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September 24 - November 29, 2005 at Otis College, Ben Maltz Gallery, West Side

by Marlena Donohue

Shahzia Sikander (and by extension her work) is complexly situated. She is highly successful by Western art establishment standards, she is Muslim by background, Pakistani-born in this season of shock and awe gone grotesque; she is unveiled, jean clad, ultra hip; she is theoretically poised to deconstruct post colonial clichés, yet endemically subject to them (reviews of her work in publications as august as the New York Times casually mix up Shiva and Buddha in a kind of “they all look the same to me” faux pas).

Sikander studied classical painting in Pakistan, came West and hit the art world running straight out of Rhode Island School of Design in the mid ‘90s. Her work became a popular, stunning analogue for slippery categories at the heart of transnational practice, theory and experience--all of which query essentialist notions of race/nation as some intrinsic phenomenological condition.

In this vein, Sikander’s works of the last decade mix an oft ironic sampling of Western classicism with delicate 17th-century Mughal precision, and folksy and sensual Rajput variations. She is wont to commingle Eastern religion with Homeric clichés, broad abstract shapes found in the backgrounds and borders of miniatures with infinitely delicate natural description. She’s fond of treating a wall as a framed object, then letting her imagery dribble around a random corner so as to remind us of the fluid boundaries between pictorial and real space. The work can toss in the short-hand, chunky style of cartoon animation (a style also found in the more abstract art of the ancient Jain), and in fact, Sikander turns paintings into magical animated shorts.

A banner Sikander created for New York’s Museum of Modern Art was a stunning if predictable yoking of a stylized Hindu goddess towering above a Bronzino Venus sampled from a painting in which Cupid incestuously fondles his Mother’s erect nipple. Both images were so tweaked by Sikander’s humor, by her inquiry into her own identity, and so coded by their prior existence in the history of ideas, that nationalist points of origin exploded in a ricochet of references too dense to pinpoint.

“Land-Escapes, Series
3, #7”, 2003.
Photo courtesy of
Sikkema Jankins and Co. Gallery

“Land-Escapes, Series 3, #8”, 2005, ink and
gouache on prepared paper, 6 x 10".

“Land-Escapes, Series 3, #9”, 2005, ink
and gouache on prepared paper, 6 x 10".

"Pleasure Pillars," 2001, watercolor, dry
pigment on Wasli paper, 12 x 10
". Photo
courtesy of Sikkema Jankins and Co. Gallery

The current show is called “Dissonance to Detour.” Here’s a partial list of some of the “Dissonances” that Sikander coaxes and intermingles as deftly as she bleeds inked pigments into voluptuous trees, rolling hills, and foliage: Intimate miniaturist precision/hefty wall scaled works; Moslem aniconic traditions/Persian and Western addictions to worldly observation; Hindu transcendence through the senses/Islamic proscriptions against the flesh; canvas as surface/whole gallery as pictorial space; invoking of ancient traditions/invoking of post modernism’s credo that the only good tradition is one whose tautological status has been fully unpeeled.

Here is the “Detour,” the turn into a new culvert: Sikander, to her credit, has begun to resist the temptation to paint what we expect of her (an anti-patriarchical strategy in and of itself). We want to see the lush sensual layers of painted paper with which she has filled many a prestigious viewing space; we want to keep asking her about the veil (get over it, she says with these images); we want the gorgeous, exotic line, the menageries and careful open-ended exoticisms she has been showing and carefully constructing as markers of hybrid identities. As transnationalism becomes more buzz than critique, she extends the inquiry into less charted territory.

In Indian miniatures there was always a backdrop of highly abstracted nature--lollipop trees, flattened, rolling hills in the lushest of natural pigments. These stood in for “setting,” “sense of place,” “position in time and geography.” These were the backdrops for processions, hunts, mythological trysts, the turn of creation’s wheel, all if it. These magical backdrops are now fore-fronted as subjects in large, excellent paintings. They are intoned with inky, amorphous fields of hue, transparent and vaporous as perfumed air in one passage, and then tooled to so crisp a line in another that tree bark looks like worms scurrying over the surface. Sikander’s mastery with line becomes in these works a tendrilly filigree snaking throughout the land, water, air, and docile fauna--an energy made evident by the artist’s hand. Lest we wax too romantic and exotic, set the clock back on tired notions of the “Orient,” please know that these very same hills, trees and mountains seem to possess an equal amount of that goofy life force that animates the inanimate in old-school cartoons, where roads rise to meet feet and all of nature vibrates amiably.

Here you have a sense of place that is just the opposite of what we mean by exile, diaspora, and dislocation. These landscapes are at once, sensual and contemplative, Eastern and Western, both Kantian and Hindu evocations of the innocent sublime. They create a sense of place and geography not as “site of difference,” but as human mooring.
Foucault talked about experiences that by virtue of their just plain strangeness disrupt the order of things. . .that is the case with these lush, pneumonic, multivalent geographies.