She Came, They Saw, She Conquered
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She Came, They Saw, She Conquered

A solo show in New York is a big deal for any artist and a museum show is the stuff that dreams are made of. This summer, Shahzia Sikander accomplished just that. However, the challenges in this path for any major artist are many; least of which isn’t the understanding of an entire body of work which is not ‘mainstream’, ‘the flavour of the day’, or does not readily fit into one ‘tidy category’ that these hallowed institutions employ. I found myself lucky enough to travel to the US and so I decided to stop in New York City, if only, to see Extraordinary Realities at the Morgan Library and Museum on June 18 to September 26, 2021. This survey, curated by Jan Howard of RISD and the artist herself, covering the first fifteen years of her practice could surely have come earlier in Sikander’s career. As an American artist of Pakistani origin, she was awarded the McArthur Foundation ‘Genius’ award in 2006, at the age of 37.

The venue of the exhibition was the renaissance-style palazzo — the Morgan Library & Museum — a majestic yet intimate space, which began as a personal library of rare books and medieval manuscripts for Pierpont Morgan, a leading financier and collector. Long before Morgan’s renowned fine collection of European art arrived in the US, Pierpont had commissioned Charles McKim to design a library, which was built between 1902-1906 adjacent to his residence. Upon his father’s death in 1924 and following his legacy, J P Morgan Jr. transformed this important collection into a public institution, making it the most important cultural gift in US history. The marvellous building has been extended a few times and at present stands as a 75,000 square feet space, designed by Renzo Piano to integrate its historical old structures with spectacular steel and glass pavilions.

That Sikander’s art defied any ‘category’ was apparent even in 2006 as one read the McArthur citation from sixteen years ago. While recognizing that her “visually compelling works employ multiple scales and a dazzling array of media”, the Foundation states her area of focus as “2-D Visual Art”. Her work both in Pakistan and the US (her new home) was breaking new ground, a first in the entire subcontinent, however, is not mentioned in the citation. When in fact Sikander was recasting ‘ways of rendition’ and ‘ways of seeing’ of an ancient art form, she was challenging the conventions of manuscript paintings primarily and most elaborately produced in the Persian Safavid court and seen in chronicles, biographies and autobiographies of the Mughal Emperors1illustrated by the Persian masters who accompanied Emperor Humayun back to India, and their gifted pupils.

Even as a student at the National College of Arts (NCA), in Lahore, she not only challenged the narrowly defined curriculum at this globally renowned centre of ‘miniature painting’ but had in the process also defied notions pertaining to the rigid boundaries that had begun to appear between art and craft in the twentieth century; an era that marked the end of patronage, the grand namas, and royal propaganda pieces.  What the artist had begun to resist as a student by her choice of subject matter and scale is something she could critique even better once she had traversed the geographic boundaries. Clearly, she had also crossed over the cultural and psychological boundaries in the process, and her physical distance perhaps lent an impartial lens for a nuanced perspective.

The Scroll II, 1991, Vegetable color, dry pigment, watercolor, collage and tea on bark and paper, 13 x 35 1/4 inches, © Shahzia Sikander.

I can scarcely forget the first time I set my eyes on Shahzia Sikander’s mesmerizing autobiographic thesis Scroll in 1991. I can still recall which wall of the Rohtas Gallery2the twelve-inch wide and five-foot-long scroll was hung on. As I stood there viewing the scroll I still remember thinking, “THIS is the chronicle of our times”. It was above and beyond any piece of student art anybody had ever seen.  As I stood there ‘reading’ it from left to right and then again from right to left, I realised that its minute strokes defied stylised manuscript painting in more than one way. This was not a chronicle of a king or queen’s rule but a marvellous 2D/3D illustration of the life of a Pakistani girl on the threshold of adulthood, who was inviting the viewer to meander through her house. And unlike royal manuscripts, it was ambidextrous and did not require a title or an accompanying text.

But it wasn’t all about herself, Sikander had turned the spotlight on the many roles women play — a mother, a grandmother, a nanny, a cleaning lady among others. All of them had been part of her life growing up in Lahore, and the scroll seemed to speak of their contributions towards shaping her ‘self’. As one analysed the merit of what she had accomplished vis a vis what ancient manuscripts conveyed, she was definitely the superb storyteller without a script – a visual ‘dastaan-go’, if you will, someone who improvises the story as the plot unravels itself.

Attaching a title or a text to this marvel would have been futile.  This was using the contemporary idiom, presented as a creative interpretation of her playbook on her own life, a reflection of her most intimate spaces, an illustration of the psychological and sociological dimensions of the house and all its inhabitants.  However, most importantly an underlying, and perhaps more significant, dialogue with a tradition was ongoing. At that point, it may be safe to assume that even she was not fully cognizant of what she had accomplished; Sikander had just shattered a glass ceiling! She stood on the brink of a great moment in history, leading the charge of robust investigation and experimentation within an art form; which, so far had been confined to copying the great masters and at times been relegated to a ‘craft’.

Shakir Ali (the first Pakistani Principal of NCA) and Zahoor ul Akhlaq (one of Pakistan’s greatest) had both taken inspiration from the Mughal manuscript illustrations, commonly referred to as ‘miniatures’. But these could be seen as post-colonial modernist interpretations, if you will.  While Zahoor experimented with scale and composition, rejecting the three-point perspective3, he persisted with viewers to conceptualise space, Sikander in comparison appeared to be subverting the tradition from the inside — a post-modernist interpretation which succeeded with flying colours.

In the Scroll Sikander, the protagonist, has her back to the viewer almost as if she is the invisible woman-in-white who moves seamlessly within frames helping navigate the scene and the stage, as it were, in every room of this house of vast proportions. The late 1980s had been an oppressive time for women in Pakistan, where Zia had uttered the phrase Chader aur Chardiwari (within the veil and the four walls) as the rightful place for a woman. Further he had promulgated the draconian Hudood Ordinance of 1983, thus confining young people to exercise agency, only within the safety of their own home.

This could be my life too, I had thought to myself, while pacing Rohtas Gallery in 1991. I had recently returned from the US after graduate school, and Sikander was just proceeding there.  I had been away for what proved to be the most tumultuous two years in the country’s history.  The Ojhri Camp blast, that exposed the insidious role of foreign and local powers, that be. The dismissal of the (s)elected government of the upright M K Junejo who demanded accountability had been dismissed by the dictator, and finally in 1988 Zia had met his own explosive end through mangoes and airplanes, but all that would be a digression.

The phenomenal election of Benazir Bhutto as the first (free and fair) democratically elected female Prime Minister had moved each one of us. It was not just a first for Pakistan4, but she was also the first Muslim woman Prime Minister in the entire world, causing a stir with global mullahs who began to question whether a woman could be the Head of State5.

That I had decided to immediately return from the land of green cards and visa lotteries to somehow make my mark, even on a tiny speck of Benazir’s Pakistan, was a leap of faith; our generation was simply fed up with what they had seen, heard and witnessed under military rule and in the games power played in the region. And now Sikander was leaving home, at a time when Benazir’s rule, after her landslide victory, had been abruptly cut short by the ‘establishment’ who wanted her to dance to their tune.

Shahzia Sikander’s journey to America, and how she was received at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), became an important aspect of the direction of her future work. It wasn’t just about departures from home, from Zia’s Pakistan in the backyard of the great game in Afghanistan, but her arrival in the land of the brave and the free, where in theory only merit prevailed, regardless of the colour of your skin or your belief system.

Arriving in the wake of the first Gulf war the artist, whose extraordinary accomplishment remained unknown, was quizzed incessantly about her origin and her looks.  Her appearance, thus perhaps became primary to her existence. She narrated6(and I recall) how she had one day decided to don a blue burqa, for the entire day, on campus to see how people reacted to her presence!  I could relate to that; this line of questioning had also hounded me when I first arrived in the US. Ah! Where in India is Pakistan? Which state? Ah, so how come you speak such good English? Why do you have a British accent? Did you wear a veil at home? As if they needed some label to define me. Unable to hide her impatience, one day my WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) friend, who had back-packed around the world after high school, decided she would introduce me as Shah (King), “you know the Shah of Iran”.  Let them bow down and kiss your hand…., had been her refrain, as I chuckled.

Riding the Written, 1993, Vegetable color, dry pigment, watercolor, tea on hand prepared wasli paper, 9 ¾ x 15 ¾ inches, © Shahzia Sikander

Looking at Sikander’s work from the early 1990s shows experimentation with mixed media on handmade wasli paper, including ink and watercolour and larger more abstract and spontaneous brushstrokes, which gradually began to emerge as recognizable forms. While also exploring the beauty of calligraphy, an inquiry into her own cultural identity becomes apparent. Her works questioned practices of rote learning of the Holy Book, and she also began to delve deeper into colonialism and its ramifications.

SpiNN, digital animation with sound, 6:38 min, 2003, © Shahzia Sikander.

However, her body of work during post-graduate school even defied paper and took the art form to new heights, both physically and metaphorically. The size and scale of these works were unprecedented and she began experimenting with 3D media including animation. She made it possible now to even ‘experience’ the visual.  A chance encounter with her animation-based immersive installation, in the summer of 2008 at the Villa Borghese in Rome, left me spellbound. The audience was awestruck the moment they walked into the black tent. This was disruption at its best, the figures of a few hundred gopis 7(female devotees of Krishna) rebelling to unite, transforming into a unified beast that Krishna rides into the darbar.  Sikander elaborates that the animations were a natural outcome to her process because her drawings toyed with the idea of narrative and movement.  My only critique of the Morgan exhibition was the replay of two of the artist’s animations on rather small manuscript sized screens, which blended in with the display, but in the process the immersive effect (of the original) was considerably watered down.

Sikander returned to visit Pakistan after nine whole years, with clearly a strong urge to reconnect with home; the world of bright orange jalebi and the fragrances of marwa and motia that she had pined for — Lahore.  Unable to hang entire exhibitions at this time, she chose the next best option, a series of gallery talks in the the major cities.  Eloquent as ever, her talk had been accompanied by a slide show of her work in the previous decade; students, artists, academicians and art collectors were mesmerized by what unfolded, image after image, on the screen.  For her, it appeared as much to share her practice of the first decade (from RISD to Houston and eventually to the prestigious Whitney Museum biennale in New York 1997), as much as it was to remain in touch with the home audience, as witnesses to how she had  confronted her ‘cultural dislocation’.

Who’s Veiled Anyway?, 1997, watercolor and gouache on tea-stained wasli paper, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Drawing Committee, 97.83.1, © Shahzia Sikander. Courtesy: the artist, Sean Kelly, New York and Pilar Corrias, London.

Who’s veiled anyway? is multi-layered as it finds its anchor in traditional paintings of royal polo players who are traditionally males, yet the central figure appears to be veiled in a white burqa. The dexterity with which the landscape here is painted can perhaps only find its match with pages of the Babarnama8painted by Safavid masters in the late 16th century9or those of the Khamsa (quintet) of Amir Khusrau in the 17th century10. That she has chosen to use chalk-like strokes with what appears to be the common white-out or liquid for paper, is as significant an act as the placement of the central figure. The artist also challenges gender norms and religious stereotypes while leaving the viewer to interpret whether the very fine lines may be referring to a cage or protective armour.

The image of the veiled woman makes an appearance in many of her works and as much as she may appear to be mark making in a modernist view of the work, one is compelled to see it allude to the erasure of women’s histories, especially strong South Asian Muslim women11. In Sikander’s painting it seems the central figure has held another hostage or is that an avatar? And yet at the same time, the subject seems be observing the scene too, akin to an out-of-body experience.

Specifically it was a reminder of the absence of women from grand chronicles. There are very few images of Sultan Razia, the first woman monarch and ruler of India crowned in 1236, or the intrepid Chand Bibi, the veiled Regent and ruler of Ahmednagar, Deccan (1580-95).  An accomplished painter, musician, and polo player, Chand Sultan defended her people against Mughal armies and remained irksome even in the accounts of Abu’l Fazl, the exalted historian of Akbar. Acclaimed even by her enemies who eventually hanged her assassins, Chand, like Sultan Razia, was assassinated by her very own12.

Chand Bibi is scarcely mentioned today and is seen sparingly on book/album covers and extremely rarely on manuscripts, if at all. The rigour with which Sikander handles her medium and history is enviable, almost rebellious, and compels a focus on her early practice, bearing in mind that it was a time when Muslim American or Muslim Women’s Agency were not yet buzz words of the post 9/11 era.

Hoods Red Rider II, 1997, vegetable color, dry pigment, watercolor, and tea on wasli paper, 10 1/8 x 7 1/8 inches, © Shahzia Sikander.
Nur Jahan Holding a Gun, 17th Century , Abul- Hasan Nadiruz Zaman, image copyright; courtesy of Rampur Raza Library

Hoods Red Rider is a personal favourite of mine in the series, where a seemingly androgynous figure, no doubt regal (a prince with a slipper in hand?), appears together with a strong feminine form of a multi-tasking (read life-saving) goddess, as an act of role reversal.  At first glance the overlayers of patterns, perspective emblems and the artist’s favorite motif of the Chalawa13suggest a modernist composition defying well defined registers — not a traditional device. But as the gaze lingered, there was a sense of déjà vu. I was convinced that it could be Nur Jahan, Padshah Begum the co-sovereign of emperor Jehangir — the power behind his throne, who issued Farman or edicts in her own right, who was the only woman in Mughal history whose name was carried on coins. This was definitely a commentary on gender and power, just as another artist had cleverly done in the 17th century.

The resemblance to a remarkable 17th century painting of Nur Jahan by artist Abul Hasan Nadiruz Zaman14, now in the Rampur Raza library, is uncanny. Titled Nur Jahan Holding a Gun, it is an unconventional representation of her legendary beauty and self-assurance, and shows the Empress as an androgen (perhaps) with her hennaed hands and feet, in a male hunting attire complete with head turban and handling a musket taller than herself. We know from Tuzk-e-Jahangiri, the autobiographical account of the emperor that in 1616 while enjoying their hunting sojourn in Mandu, “Nur Jahan Begum” showed phenomenal marksmanship and killed four lions with six shots! On the occasion, Jahangir gifted her a pair of pearls and a diamond, worth a lakh of rupees, the emperor notes15. That she saved Jehangir’s life, with the same skills during battle when she quelled the rebellion led by his chief commander Mahabat Khan, is played down in Mughal history even today!

In the Avatar of Reckoning,1993-95, Sikander’s work is seen to become increasingly and explicitly political.  The headless figure emerges as the truly syncretic fusion of the Mother Goddess, where Sikander has created a symbol of feminine empowerment and agency by combining the mother figures and goddesses of the Indus Valley with the revered Durga, who bore weapons as implements of justice and fair-play. To understand this as an image of resilience requires a nuanced approach and some knowledge of the history, myths and legends of the subcontinents, and the ease with which these figures merged into each other inextricably. That a much larger version of this, that the artist had been commissioned to produce (before 9/11) as a mural, was clearly misread (perhaps a victim of Islamophobia) after 9/11 as glorification of violence — a commission that she then walked away from.  This fluidity of form is clearly something that stayed with the artist and we see the sculpture, promiscuous intimacies, once again as the disruption of the fusion (if any) and bringing the non-hetero audaciously to the fore. As a recurrence of this idea the figures this time move away from paper to take on voluptuous three-dimensional forms, harking back to Indus Valley fertility goddesses, the sculptures of Khajurao and Chola bronzes as a counter to the classical Venus; with a marvellous patina akin to sub-continental sandstone.

With the show catalogue sold out by July, there is no doubt that the New York crowds will remember these extraordinary visuals long after this magnificent show is over. The brilliance of the art and artist will resonate at the marvellous Morgan Library which has definitely been introduced to a much wider audience as a consequence of this show. For the audience it can best be described as a cliff-hanger as one heard many wanting to see more and wondering what all the artist had accomplished, since then.

The exhibition ‘Extraordinary Realities’ was organized by the RISD Museum and presented in collaboration with the Morgan Library till September 26,2021. It will now be on view at the RISD Museum in Providence from November 12, 2021 through January 30, 2022. It then travels to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, where it will run from March 13 through June 12, 2022.

Title image: Installation view, photo credit – The Morgan Library & Museum/Casey Kelbaugh

Endnotes

  1. Commonly referred to as miniature painting – clearly a misnomer used by the colonials who were only used to seeing such elaborate paintings as wall art. When you reflect on the size and scale of the Hamzanama commissioned by emperor Akbar in the late 17th century, the category of ‘miniature’ is further contested
  2. situated in Islamabad
  3. A western critique of the Persian and Indian manuscript paintings had been the missing 3-point perspective
  4. since the co-sovereign Mughal Empress Nur Jahan’s reign ended in 1627, upon the death of Jahangir.
  5. This led the renowned feminist Fatima Mernissi to research & write ‘The Forgotten Queens of Islam’, 1989.
  6. During a gallery talk when back in Pakistan, in 1999.
  7. For a primer on Krishna & Gopis, please read Mythology for the Millennial: The story of Radha-Krishna; or Why you’ll always remember your first by Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, First Post, August 29, 2018
  8. Chronicle of the times of Emperor Baber, 1504-1530
  9. A fine specimen by Parasa, in the collection of the Morgan Library, NYC.
  10. Specimens in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, NYC.
  11. This is seen in a number of works from 1993-1997, in particular
  12. Chand Bibi – the warrior queen of the Deccan, Manu S Pillai, Livemint, 15 April 2019
  13. Chalawa in Punjabi is a poltergeist. Shahzia explained in an interview with the NYT that she identifies with the creature “someone who is so swift and uncapturable that no one can get a hold of it or pin it down (as a determination to resist imposed categories)
  14. Dubbed by Emperor Jahangir as the Wonder of the Age, the artist Abul Hasan and his work in general were declared by the emperor to be “perfect” (Tuzuk-e-Jehangiri as quoted in Empress –The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan by Ruby Lal pages 144-149).
  15. Tuzuk-e-Jahangiri

Fatma Shah is a freelance consultant with more than twenty years experience in Economic Development and Finance. Since 2018 she has been a volunteer curator at APWA Crafts with a motivation to revive interest and promote a wide range of artisanal products. In 2010 she formed Jadeed, an arts management platform, and has curated a few exhibitions and events.  Having a keen interest in art, literature and cultural heritage she occasionally writes about the visual arts and artists, cultural heritage and reviews books in her areas of interest.

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