Shahzia Sikander: the painted miniatures of a migration from Lahore to New York

from an exhibition – Extraordinary Realities – of the work of

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan, 1969

at the Morgan Library, NY in 2021

 

Shahzia Sikander: Extraordinary Realities | The Morgan Library & Museum Online Exhibitions

 

 

 

The exhibition is about the first 15 years of the artist’s work from The Scroll of 1989-1990, her undergraduate thesis, up to 2003.

 

All but one of the images here are in miniature format, each painted over years.

 

 

 


The Scroll, 1988-90, watercolour and gouache on tea-stained wallpaper. 

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan, 1969. Collection of the artist.

 

 

This was the artist’s college thesis.  She depicts her domestic life and that of her family.  She is the woman in white, always present but not completely visible.

The artist said of this scroll is:  ‘I was making a statement on the restlessness of youth and the quest for identity. The claiming of the freedom for the female body in the domestic setting.”

 

 

 

 

Enrolling in the National College of Arts in Lahore in 1987 Shahzia Sikander followed her intuition against the advice of her peers and of the art establishment: she took up the Indo-Persian miniature form (manuscript painting). 

 

 

 

 

 

Mirrat I and Mirrat II, 1989-1990, watercolour and gold leaf on tea-stained wasli paper

 

The artist depicts a friend, Mirrat, above in an abandoned haveli; and below at the Lahore Fort.  She is using the format of manuscript illustrations and its decorative framing.

 

 

 

Her teacher, Bashir Ahmed (born 1954, Lahore, Pakistan) himself learned the art and craft by direct transmission and

 

taught her the art and artisanship of Mughal manuscript painting and also miniature painting, not Mughal, from other parts of India.

He taught her how wasli paper is made:  dampened cotton-fiber sheets are layered together with wheat-starch paste and a preservative. After the paper is pressed and dried, both sides are burnished with a sea shell, creating a smooth, luminous surface.  Sometimes the paper is stained with tea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Miniature in Mughal Style:  Imaginary Man, 1991-1992, ink and gold leaf on tea-stained wasli paper. 

Private collection on loan to the Morgan Library, 2021

 

 The museum notes this:

For this work, the paper was also stained with several applications of tea. Using a brush fitted with only a few hairs, the artist carefully outlined the image. She then applied layers of transparent wash and gold leaf. Like several other works in the exhibition, this painting was completed over a number of years.

 

 

 

Her thesis was very well received and she was invited to teach at her college.

 

Warned when she began that nobody was interested in manuscript painting,

now thirty years later, she is the much-awarded, internationally collected primary founder of the ‘contemporary neo-miniaturist’ movement. 

 

 

 

 

Study of Figure, 1992, watercolour on wasli paper.

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969.  Private collection on loan to the Morgan Library in 2021

 

 

Shahzia Sikander moved to the US in 1993 and took her MFA there.  In 1997, she settled in New York.

 

For some years, she continued her experimentation with the miniature form. 

 

She has since widened into public murals,  multimedia installations and collaboration with other artists. 

 

 

The artist’s subject matter in her first 15 years of work is identity, erasure, blur and the possibility of life elsewhere.

 

Always complicated for migrants is moving into a cultural zone new to them. The issue of identity became very difficult for Moslems in the United States and elsewhere after 9/11 and for subcontinental Asians  particularly from Pakistan by reason of its presumed ties with Al-Qaeda.

 

Hostility to Asians in the US is reported to have grown in recent years.

 

Because identity formation can continue a whole life, Shahzia Sikander has adopted and adapted a number of signfiers.  She also began to incorporate abstract shapes.

 

 

 

 

The Scroll II, 1991, watercolour on bark and tea stained wasli paper.

Collection of the artist.

 

A more abstract version of the artist’s graduating thesis, it is not clear why the white-robed woman appears shattered on the floor  at the center of this building.

The museum’s guidance on bark is that bark is part of the Gandaran Buddhist tradition.

 

 

 

 

Among her signifiers are the veil, whole and shredded

figures of the Hindu pantheon including Krishna, Rhada, Durga and the gopis;

the lotus flower;

the dance;

representation of beauty and love from Western art, particularly from the Mannerist tradition which deviated somewhat from the norms of classical Western art;

circles;

legs reduced both to roots and to instability; etc.  

 

 

Copy of Uprooted Order, Series 3. No. 1, 1997 below, watercolour on tea-stained wasli paper.

 

 

 

 

There are also many animals in the artist’s work. 

 

Museum guidance on this is that the artist uses animals to portray human traits following a collection of fables in the Persian illustrated manuscript tradition, notably the Kalila wa-Dimna, which itself is a translation of the Panchatantra, an orally transmitted Indian fable collection committed to writing between 200 BCE and 300 ACE.

 

 

 

 

Venus’s Wonderland, 1995–97, watercolor and traces of graphite on tea-stained wasli paper
Private collection on loan to the Morgan Library in 2021

 

 

This image is of a monkey tempting Eve to take a bite of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. 

It represents to me a difficulty in the artist’s work.

 

Eve here is positioned as Venus as in The Birth of Venus in Botticelli’s painting.  A crocodile, a griffin and a monkey attend her.

  

The issue lies with the monkey. 

 

To use a monkey instead of a snake evacuates a central Christian meaning of this story.  Any animal which sloughs off its skin would have done.  But not a monkey since it does not do this.

 

The snake may be despised for being a prime agent in the expulsion from paradise of Adam and Eve. 

But the snake, by reason of its ever-renewing skin, translates the command of Jesus: ye must be born again.

 

 

That is, the snake is the symbol of the evolution of Man’s spiritual life, on the one hand, and of the resurrection, on the other. 

 

This heavy symbolism is not borne by monkeys in the Christian interpretation of this story because they do not shed skin.

 

Granted that the migrant’s journey is always an individual adventure and that this artist was not raised a Christian;

and that the Western intellectual tradition permits the isolation and analysis of piece parts as though they are the whole;

 

and that ‘disruption’ is a mind-set central to Shazia Sikander‘s work

 

but ……I, nevertheless, have never been able to understand the point of replacing spiritual with secular content no matter where this occurs.

 

 

The spiritual and the secular run in different registers and to alter or replace the first with the second seems to me a lack of imagination at the least and an exercise in nihilism at the worst.

 

This image means what?

 

It seems that you can throw spiritual content out completely – as with the cult of the Mother Goddess or of the lamented Dionysos.

 

But that fiddling with it for personal reasons leaves the spirituality intact for those who believe and provides empty images for those who do not to add to the millions of decontextualized images we can look at on the net.

 

 

Ditto for the artist’s use below of the imagery of Krishna, Rhada and the gopis, and Durga, to tell a tale of secular, political liberation and social justice which has nothing to do with the spiritual meaning of the stories of these long-lived archetypes.

 

 

Finally, on a luscious note, many of these miniatures reflect the gorgeousness of the embellished textiles of the subcontinent:

many have a partial overlay of light-weight muslins and organdies, handblocked or painted with hypnotic, symmetrical designs

 

which Shazia Sikander uses to reveal and camouflage the submerged and emerging and merging identities she dares imagine for herself and for us: those of us who are her fellow travellers.

 

 

 

 

detail of Pleasure Pillars, 2001, below; watercolour on tea-stained wasli paper

 

 

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Riding the Written, 1992, screenprint over handmade marbled paper. 

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969. Collection of the artist.

 

Museum guidance is that this  image was inspired by her childhood experience of reciting and memorizing the Quran in Arabic before understanding it in Urdu or English.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Separate Working Things I, 1993–95. Vegetable color, dry pigment, watercolor, gold (paint), and tea-stained wasli paper.

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969. Courtesy of the artist and her galleries.

 

From the story of Baz Bahadur and Rupmati (The Lovers on Horseback), the artist questions the ideal of heterosexual love.  This is one of her disruptive motifs.

 

 

 

 

Spaces in between, 1995, gouache and graphite on tea-stained wasli paper. 

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969.  Private collection on loan to the Morgan Library in 2021

 

The artist, the museums notes, is asking “Where lies the power, in the eye of the beholder or in the art itself?”

 

 

 

 

 

Housed, 1995, gouache and charcoal on clay-coated paperboard.

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969. Collection of the artist and her gallery.

 

The artist said this about this:

“Housed is about the constraints of escaping an imprisoning representation. The cage-like form has a door, and a pink heart lurks inside. This painting tapped into my anxiety of being boxed into a stereotype on behalf of a culture or a religion.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uprooted Order 1, 1997, watercolour and gold paint on tea-stained wasli paper. 

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969.   Private collection on loan to the Morgan Library in 2021

 

 

The artist has transferred to Rhada all of Krishna’s power and has liberated Rhada from him.  The hand gesture illustrated at top is the yoni mudra, used to summon the energy of creation.  Rhada holds a chalawa to her chest: a creature which cannot be confined.  It is she, now, who is rooted in the lotus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uprooted Order No. 2, 1997, watercolour and gold paint on tea-stained wasli paper. 

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969. Courtesy of the artist and her galleries

 

The artist says this of this:

“…the transmutation of the Hindu gods Krishna and Vishnu, an inversion of the Greek snake-haired Medusa, or the Greek hero Heracles with Krishna (being linked to the mythologies of the serpent monsters Hydra and Kaliya)”

 

 

 

 

Ready to Leave, 1997, watercolour, gouache and ink on tea-stained marbled wasli paper.

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969.  Loan by the Whitney Museum of Art, NY to the Morgan Library in 2021

 

 

 

The artist says of this:

“Under Alexander the Great, the Hellenic world extended to the Indian region of Punjab, making the griffin a remnant from an earlier period of colonialization.

“I was connecting the griffin to the chalawa, a Punjabi term for a small farm animal that is now disappearing due to the region’s urbanization.

“The chalawa is a ghost. In my usage, it’s somebody who is so swift and transient, you can’t pin down who they are.

“I am identifying with the chalawa, resisting the routinely confronted categories: ‘Are you Muslim, Pakistani, artist, painter, Asian, Asian American, or what?’”

 

 

 

 

Eye-I-ing Those Armorial Bearings IV, 1994-1997, watercolour on tea-stained wasli paper. 

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969.

 

The artist has studied the colonial and imperial representations of race in a number of her works.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Self-Rooted, 1994, ink and gouache on layered tracing paper. 

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969.  RISD Museum loan to the Morgan Library in 2021

 

This is one of the earliest represenations of roots as legs.  The figures are a deity and its avatar in conversation with each other.

 

 

 

 

 

Pleasing Dislocation, 1995, ink on tracing paper.

 Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969.  Courtesy of the artist and her galleries.

 

 

 

 

 

Dislocation, 1995, ink on layered tracing paper. 

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969.  Collection of the artist

 

 

The artist has said this about this: 

“Forms like these sprung forth from my resisting the racial straitjacketing I encountered in the 1990s in America.

“The assumptions that were projected on to me about who I was or what I represented felt not just unfair but alien. Becoming the other, the outsider, through the prevalent and polarizing dichotomies of East-West, Islamic-Western, Asian-White, oppressive-free, led to an outburst of iconography of fragmented and severed bodies, androgynous forms, armless and headless torsos, and self-rooted, floating half-human figures. They refused to belong, to be fixed, to be grounded, or to be stereotyped.”

 

 

 

 

 

Let It Ride, 1995-96, watercolour and gouache on tea-stained wasli paper.

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969.  Private collection on loan to the Morgan Library in 2021

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pendulum, 1996,  watercolour, gouache and graphite on tea-stained wasli paper. 

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969. Courtesy of the artist and her galleries. 

 

The artist represents one way in which women are controlled:  through their dress and appearance.

 

 

 

 

 

Extraordinary Realities IV, 1996, photocollage and watercolour on found tourist painting, mounted to tea-stained wasli paper. 

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969. Collection of the artist and her galleries

 

This is a traditional manuscript painting made for tourists which the artist overlaid with her own image.

 

 

 

Where lies the Perfect Fit? 1997, graphite on paper. 

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969.  Private collection on loan to the Morgan Library in 2021

 

 

In Your Head and not on My Feet, 1997, graphite on paper. 

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969.  Collection of the artist and her galleries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Who’s Veiled Anyway?, 1997, watercolour and gouache on tea-stained wasli paper.

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969.  Collection of the artist and her galleries

 

 

The artist has said this about this:

“The notion of the veil, despite its cliché, persists in defining the Muslim female in the West.

This protagonist appears to be a veiled female, yet on close inspection one can see that the stock character is a male polo player common to South and Central Asian manuscript illustrations. Painting over the male figure with chalky white lines was my way to make androgyny the subject.

One could read it as a comment on patriarchal, colonial, and imperial histories. It was also a means of tracing my own relationship with the largely male-dominated lineage of manuscript painting.”

 

 

 

 

 

Uprooted Order, Series 3. No. 1, 1997, watercolour on tea-stained wasli paper.

 

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969.  Loaned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to the Morgan Library, 2021

 

 

The artist’s comment is this:

“The central character’s attempt to pin down with its one foot the ghostlike female suggests the paradox of rootedness,” Sikander explains. “In a place like Houston (Texas), with its multiple immigrant narratives and nationalisms, the Uprooted Order series addressed the fallacy of assimilation versus foreignness.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eye-I-ing Those Armorial Bearings, 1989-1997, watercolour on tea-stained wasli paper.

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969.

 

 

 

The artist studied and worked in Houston, TX.  There she was very involved in Project Row Houses, a housing and arts organization in the Third Ward, a predominantly African American neighborhood.

This painting celebrates the organization with an upside-down portrait of its cofounder, the artist Rick Lowe, surrounded by various recontextualized images and icons.

The artist  explains,

“I wanted to counter derogatory representations of blackness in the medieval West—as seen in the silhouetted figures above the shields—through my construction of the armorial seal with the row houses.

I also wanted to address politicized contemporary representations of the veil, and to reclaim positive representation for both. I am reimagining these entrenched and contested historical symbols by bringing them into conversation with overlapping diasporas.”

 

 

 

 

 

Shahzia Sikander, Hood’s Red Rider, No. 2, 1997, vegetable color, dry pigment, watercolor, gold (paint), and tea on wasli paper, collection of Susan and Lew Manilow. Courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York, NY, USA

Hood’s Red Rider, No. 2, 1997, vegetable color, dry pigment, watercolor, gold (paint), and tea on wasli paper.

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969. Collection of the artist and her galleries

 

 The museum notes that Cinderella’s prince is holding her slipper at center while a powerful veiled heroine takes control above as a reimagined Red Riding Hood.

The artist says this: “European fairy tales, which carry deeply entrenched gender bias, were part of my childhood storybooks in Pakistan. When I started examining manuscript painting as a young adult, the passive depictions of women often perturbed me.

 

“I wanted to make female protagonists who were proactive, playful, confident, intelligent, and connected to the past in imaginative ways”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Segments of Desire Go Wandering Off, 1998, collage with watercolour and graphite on tea-stained wasli paper.

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969. Collection of the artist and her galleries

 

 

The museum says this of this:

At the center of this painting, a multiarmed, uprooted female tries to hold on to all she desires—a chalawa (symbolizing impermanence), a turtle (symbolizing endurance), a floating child, a portrait of a woman, and a self-portrait of the artist.

The artist painted this figure over a large portrait of a trickster drawn by the Houston-based artist David McGee. All of the faces have been partly obscured, keeping racial and cultural identities shifting. As an immigrant, Sikander was questioning the prevalence of hyphenated identities in America and who is recognized as a citizen.

 

 

 

 

 

Elusive Reality, 1989-2000, watercolour and collage on tea-stained wasli paper. 

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969.  Private collection on loan to the Morgan Library in 2021

 

The museum notes that the seated woman is inspired by Deccani painting which originated in the 1500s.  The overlaid, upside-down portrait is of the dancer, Sharmila Desai, a close colleague in New York of the artist.

 

 

 

 

The Many Faces of Islam, 1999, gouache, watercolour, goldleaf and graphite on tea stained wall paper.

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969.  Collection of the artist.

The museum and the artist note the following:

This piece was created for the New York Times Magazine feature “Old Eyes and the New: Scenes from the Millennium, Reimagined by Living Artists,” and was published in the September 1999 issue. T

The two central figures hold between them a piece of American currency inscribed with a quote from the Quran:

“Which, then, of your Lord’s blessing do you both deny?”

The surrounding figures speak to the shifting global alliances between Muslim leaders and American empire and capital.

According to Sikander, “The 1990s was about war, coalitions, alternating friends and foes, imposed sanctions, debts forgiven, and human rights brushed under the carpet as America flexed its military muscle around the world. This work took this history into account, and I proposed that American policy in Islamic countries would become a defining issue in the new millennium.”

 

The portraits are, clockwise from upper left:

Anwar Sadat; Menachem Begin; Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Pakistani singer of Sufi devotional music; Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan; Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, president of Pakistan; Benazir Bhutto, prime minister of Pakistan; Malcolm X; Salman Rushdie; Nawal el Saadawi, feminist writer and physician, spokeswoman for the status of women in the Arab world; King Hussein; King Faisal; Asma Jahangir, Pakistani human rights lawyer and social activist; Hanan Ashrawi, spokeswoman for the Palestinian nation; Ayatollah Khomeini; Saddam Hussein.

 

 

 

 

Riding the Ridden, 2000, watercolour on tea-stained wasli paper.

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969.  Private collection on loan to the Morgan Library in 2021

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mind Games, 2000, watercolor over inkjet print on tea-stained wasli paper.

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969.  Private collection on loan to the Morgan Library in 2021

 

 

The museum’s guidance on this is this:

This scene is a restaging of the painting Jahangir Receives Prince Khurram from the imperial Mughal manuscript Padshahnama (Book of emperors), now in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle.

Using the durbar hall as a compositional device, the artist centers two self-portraits flanking a subway map, with rooftop water tanks in the top margin further signaling a New York City setting.

In the lower register, courtiers from the historical painting—now wearing masks—gather, perhaps as witnesses of the past.

Presiding at center is the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. Sikander sees this deity as nonbinary and a symbol of multitude, with the ability to look in all directions and possess any form.

She was intrigued with these chameleonlike powers and with masking as a metaphor for the many sides—some unseen—of any narrative.

 

 

 

 

 

A Slight and Pleasing Dislocation, 2001, acrylic on board.

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969.  Collection of the artist.

 

This is not a miniature.  It was part of a large wallpainting.  9/11 occurred and the artist withdrew from the commission when she was asked to alter it.  She had meant it to stand for female strength and the will to justice.  It was mistaken for violence.

 

 

 

 

 

Gopi Crisis, 2001, watercolour, gravure, inkjet, and chine colle on tea-stained paper.

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969.  Collection of the artist.

 

Phallic-like creatures contain the gopis flying in the center of this image.  Gopi hair has disconnected from their heads and are making a bid for freedom.

 

 

 

 

 

Intimacy, 2001, watercolour on tea-stained wasli paper. 

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969.  Promised gift to the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin on loan to the Morgan Library in 2021

 

 

The museum notes this of this:

At center left in this work is an Indian celestial dancer modeled on a sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The dancer flirtatiously entwines herself around a figure taken from the sixteenth-century Italian Mannerist painting An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, by Agnolo Bronzino.

The artist created this pairing in response to Partha Mitter’s 1977 book Much Maligned Monsters: A History of European Reactions to Indian Art, which points to the role of cultural stereotypes in the European perception of Asia.

At right is another pair of figures, sourced from Greco-Roman and Indo-Persian traditions. They stand arm in arm beside a two-headed creature, reinforcing multiplicity and suggesting the closeness and overlap of histories and cultures.

 

 

 

 

 

Pleasure Pillars, 2001, watercolour on tea-stained wasli paper.

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969.  Private collection on loan to the Morgan Library in 2021

 

 

The artist’s comment is this:

To counter the paternalistic belief about the “saving of Muslim women” from Islamic extremism that was used to justify the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the imperial war that followed, I created this painting, which responds to that fetishized female representation. The pageant of archetypes drawn from many different religious and cultural sources, gathered under the fighter jet.”

 

 

 

 

 

Monsters Within, 2001, watercolour on tea-stained wasli paper. 

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969.

 

 

 

Sly Offering, 2001, watercolour and inkjet outline on tea-stained wasli paper.

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969.  Courtesy of the artist and her galleries.

 

Museum guidance is that this is based on a Safavid painting of the 15th century.  Here Solomon has been dethroned and the power has been handed to Greek and Indian females to fight over.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Turmoil, 2001, watercolour and inkjet on tea-stained wasli paper. 

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969.  Collection of the artist and her galleries.

 

The artist has freed the gopis and they are ready to fly into the world with only traffic lights to restrict their movement.

 

 

 

 

 

Running on Empty, 2002, watercolour and inkjet on wasli paper.

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969.  Private collection on loan to the Morgan Library in 2021.

 

 

 

 

 

Web, 2002, ink, gouache, gravure and inkjet outlines on tea-stained wasli paper.

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969.

 

 

The museum says the following about this:

The towers and aircraft in this painting call to mind the 9/11 attacks. The towers also suggest oil derricks, possible referencing the United States’ dependence on foreign oil, which was brought into question during President Bush’s impending invasion of Iraq.

Heraldry links present-day policies to colonial- era exploitation. The large purse-like form is a lingam casket, which holds an amulet.

The spiderweb is a reference to the one in a popular tale that shielded Muhammad from persecutors as he hid in a cave. The lush landscape with animals both nurtured and preyed on—copied from a Mughal manuscript painting—is the foundation of this composition filled with references to protection and destruction.

 

 

 

 

Hood’s Red Rider No, 2, 1997, watercolour and gold paint on tea-stained wasli paper. 

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969.  Private collection on loan to the Morgan Library in 2021

 

 

The artist says this of this:

 “European fairy tales, which carry deeply entrenched gender bias, were part of my childhood storybooks in Pakistan.

“When I started examining manuscript painting as a young adult, the passive depictions of women often perturbed me. I wanted to make female protagonists who were proactive, playful, confident, intelligent, and connected to the past in imaginative ways”

 

 

 

 

SpiNN (III), 2003, watercolour on tea-stained wasli paper.

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969. Loaned by the Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin to the Morgan Library in 2021

 

 

The museum’s guidance on this is this:

This painting, created for the animation SpiNN, includes several scenes of gopis in an act of rebellion. The gopis join together to create the beast that Krishna rides into the durbar hall. Once inside, they take over the space.

Traditional Indian manuscript paintings typically feature only a single prominent gopi, Radha, the favored consort of Krishna. As Sikander multiplies the gopis’ numbers, she gives them all the agency of Radha, speaking to the power of a collective feminine space.

 

 

 

The Morgan Library included a sculpture made by the artist in 2020.

 

 

 

Promiscuous Intimacies, 2020, patinated bronze.

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969. Courtesy of the artist and her galleries. Photo from the web.

 

 

These two females also appear in others of the artist’s images such as  Pleasure Pillars and Intimacies.  She wanted to develop them. 

 

In 2017, she was asked to be part of the NY mayor’s Commission on  City Art and Monuments.  She said that from what she heard from members of the public and their disassociation from many city monuments and public art works, she decided to make an ‘anti-monument’. 

 

That is how she sees this.

 

She wants to show that identity is always unstable.  She wants to show that tradition and culture are – in her words – “impure” and also unstable.  She wants to disrupt national, temporal boundaries. 

 

Another way of saying this is that she wants to be free to construct her own identity (ies) and adapt it (them) day by day.

 

 

 

Dancing celestial deity,  sandstone, early 12th century, Uttar Pradesh.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

 

 

Allegory with Venus and Cupid (Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time), oil on canvas, 1540-1546. 

Bronzino, 1503-1572, Italian.  National Gallery, London.  Photo from the web

 

Shahzia Sikander’s Promiscuous Intimacies has two sources, both shown above. 

 

The Bronzino painting is a mysterious representation of unchaste, impure because incestuous love:   Cupid is Venus’ son.  She is removing his power by taking possession of his arrows.

 

The emotional center of this painting is the hand of a son on his mother’s breast: not a violent touch but not a filial one either.  

 

Shahzia Sikander has paired Venus with an Indian dancing celestial deity. 

 

In Precocious Intimacies, the emotional center is the gaze between two figures from different cultural domains. 

 

This sculpture is most often interpreted as a representation of queer desire.  A disruption of hetero-norms, as the artist might say, which she has addressed before 2020. 

 

 

 

Promiscuous Intimacies, 2020, patinated bronze.

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969. Courtesy of the artist and her galleries. Photo from the web

 

 

I find the gaze between the two female figures most compelling.

 

The cultures to which I belong have long kept up an intimate conversation in my head with each other.  They do not let each other out of their sights.

 

As the years have passed and as I have fewer and fewer rights of passage to traverse, – rights of passage being the high holy ground of our demonstration of our fealty to our culture(s) –  this gaze between my cultures has become as intimate as the one depicted here.

 

Intimate by reason of their long study of each other’s ways and means and techniques; by reason of their prolonged skirmishing and endless accommodations to each other.

 

Cultures as different as mine do not overlap: they order the priorities, values and sanctions of life in ways too different to overlap.  They are each the richest treasuries; but discrete to the max.

 

 

Cross-cultural migration is a very difficult journey, undertaken as it is by millions, sometimes at the cost of great loneliness and often of large self abnegation.

 

Shahzia Sikander’s message  – no matter what I think of the pertinence of her cross-cultural image juxtapositions –

 

of the impermanence of our identities and of the possibility of creating new ways to live is a wonderful one.

 

Acceptance of others. Non-judgmental acceptance.  Not tolerance but acceptance.  

 

 

 

 

 

Promiscuous Intimacies, 2020, patinated bronze.

Shahzia Sikander, American born Pakistan 1969. Courtesy of the artist and her galleries. Photo from the web.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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