Inspired by miniature paintings, Shahzia Sikander goes big

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This article is part of our latest Special file Fine Arts & Exhibitionswhich focuses on how art endures and inspires, even in the darkest of times.

Shahzia Sikanderwho grew up in Pakistan and moved to the United States in 1993, has long used the language of traditional indian and persian miniature painting as a starting point to create contemporary work exploring colonialism, migration, gender and hyphenated identities.

His artwhich moves fluidly across geographic, cultural and temporal boundaries, is receiving special attention this fall, amid polarization in this country and around the world.

“I’ve always seen myself as participating and expanding the scope of what American art can be — seeing America from the inside and also seeing it from the outside,” said Ms. Sikander, who is 51. She noted that in a country where conversations are often black and white, she navigated a middle ground.

In “Weeping Willows, Liquid Tongues”, a solo exhibition which opens at the Sean Kelly Gallery on November 5Ms. Sikander brings her global and nuanced feminist perspective to intimate, large-scale ink and gouache drawings, glass mosaics, video animations, and her first sculpture.

While the political stakes in these works can be heavy, said gallery partner Janine Cirincione, “Shahzia renders them so beautifully and allows the poetics to convey these messages.”

“Arose” (2019-20) is a 6ft by 4ft design made up of two repetitive female forms – highly stylized figures depicted in profile and with long skirts, typical of how women were rendered in the classical tradition of miniature painting that Mrs. Sikander first engaged in as an art student.

Freed from that frame here, the characters – lovers or mirror versions of each other – spiral in a pinwheel, channeling “the enormous possibility of the female spirit”, Ms Sikander said. Their richly painted skirts read kaleidoscopically like a giant poppy flower, a recurring motif in the show alluding to the opium industry in Afghanistan and the long-term American intervention and conflict there.

The lovely circular composition “also feels like a bombed site to me,” said the artist, who likes to play with multiple meanings simultaneously and create a tension between beauty and destruction. She made an enlarged version of the mosaic image, a medium she first tackled with a 66-foot-tall permanent commission completed in 2017 at Princeton University.

Mrs. Sikander realized that classical miniature painting was ripe for deconstruction as a student at the National College of Arts in his hometown of Lahore in 1988. A guest lecturer from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London showed slides of hundreds of alluring gem-like works, painted over the centuries under Persian and Mughal rulers and now residing in large part in the storage rooms of Western museums. result of colonial stories of plunder.

“When I read more about how this work was acquired, my mind started making up stories,” said Ms Sikander, who spent four years at school mastering the technique and precision needed to build layer by layer the luminous surfaces of the miniature painting. “This art form almost buzzes around the edges.”

Inserting personal imagery under the guise of miniature painting, Ms. Sikander’s thesis project mapped the architectural complex of her family home in a long horizontal piece titled “The Scroll” (1989-90).

Using the genre convention of stacked and flattened spaces, the artist repeated the image of a young woman in white, painted from behind and ghosting through each bustling room, until she or finally in front of an easel painting himself in an act of himself. -definition.

“The Scroll”, which received national acclaim in Pakistan and started a neo-miniature movement within its university, is one of two works by Ms Sikander on display at the Asian Society Triennial in New York opening October 27. The piece will also be included next year in a survey mapping his early career in Rhode Island School of Design museumwhere the artist received his higher education after moving to the United States.

At RISD, Ms Sikander followed an intensive drawing program, experimenting with rapid ink gestures that led to a relaxation of her vocabulary, according to Jan Howard, the museum’s curator of prints, drawings and photographs, who curated the exhibition. .

“All of these female forms – sometimes monstrous, sometimes playful, sometimes not fully human, sometimes headless – are beginning to emerge and some of them continue to this day,” Ms Howard said.

The show, “Extraordinary Realities,” will also travel to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, where Ms. Sikander completed the CORE Program at Glassell School of Artand the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, echoing the artist’s career in the United States.

After moving to New York in the late 1990s, Ms. Sikander garnered attention with simultaneous screenings at 1997 Whitney Biennial and the Drawing Centerfollowed by solo exhibitions in institutions across the country.

“It was a very interesting time in the United States for me, before 9/11, when things looked more outward,” said Ms Sikander, who felt limited after 2001 by the fact that her work was seen and discussed too often through the prism. of his Pakistani and Muslim biography.

Wanting to get out of a New York-centric art world, Ms. Sikander – who received a MacArthur “Genius” Award in 2006 – has largely focused on international residencies, biennials and exhibitions over the years, at institutions such as Asia Society Hong Kong and MAXXI in Rome (both in 2015).

The upcoming Asia Society Triennial aims to showcase a number of mid-career artists, including Ms Sikander, with mature works that exhibition co-curator Michelle Yun says have fallen into obscurity At New York.

“Shahzia regularly works to the beat of her own drum and plays a vital role in the art world that needs to be recognized,” Ms. Yun said.

Now, artist Sean Kelly’s new gallery shines a light on his work’s connections across media, including three animations that put his painted designs into hypnotic, large-scale motion.

The most recent, “Reckoning” (2020), depicts two warriors in an epic struggle and a planet fighting for its life, with primitive and beautiful imagery. “I wanted it to feel like you walked into a miniature painting and let it sing,” said Ms. Sikander, who has collaborated on all of its animations over the past decade with the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Du Yun.

Ms Sikander was inspired to make her first sculpture after serving in 2017 on the Mayors’ Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Landmarks in New York and be aware of strong opinions about contested monuments in public spaces. “A big part of how we perceive our culture is through male stories,” she said. Of her newly painted bronze titled “Promiscuous Intimacy,” she continued, “I wanted it to be like an anti-monument.”

She modeled her two female leads on the goddess in Bronzino’s famous Italian Mannerist painting “An Allegory with Venus and Cupid” and on a Indian Devata figure in the collection of the Metropolitan Museumplacing this celestial dancer on the shoulder of the seated Venus and engaging them in a flirtatious relationship.

“It’s unclear who is in a position of power,” said Ms Sikander, who wanted to undermine a binary reading of East versus West in the numbers and underscore their mutual desires. She worked with two dancers as she modeled the clay sculpture to ensure their playful postures were physically possible.

Both archetypes of female beauty in art history, Ms. Sikander’s figures claim agency by gazing at each other, the artist said. “They take the look back.”

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