Shahzia Sikander

Redefining Indo-Persian Miniature Painting

Submitted by: Tanmeet Gujral

An Introduction
Shahzia Sikander, a critically acclaimed Asian American artist, whose contemporary paintings and murals combine the traditional art of Indo-Persian Miniature painting, and her own life experiences into the rich and colorful layers of her works. I have found her art to be breathtakingly beautiful and meticulously

stylized. Her elaborate and vivid compositions, using miniature art and symbols from India and Pakistan, help me connect with aspects of Hindu and Muslim mythology and the history between the two countries that I had not thought of for a long while now. (Painting shown above- Intimacy, 2001) In the early 1990s, Sikander, like many other women of Asian American descent, was stereotyped and her work ethnically categorized as exotic and eastern. This issue of finding one’s own identity and side-stepping the stereotyping by the society is something that has been very important for me, being that I come from India and have struggled with issues of identity. Shahzia Sikander is one of my favorite artist’s as I understand her work, and also to some extent because I can relate to her.

A Short Biography
Shahzia Sikander was born in 1969 in Lahore, Pakistan. After studying Mughal miniature painting at

the National College of Arts in Lahore (1992), she finished her MFA at the Rhode Island School of Art and Design (1995). She was a fellow of the Glassell School of Art’s Core Program in Houston (1995-1997) and an artist-in-residence at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles (2005). Sikander has done many solo and group exhibitions, both in the U.S. and abroad, including in her native country of Pakistan. Sikander has received many awards and honors for her work, including the honorary artist award from the Pakistan Ministry of Culture and National Council of the Arts. prestigious MacArthur Fellows award in 2006. She presently works and resides in New York City and is represented by the Brent Sikkema Gallery in New York City. She won the

Context of Her Art
Shahzia Sikander’s art explores both the Hindu and the and Muslim cultures often and their




imagery from both in a single painting to bring forth her own thoughts about them. Such

juxtaposition can be seen in her painting Fleshy Weapons (shown on the left), which portrays the Hindu goddess Durga in a Muslim veil. Sikander has written: “Such juxtaposing and

mixing of Hindu and Muslim iconography is a parallel to the entanglement of histories of India and Pakistan.”

Her paintings often address the cultural cross currents that she embodies: East vs. West, tradition vs. invention, spirituality vs. capitalism. She embodies the classic tale of an Asian immigrant to America, coming from a third world Muslim country and now leading a very independent life in the 21st century America. While many of her peers in India and Pakistan applaud her, there are still many more from her country who think that she may have sold out on them. She maintains her distinctive yet eye-catching and expressive art with a respect for the cultures that she strives to portray. She traverses these cultural, geographic, and psychological boundaries with ease and grace.

Her Art

Shahzia Sikander Installation View,The Renaissance Society, 1998

Shahzia Sikander’s work can be described as a fusion of the traditional and the contemporary. Her work is characterized its delicate yet precise lines in her

miniature work that is restricted by space, to the larger paintings and installation

work which is more loosely formed and pigments of watercolors seem to run into each other. Sikander uses traditional materials and techniques such as vegetable dyes, tea stains, burnished wasli papers (is a type of handmade paper used specifically for painting miniatures), and watercolor for her paintings. Since 2001 Sikander has also worked with digital animation, setting her miniatures into physical motion. Images break apart and reform in new hybrid permutations, while sound adds a further dimension. Layering is Sikander’s chosen medium of conveying her ideas. According to Sikander, “layering is the medium because with every addition it alters perception, every time the process provides another way to look at the same thing.” The painting shown above, The Installation View, The Renaissance Society, 1998, shows her technique in layering. Here she has taken several small images from her

miniature paintings and blown them up proportionately to become larger than life. The use of tissues and watercolor lends a transparent and fluid effect to the whole work. It seems to exaggerate the vivid work and its ideas.







Sikander, Mirrat II (shown on the left), 1991, is done with vegetable color, dry pigment, watercolor, gold leaf, and tea on hand prepared wasli paper. The painting shows the artist’s strength in traditional miniature painting and reveals tediously rendered borders, architecture, and realistically executed figures placed in multiple aspects of the painting

to imply narrative. This is one of my favorite paintings made by Shahzia as it is done in the traditional miniature style, though her wish to break the traditions is apparent in the paintings borders that seem to have been broken to accommodate her content. Another painting by her, Who’s Veiled Anyway?,1994 ,in which Sikander has portrayed a Persian man wearing a veil instead of the traditional woman wearing the veil. Subdued colors emphasize the nature of the message she wishes to portray. The painting was done by Shahzia partly due to the frustration that she felt when people simplistically categorized her and her work as Muslim or Islamic or Woman in a very biased and judgmental way. The title reflects her idea that people often stereotype while having a limited idea about the other cultures. The painting brings this notion of a stereotypical Muslim woman to the fore, when the viewer presumes the rider to be a woman because of the veil.

In her painting, Pleasure Pillars, 2001 (shown on the left), Sikander has shown several forms of the female figure in various representations. In the middle, Sikander has placed two iconographic representations of the female form in a depiction of East meets West. On the left is a western classically inspired rendering of a female form. On the right is the eastern depiction of traditional femininity. The two central figures are

surrounded by dancing Indian women, in

miniature technique, on all four sides of the painting. There is what appears to be an airplane in the top center of the composition, telling the viewer that it is contemporary, and the angle that is trying to fuse the two types of classical women into one more balanced woman, shown in the use of the horns of a mountain goat who are supposedly very sure footed. Through all of the composition, Sikander has tried to show and reveal women’s objectification over the centuries and even now.

But my most favorite of all of Sikander’s works is the animation titled Nemesis, done by her in 2003. The animation begins with an animal that resembles an elephant, built with a collection of smaller animals and humans and gods and such. As the animation progresses, the elephant like beast is shown to engage in a fight with an evil looking character that eventually destroys this hybrid elephant. The title and the content of the work both depict the Greek Goddess of retribution, also named Nemesis, and her similarity with the Gods of the Hindu religion who are shown to be capable of enforcing such severe punishments on their subjects. The work highlights the friends vs. foe idea. These and many more works by Shahzia Sikander have found international and national acclaim over the years. Though she sometimes has to censor her work, it has by and large been well received even in the communities that it so vehemently portrays.


As I mentioned in the introduction to my research paper, Shahzia Sikander is a critically acclaimed artist, whose reach in audience is far and wide. Though she has sometimes faced issues with racial stereotyping, she overcomes the roadblocks and voices her own opinions in a strong but humorous manner through her art. In researching and writing about Shahzia Sikander, I have learnt a lot about her art and techniques, and about what drives her as an artist. In her experiments with wearing a veil in the States to find out what the people’s reactions would be, she seeks to subvert stereotypes of the East and, in particular, the Eastern Pakistani woman. She has inspired me to think differently about how we look at the various taboo issues in my somewhat traditional and at times conservative Indian (Asian) society. It has been a very learning and fun experience researching and writing about an artist whose work I had seen before and appreciated.

1. - Biography, techniques 2. Biography, Information about Nemesis, 2001, Cultural context 3. Biography, techniques 4. forceFlash=1- Video interview, Biography, techniques, information on some works 5. page=0,0- Context of her Art 6. Images: Google Images- “shahzia sikander paintings”

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