi. The gopis are part of Sikander’s personal vocabulary, in which she includes forms, often taken from the miniature tradition, as stock figures that mutate and no longer hold on to their original meaning, undergoing a semantic as well as visual metamorphosis.
In the animation Nemesis (2003), an elephant is born from the slow accretion of a cornucopia of smaller animals. The creature fights with a devil character and is eventually destroyed. ‘Nemesis’ is the name of the Greek goddess of divine retribution. Like in the Greek pantheon, Hindu deities also had the power to castigate their subjects. This dark side is often present in Sikander’s work, through a visual symbolism that, by blurring the divide between reality and fiction, comments on some of the most critical issues of the contemporary world, whether political, cultural, religious or economic conflicts in and out of Pakistan, especially those related to the colonial-to-post-colonial transitions and the current tension between different geopolitical agendas of global powers.
Alongside this work, there is Pursuit Curve (2004), an animation (Vimeo video) in which visual symbols like the turban eschew traditional interpretation and are in constant flux. Here, the turban, often associated to notions of race, religion, ethnicity, culture or gender, converts itself into butterflies or insects.
Political shifts and religious journeys
On show is also The Last Post (2010), which was recently presented at Asia Society in Hong Kong. The animation (YouTube video) was inspired by the colonial history of the Asian subcontinent and the opium trade, and as Sikander writes in a statement,
An employee of the British East India Company serves as both metaphor for the collapse of Anglo-Saxon hegemony over China and a lurking threat in the imperial rooms of the Mughal Empire. The piece also makes reference to Company Painting, a European-influenced eighteenth-century Indian style of painting that catered to European tastes by documenting the country’s exotic plants, animals and architecture.
The plethora of contemporary issues and the global spread explored by the artist is again exemplified by Golden Oasis (2015), in which Sikander reflects on yet another relevant event in recent global history, the Ebola epidemic.
The exhibition also includes some of her drawings and prints, such as No Parking Anytime (2001) and Portrait of the Artist (2016), which comprises four drawings by the artist and a text written by the Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar. The 2016 series was inspired by the historic Miraj miniatures, which represented the mystical and visionary night journey (Miraj) of the prophet Mohammed.
In the catalogue interview, Sikander says of the Miraj:
The motif of Miraj, the visionary night journey of the Prophet Muhammad as one of Islam’s most mystical themes, functions in the collaboration as the lens through which to look at tradition and imagination. The topic features prominently in Central Asian and Indo-Persian miniature painting. Akhtar himself has written about the Prophet and his legacy as a literary figure, subject and artistic precursor, and the rich and complicated heritage he represents for the community.
[…] As a motif, Miraj also engages the idea of inventiveness, in how a historical “stock” form can communicate in multiple contexts, forms and formats. My practice operates between different formats and systems of representation. Often by considering different epistemologies and perceptual schemes motifs can emerge from being inactive to active.
Transforming language, writing as sketching
Closing the exhibition is The Six Singing Spheres, which comprises a new series of drawings in ink and gold leaf created for the exhibition and a site-specific installation realised with multiple translucent drawings overlapped into a sculptural composite. This work also references, in a static form, the ‘six singing spheres’ that end the visual narrative in Parallax, where they represent six spherical algorithmic movements that pulsate, gathering momentum, increasing and decreasing in speed in response to the rhythm of the human voices in the soundtrack.
Returning to the analogue medium, and shaping through ink and paper, the work gives tangible, material experience of Shahzia Sikander’s practice through her use of language, and underlines the importance of drawing and ‘writing as sketching’ in her work, as she reveals in the interview:
My own process of writing allows me to reflect, it is a magical thinking of sorts. It is that space of interiority and of unknown measure that piques my curiosity. Out of the amalgamation of visual memory, chaos of experience and influence of the literary comes amorphous creativity through the act of drawing. Layering strategy to juxtapose overlaps of culture, art, history, and social commentary continues in my process. The intent is to transform motifs in order to cultivate new associations for trenchant historical symbols, and this way I can service more than one vantage point. […]
I am an avid reader and appreciate writing. The clarity that words provide is enticing. In visual dimension I am not interested in illustration. I love mystery and strive to create visual work that is rich and complex and not easily deciphered, yet precise and deeply meaningful. What also captures my imagination about writing is its inherent ability to redact. Redaction is a critical issue, especially in terms of how history is constantly being rewritten in both cultural and political spheres. The blurred boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, storytelling and history-writing are all essential in the human pursuit for its truth.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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