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Shahzia Sikander @ SFAI

"SpiNN", 2003, digital animation, 6 minutes 38 seconds

Shahzia Sikander has made her name in international art circles with drawings, watercolors and gouaches that derive their distinctive style and iconography from Indian and Persian miniatures. In these works and in her more recent digital animations, Sikander complicates the connection to historical sources by combining them with her own lived experience, largely shaped by Hindu and Muslim traditions. These core points of departure are then set in a provocative dialogue with contemporary Western culture.

In this age of uprisings in the Arab world and East-West tensions, Sikander’s art has deep resonance. Five captivating examples of her videos, complemented by some works on paper, are currently on exhibit at the San Francisco Art Institute, Walter and McBean Galleries.

Above all, Sikander aims to challenge boundaries and stereotypes imposed by gender, religion, time, and culture.  Having been born in Lahore, Pakistan (1969), educated in both her homeland (BFA, National College of Art, 1992) and the United States (MFA, Rhode Island School of Design, 1995), and now based in New York, she is in a prime position to probe beneath surfaces and destabilize categorizing attitudes. Her creativity has been duly recognized by the MacArthur Genius Award she received in 2006.

"Prolonged Exposure to Agitation", 2009, ink and gouache on prepared paper

Densely layered compositions, rooted in contrast and incongruity are the mainstays of Sikander’s art. It is a mode of layering, described by the artist as “the experience of space . . .[suggesting] a certain sense of meaning either manipulated or meaning being constructed.” Her layering also conveys a complexity rife with endless shifts in perception that call attention to difference even as it reveals similarities. On a deeper level, this complexity dismantles hierarchical assumptions and subverts the very notion of a singular, fixed identity or a simplistic reading of figures and forms. From this perspective, it bears witness to our ever-changing world, a global entity where nations and ethnicities interact and coalesce.

Prolonged Exposure to Agitation, a 2009 series (ink and gouache), includes a compelling work in which Sikander merges Persian miniature figuration with abstract formations having a biological semblance. The composition has two men facing each other, both squatting and smoking hookahs. The pipe tubes morph into flowing loops, reminiscent of the calligraphic swirls in Brice Marden’s paintings. But here the transparent red color of the linear network evokes an association with blood vessels. Sikander’s layering is amplified in her depiction of the terminal points of the tubes. They variously appear as the shaft and bowl at the end of a hookah; a puff of smoke; a French horn (a recurring motif in Sikander’s art); and a diagrammatic cross-section of a blood vessel. The cloud-like imagery surrounding the tubes can also be viewed diversely as pictorial abstractions, vaporous emissions from the pipe, and cell clusters—which, like the imagery Sikander has drawn, are thin-walled forms, compactly arranged with no intercellular spaces. Although anatomical affinities were not common in Sikander’s early iconography, they emerge in 2009 after she guest-curated an exhibition using objects from the permanent collection at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City. The display included a German medical text with multilayered illustrations of the human anatomy.

"The Last Post", 2010, HD Video animation still

Also significant in the hookah painting is the skin color of the two men. Their facial profiles and postures reference men in Indian and Persian miniatures whose flesh is a brownish hue. Yet here, the bodies are a composite of rose, light and dark brown, olive, and black tones. The lack of a single, distinct skin color gives them a multiracial demeanor, a union that defies specificity. Added to this is the diaphanous white covering that envelopes the men’s legs. On the one hand, it has the likeness of the baggy, white pants of Arab tradition. On the other hand, it veers toward a socio-political context in which white, as a racial identity, is shown to encroach upon and/or provide protection for other races and cultures.

In Gossamer, a captivating video made in collaboration with the musician Du Yun (2010), Sikander vivifies issues of culture and identity. This work features the composer Du Yun performing in dual roles, as an Asian dancer wearing a bright red, kimono blouse and as an Americanized pop diva in gaudy, eccentric dress. At first, the focus is on the woman signified as Asian, who dances in very slow, seductive motion with exaggerated gestures. She stands in isolation before a black background, though we see her close-up and from various perspectives as the camera zooms in and circles around her. The next segment juxtaposes East and West by adding, in split-screen format, a hip-hop dancer who moves with sexy wiggles and shakes. Despite differences in their dance styles and cultural identities, the two representations are demonstratively sensual. Differences blur as commonality becomes apparent.

"The Last Post", 2010, HD video animation still

As the video progresses, the two women—actually the same person in two guises—appear separately and side-by-side. In one instance, they perform erratically, their bodies shown in off-balance, awkward, jagged positions as if they had fallen from grace. In another, they switch dance modes such that a hybrid of stereotypes emerges. By the end of the video, a dialogue between polarities is asserted as preconceptions are upended. However, the adoption of foreign cultural manifestations and the concomitant loss of one’s own identity can also be viewed as an indication of the uprooted existence experienced by expatriates and the dispossessed.  As revealed here and in most other works by Sikander, layered compositions, premised on ingrained and imposed characterizations, raise awareness of the complexities and possibilities of life in a world where individualizing identities co-exist, mutate and combine.


Shahazia Sikander: “The Exploding Company Man and Other Abstractions” @ San Francisco Art Institute, Walter and McBean Galleries through June 25, 2011.

Photos: Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins& Co., New York.

About the Author

Sidra Stich received her PhD in art history from UC Berkeley She has been a university professor, Chief Curator at the Berkeley Art Museum, Distinguished Scholar at the Smithsonian Institution, Fellow at the Research Institute of the National Gallery, and Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin.  In addition to exhibition catalogue, she has written guidebooks on contemporary art and architecture in France, Britain & Ireland, London, Northern Italy, Paris, Spain, and San Francisco.  

One Response to “Shahzia Sikander @ SFAI”

  1. Elaine O'Brien says:

    Great essay. Sidra Stitch is terrific and so is Sikander!


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