In Shahzia Sikander’s The Scroll (1989-90), the same apparitional white-robed figure, her face obscured, floats through a house, repeating in various rooms and scenes stretched out over the lengthy horizontal watercolor, ending with the figure at an easel, painting her own likeness. Though it draws upon a tradition of Central and South Asian miniature painting, the work is quite literally outside the box—some pictorial elements overlap the picture’s borders in unorthodox fashion—and upturns conventional notions of perspective, scale, and biography. Completed as her thesis project at the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan, the work kicked off not only the artist’s own career, but also the South Asian Neo-Minimalist movement as a whole.
“Extraordinary Realities,” at the Morgan Library & Museum, surveys Sikander’s momentous and ongoing career, from her undergraduate years in Lahore and graduate studies at the Rhode Island School of Design; through a fellowship in Houston; and, finally, to her settling in New York City, where she arrived just before the 9/11 attacks, which would alter the trajectory of her own career as well as the perception and treatment of Muslims in American society.
Even more striking than achieving such remarkable success at such an early age, as she did with The Scroll, may be Sikander’s continued experimentation in the medium of miniature painting and beyond. Arriving in Providence to study at RISD, Sikander began exploring the use of different materials and looser strokes. Dislocation (1995), for instance, contains paintings on sheaves of tracing paper, gestural and improvisatory, alongside quick sketches from her notebook.
After RISD, Sikander was granted a fellowship at the Glassell School of Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. There, she began to work with Project Row Houses, an organization advocating for housing and the arts in the historically disenfranchised and predominantly Black Third Ward. In Eye-I-ing Those Armorial Bearings (1989-97), in watercolor on tea-stained wasli paper, a traditional handmade paper used for painting Indian miniatures, she depicts the artist Rick Lowe, the nonprofit’s co-founder, in a kind of hagiography, locks of his hair spilling over a halo, alongside crests which may reimagine the chains of slavery as heraldic suits of armor.
In Houston, Sikander became entrenched in underscoring the common cause of marginalized groups, whether the discrimination was colonial, racial, or religious. Underscoring her continuing radicality after her move to New York is the unfinished acrylic-on-panel mural A Slight and Pleasing Dislocation (2001), commissioned by a law firm. When the central female figure was misconstrued as a symbol of violence rather than resilience in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Sikander was asked to change the mural; instead, she withdrew from the commission. “Extraordinary Realities” illuminates Sikander as an artist precocious, experimental, and resolutely committed to her ideals across changing landscapes, both physical and geopolitical. —Lisa Yin Zhang
Shahzia Sikander, Pakistani-American, b.1969, Spaces in Between, 1995. Vegetable color, dry pigment, watercolor, graphite, and tea on wasli paper; 27.4 × 25.9 cm. Private Collection, Gottingen, Germany, © Shahzia Sikander. Courtesy: the artist, Sean Kelly, New York and Pilar Corrias, London.