Shahzia Sikander’s Radical Take on Traditional Arts

HOUSTON — Shahzia Sikander’s exhibition Extraordinary Realities, currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is a complex organism. Much like Sikander’s artworks themselves, each room bursts with an array of themes in various mediums. The exhibition covers the first 15 years of the artist’s career. Ranging from traditional manuscript paintings to tracing paper drawings to video projection, the pieces on display are at once intricate and expansive, historical yet thoroughly contemporary.

Born in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1969, Sikander gained global attention in the 1990s as she pioneered new approaches to miniature painting, recontextualizing traditional representations of race, gender, and national identity. The first room of Extraordinary Realities showcases a series of detailed watercolors in the style of Islamic and South Asian manuscript paintings from the 16th through 19th centuries. Packed with life, these works trouble the category of “miniature” that this artistic practice was assigned by European tradesmen in the 1700s, resisting their small form. 

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Shahzia Sikander, “The Scroll,” detail (1989-90), vegetable color, dry pigment, and watercolor, and on tea-stained wasli paper. Collection of the Artist (© 2021 Shahzia Sikander. Courtesy the artist, Sean Kelly, New York and Pilar Corrias, London)

Some of Sikander’s miniatures reveal a connection to Houston. A former Core Fellow at the MFAH’s Glassell School, she has a special relationship to the city. “Eye-I-ing Those Armorial Bearings” (1989–97) centers a portrait of legendary local artist Rick Lowe, who co-founded the organization Project Row Houses in Houston’s primarily African American Third Ward. A series of linked images — shields, animals, and a small painting of the row houses themselves — forms a kind of holy iconography around Lowe aimed at countering racist depictions of Blackness in classical European art. Sikander maintains that she is motivated by “an urgent reexamination of colonial and imperial stories of race and representation.” This re-envisioning is enacted here by the use of circles, meant to symbolize different “lenses” to see the world.

According to an essay that scholar Gayatri Gopinath wrote for Sikander’s exhibition catalogue, the artist’s use of a traditional medium refuses neat categories of gender and nationhood, flipping assumptions of the historical past as the site of cultural authenticity. Gopinath asserts that Sikander’s turn to traditional forms is “radically anti-nostalgic in that she both utilizes and deconstructs the idiom of Indo-Persian miniature painting in order to imagine a different present and future.”

Shahzia Sikander, “Separate Working Things I” (1993-95), vegetable color, dry pigment, watercolor, gold paint on tea-stained wasli paper. Private collection (© 2021 Shahzia Sikander. Courtesy the artist, Sean Kelly, New York and Pilar Corrias, London)

Gopinath goes on to argue that Sikander’s recurring image of a floating, headless woman with roots for feet exemplifies an aesthetic of queer diaspora that elides easy definitions of home and place. In the book Islamic Art: Past, Present, Future (2019), Sikander described this root-baring, floating female figure as “self-nourishing,” a kind of alternative deity that “refuses to belong, to be fixed, to be grounded, to be stereotyped.” This deity can be everywhere at once, and eludes any defined identity.  

Themes of queer desire continue in Sikander’s painting “Cholee Kay Peechay Kiya? Chunree Kay Neechay Kiya?” (What Is under the Blouse? What Is under the Dress?) (1997), which pictures a multi-limbed, gender-fluid figure. The piece nods to a scene of queer longing in the 1993 Bollywood film Khalnayak in which two women seductively dance together. This work, like many others of Sikander’s, both conceals and reveals queer longing in plain sight. This intricately rendered play with visibility powerfully questions what has historically been considered legible desire.

The second room of Extraordinary Realities focuses on the work Sikander made after she moved to New York in 1997. She began to experiment with new mediums and techniques, such as layered tracing paper drawings and clay-coated paper drawings. In the wake of 9/11, she further navigated the questions global economics, class, race, gender, and capitalism. These works refer to popular iconography both from Pakistan and the West: “Mind Games” (2000), a retelling of Jangir Receives Prince Khurran from the Mughal manuscript Padshahnama, features two figures on the New York subway and a nonbinary deity that has the power to see in all directions.

Shahzia Sikander, “Sly Offering” (2001), vegetable color, dry pigment, watercolor and inkjet outline on tea-stained wasli paper. Collection of Judy and Robert Mann (© 2021 Shahzia Sikander. Courtesy the artist, Sean Kelly, New York and Pilar Corrias, London)

The exhibition ends with Sikander’s operatic video projection Parallax (2015), a 15-minute, three-channel installation comprised of hundreds of her lush drawings and watercolors, originally created for the 2013 Sharjah Bienniale. In the mesmerizing world of Parallax, it’s hard to tell whether the viewer is entering into an idyllic fantasy or a dystopia; tangerine and ruby petals fall across a shifting landscape of rock, forest, and concrete. Bird-like forms plunge into an oily ocean. A skeletal figure dissolves into a swarm of black insects. These shifting animations evoke the landscape of the Persian Gulf, which Sikander experienced driving through the region, and mirror the continuous cultural and historical movement of the Strait of Hormuz. As the connection point between the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz links several geographic areas and is important for oil supply. Among Parallax’s core images are the tresses of a female form, spinning and entangling, looming across an industrial backdrop, a comment on female resilience in the face of global capitalism.  

In a retrospective barely containable within its three rooms, Extraordinary Realities gathers together themes of female multiplicity, queer desire, capitalist exploitation, and decolonial aesthetics. Turning to traditional art practices, Sikander forces the form, be it manuscript painting, video installation, or drawing, to bend to her interpretation of these issues. On both a visual and an ideological level she demonstrates that they are undeniably connected.

Shahzia Sikander, “Spaces in Between” (1995), vegetable color, dry pigment, watercolor, and graphite on tea-stained wasli paper. Private Collection, Gottingen, Germany (© 2021 Shahzia Sikander. Courtesy the artist, Sean Kelly, New York and Pilar Corrias, London)

Shahzia Sikander: Extraordinary Realities continues at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (5601 Main Street, Houston, Texas) through June 5. The exhibition was organized by the RISD Museum and presented in collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and curated by Jan Howard.


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