Sunday, 2 August 2009

Shahzia Sikander

"Fleshy Weapons," 1997. Acrylic, dry pigment watercolor, tea wash on linen; 96 x 70 inches. Collection of the artist.

“Fleshy Weapons”

"Fleshy Weapons" depicts a red, floating female form whose feet are replaced with gestural loops that connect her legs, replacing the traditional weight of the human figure with a buoyant feeling of self-containment. Multi-armed and veiled, the provocative figure references both the Hindu multi-armed goddess and the veiled Muslim woman, mixing traditional iconography from India and Pakistan. The multiple arms grasp exquisitely painted weapons, some raised as if to strike, others pointing to the ground, creating a circle of weaponry that is neither strictly an offense nor a defense. Though the white veil covers the arms to their wrists, it is raised over the chest showing a vaguely abstract female form in purples and yellows and reds. One reaching arm does not hold a weapon, instead it grasps a white circle within which is a girl, more finely made than the goddess, her pointed feet connected by a spare line that loops around the hoop that encircles her. Unlike the speckled goddess, the girl is not veiled, instead a pink band in her hair holds white and purple ribbons that splash down over her shoulders to her waist, her featureless face clearly visible behind them. Traditionally, the veil is used to cover and desexualize women, protecting Islamic men from the seductiveness of the female form. The veil becomes eroticized by the hinting at what it covers and by the little it reveals. Here the veil covers only the arms, which nonetheless are well-equipped for battle, and where the eyes should appear there are only flat, colored dots. What we as the viewer expect from the image of a veiled woman - something negative, hinting at oppression and faintly exotic - is denied us, literally disarming our preconceptions. "Fleshy Weapons" depicts the female form both historically - the traditional Islamic woman, the Hindu goddess - and ahistorically, in the combination of meshed cultural imagery and in its abstract, transfigured, and highly personal rendering.


"Venus' Wonderland," 1995-97. Vegetable color, dry pigment, watercolor, tea on hand-prepared 'wasli' paper. Collection of Rachel and Jean-Pierre Lehman, New York.

“Venus's Wonderland”

Almost all the figures in "Venus's Wonderland" are veiled: the woman who is in the center of the miniature painting, the smaller female figures who populate its borders, and the monkey hanging from a tree. Arranged off-center with a large decorated border and depicting a scene reminiscent of a children's morality tale - there is an apple tree and the fruit is found in the hands of both the monkey and central female figure - the painting began with Sikander thinking of a story about a monkey and a crocodile and their mutual deception of each other. The colored hoops with which the animals play, flat circles that border the scene, and gossamer-like veils that resemble a shower of white ribbon, all found here, are common elements in Sikander's work, personal symbols that layer her paintings. Juxtaposed against the Eastern elements of the scene is the appearance of Venus (hence the title of the work), unveiled, painted in very lightly amid the animals, and the shell from which she traditionally emerges, though which here she is dislocated from. Instead, a crocodile lies in the shell, glancing mischievously at the viewer. The mesh of Eastern and Western mythology carries no negative overtones, nor do those veiled in the scene seem any less free or revealing. The monkey and crocodile in the children's tale that helped conceive this painting, could be thought of as symbols for the larger mutual (though here, playful) manipulation that Eastern and Western cultures have engaged in, each positioning the other's cultural symbols as abstract, unpromising, other. Here, that deceit is shown as playful conceit.


Biography « previous artist | next artist »
Shahzia Sikander was born in 1969 in Lahore, Pakistan. Educated as an undergraduate at the National College of Arts in Lahore, she received her MFA in 1995 from the Rhode Island School of Design. Sikander specializes in Indian and Persian miniature painting, a traditional style that is both highly stylized and disciplined. While becoming an expert in this technique-driven, often impersonal art form, she imbued it with a personal context and history, blending the Eastern focus on precision and methodology with a Western emphasis on creative, subjective expression. In doing so, Sikander transported miniature painting into the realm of contemporary art. Reared as a Muslim, Sikander is also interested in exploring both sides of the Hindu and Muslim “border,” often combining imagery from both—such as the Muslim veil and the Hindu multi-armed goddess—in a single painting. Sikander has written: “Such juxtaposing and mixing of Hindu and Muslim iconography is a parallel to the entanglement of histories of India and Pakistan.” Expanding the miniature to the wall, Sikander also creates murals and installations, using tissue paperlike materials that allow for a more free-flowing style. In what she labeled performances, Sikander experimented with wearing a veil in public, something she never did before moving to the United States. Utilizing performance and various media and formats to investigate issues of border crossing, she seeks to subvert stereotypes of the East and, in particular, the Eastern Pakistani woman. Sikander has received many awards and honors for her work, including the honorary artist award from the Pakistan Ministry of Culture and National Council of the Arts. Sikander resides in New York and Texas.

For additional biographic & bibliographic information:
Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York
Shahzia Sikander on the Art21 blog

ART:21: I'm noticing the way in which images are revealed and concealed by the layers of tissue paper in your installation work. What does the layering refer to, and what is your intention in using it?

SIKANDER: At some level, the idea of layering here through painting on the wall and covering it up with tissue, with paper, and then putting more drawings in front of it - that kind of space, or that experience of space through those layers, suggests a certain sense of meaning being either manipulated or meaning being constructed, or that there is more to understand than a simplistic reading of something. So it does allude to a lot of meaning which becomes significant culturally. And I think experience, or the idea of veiling and revealing here, becomes important because a lot of my work is deeply personal. And it also takes a lot of liberty through personal experiences. It kind of takes a jump-start from there; whether at a humorous level or at a level where one intends to subvert something, it takes on and challenges how people read work, or how people read different cultures, or one's own sort of reaction to those experiences. And sort in the quest of developing a vocabulary, I'm very interested in personal space and the cultural space. And since I'm dealing with such an image-oriented genre of work, a lot of the vocabulary in the miniature painting basically deals with mythology and refers to a particular period of painting: the court paintings during Mogul patronage. It refers to a lot of the aspects of that time. And then through Hindu mythology it refers to a lot of the Hindu religion.

And so the imageries that those paintings occupy is like looking at them from a very objective space, and then taking elements from the Hindu experience and putting them in the experience of the Mogul, which is Muslim patronage, but it's not necessarily a Muslim school of painting. So the idea since there is not a very solid discourse, definitely not a very critical one that exists on the history of miniature painting, it's open for interpretation. And it's also defined in a very descriptive chronological way, so the importance of looking at it critically has been reduced. So one just looks at it and reads it in a simplistic fashion. All of those elements I think are so ripe to then play with. And when I came to the U.S. I was so aware of having this neutral space where I could look into and understand more of the Hindu schools of painting.

Growing up in Pakistan, I didn't have much access to miniature painting to begin with because of a lack of books and resources and libraries and all of that. And also because of this separation of India, Pakistan and every day's identity related to it, one grew up kind of fascinated with the other. And I was very into Hindu mythology, but when I used the goddess it's not a particular goddess that I'm using or referring to. It's the idea of the goddess, the goddess being just the opposite of the Muslim belief, where idol worshipping is something which is blasphemous. So this idea of the god and goddesses is a foreign aspect. And within a visual vocabulary, when one is looking at things and dealing with this idea of the image, then, as an artist, how do you separate the many layers? How are the Pakistanis trying to define that this art is ours and this art isn't? And so whatever came under Muslim patronage suddenly became Pakistani heritage. All of these aspects are so intertwined with the social-political identities being defined.

And the relation to Urdu literature plays a very significant part here, because of the whole Muslim identity during British occupancy. When the idea of a separate homeland for Muslims was being defined, Urdu literature became the main form of expression where these political ideas were played out. As a result of it, the poetry became revolutionary and was accessible to the masses. That aspect is also related to this way of work, where it's something with no ownership, something experienced. When people come in, the viewer can experience it, but doesn't necessarily have to know where it's coming from. And in the same sense, the goddess becomes not important, whether it's Kali or Durga; it's the idea of it, the allusion to the opposition of the veil. So I'm stripping the identity of the goddess and putting the veil on its head. One is dealing with very two extremes of image. The goddess image is something which is very familiar to media. It's this image with several hands, and yet it's not a particular goddess, because I was not interested in that; I was interested in coming up with a definition that could occupy the entirety of that experience as such, and the dilemmas of it. Again it's about raising issues about stereotypes with the veil and the goddess and the interplay of both. And yet the goddess as such becomes a problematic issue, and the veil also, because it's not like the oppression, or the subversion. So in that sense, the veiling and revealing becomes the cause and effect for me, because I'm also investigating these things as I grow as an artist.

But these are very loaded issues to take on because the minute you bring the word 'veil' into the equation, it connects you to a Muslim identity, or a woman's identity. And that was the last thing on my mind, because it's not my experience. I never wore one. I have a very hard time relating to that notion, and I cannot speak on behalf of women who either wear a veil or choose to wear one. Culturally, it's not my experience of having grown up in Pakistan, but the minute you leave that country and you come here, it became such a significant topic of discussion that at one level I let it come into my work, and at another level I was having a hard time getting rid of it. And that aspect is what interests me. For me, I want to take on that challenge. And so it's like veiling and revealing. There's always two sides to a story.

ART:21: If the goddess isn't a specific Hindu figure, then what does she represent to you? What role does she serve in the work?

SIKANDER: The reference to the goddess, I think, for me, I am interested in the multidimensions of the female identity. The goddess could be a figure of power. It refers to empowerment definitely. And yet there is a certain sort of dark side to it too, where there is reference to destruction. And whether it's destruction of evil or good is left in the background. But here again, if the figure of the goddess is about this idea - a figure of power, the veil, when it comes on its head, does that mean that the veil is disempowering the figure? The idea of the veil is something that isn't revealing, so do not underestimate what's behind the veil either. So the minute I started mixing up these different traditions and meanings, it only led to a marriage of more meanings.

At the same time, the sort of intimacy of the difference too. I became more and more interested in (that) again; the dialogue was not about East and West, it was more about East and East. For me, I was interested in understanding Hindu-Muslim aesthetics, but at the same time a vocabulary which is very hybrid in its origins. Also, looking at Akbar's period, one of the Mogul emperors in the 16th century, the art and the painting and the political discourse of his experience was so hybrid, and he recognized all of it, that notion of a plural India, when you look at the brilliance with which he has generated art forms and language and literature. Now, one is involved with coming to America and dealing with this post-colonial dialogue, and this plurality of experience, and this multicultural dimension to things and globalization - and it is not a very foreign phenomenon. It happened in history. So in that sense, it's how cycles come to an end. It's sort of the idea of spirituality right there, one kind of recognizes it. And so, for me, there's no separation; you can't separate the many layers of Hindu-Muslim experience, to say this is Pakistani or this is Indian or this is Muslim or this is Hindu. All of those aspects played a part, and they're like layers of meaning over layers of time. And there's no separation there. So part of it was actually paying homage to that notion, but in the process, almost subverting it, too.

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