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Women in Art: Shahzia Sikander

Shahzia Sikander is a Pakistani-American artist most well-known for her work with Indo-Persian miniature painting . Sikander creates miniatures in a variety of formats, experimenting with contemporary painting techniques, video, animation, and more.

Shahzia Sikander, SpiNN, 2003, video animation, still shot. Women's hair transform into birds and invade a Mughal court.Shahzia Sikander, SpiNN, 2003, video animation, still shot. Women's hair transform into birds and invade a Mughal court.

Shahzia Sikander, SpiNN, 2003, video animation, still shot. Women’s hair transform into birds and invade a Mughal court.

Sikander’s work brought a resurgence of miniature painting (at the time it was considered old fashioned and too craft-oriented) and lead to its new global status. Sikander breathed new life into miniatures, blending techniques and manipulating cultural imagery to create something new. However, while Sikander is thought of as reinventing miniature painting by many critics, she hesitates to say that. In Sikander’s words, “I think it wasn’t as black and white as that I started adding a kind of a modernist take on it or “reinventing” it, perhaps—which I think is, again, a very strong word.There were people who had been making miniature paintings and there’s a tradition of people making miniatures which are closer to the older themes, but by and large even the work that I have seen of artists before me was thematic. It was not from a personal space. And my interest really was to bring the personal into this space.”

Sikander draws upon multiple miniature styles and is influenced by Mughal, Rajput, Safavid paintings and more. From one tradition she might draw upon Hindu myth, and from another a naturalistic style. Her work cannot be defined by one time period or culture, rather it is composed from many. And to these cultures she adds her own identity. The narratives are related to her life and to living in today’s world.

Shahzia Sikander

Shahzia Sikander

Shahzia Sikander

Shahzia Sikander

Sikander’s work was stylistically similar to the traditional miniature during her time studying at Pakistan’s National College of Arts in Lahore. When she moved to America to obtain her MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design her work moved away from being quite so tight and technical, and her work became looser. She’d frequently create a meticulous piece and then cover it with loose, graffiti-like lines.

It was during her time at RISD that Sikander began working with the veil. In one performance she wore a veil for several weeks (Which she did not usually wear; it was specially sent by her mother.) and observed others’ reactions. She herself was reacting to negative preconceptions many had about supposedly deferential Muslim women. About this piece Sikander said, ”I did it to document people’s reaction, and my own relationship to it and to the act of doing something which is very much on the surface. It gave me a sense of security. It was wonderful to not have people see my facial or body language, and at the same time be in control and know that they did not know I was acting, and checking their reaction.”

Shahzia Sikander, I am also not my own enemy, 2009

Shahzia Sikander, I am also not my own enemy, 2009

Shahzia Sikander, Who's Veiled Anyway?, 1997

Shahzia Sikander, Who’s Veiled Anyway?, 1997

Following September 11th, Sikander’s images were increasingly viewed through the lens of her being Pakistani and a Muslim woman. Some of her works were critical of misinformation being spread by US media, and images containing symbols of weaponry and martial arts music are meant to display misrepresentation between the East and the West. Sikander was highly aware of the tension between cultures and that her work was pigeonholed into certain narratives. Her work has expanded to include video and light projections in order to expand the stories she tells.

You can see Shahzia Sikander’s website here or check out interviews with the artist here and here. Sikander’s video and performance pieces are incredibly intriguing. If you get the chance to see her work in person, take it!

What do you think about Sikander’s artwork? Share your thoughts in the comments.

See previous profiles of women artists including the so-called “patron saint of lesbian artists” Romaine Brooks, 20th century Tuscan sculptor Félicie de Fauveau, or DC Color School painter Alma Thomas.

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