Visual artist Shahzia Sikander’s artworks find many faces to feminism

New York-based Shahzia Sikander celebrates womanhood and oneness with nature through her practice spanning three decades.

by Dilpreet Bhullar Published on : Mar 12, 2020

Amongst the vast variety of genres available within the discipline of literature, ‘children literature’ is a sincere promise of complexity punctuated by signs and symbols. The folk-cum-fantasy tale of the Little Red Riding Hood epitomises the same intricate network of literary devices. Multimedia artist Shahzia Sikander, with her visual language adds wings to Little Red Riding Hood, metaphorically, that lets her fly to enjoy gymnastics in the red and white striped suit or even carry a face of the woman from Indo-Persian miniature painting. Many artists draw influence from mythology and other creative arts, but a few of them truly blend the aesthetic of the two successfully with their artistic oeuvre.

Red Riding Hood, 1997 | Shahzia Sikander | STIRworld
Red Riding Hood, 1997 Image Credit: Courtesy of Shahzia Sikander

Sikander has a vast variety of critically engaging works that are rooted in her feminist and Muslim perspectives, never far from her transnational Pakistani-American identity. Currently living and working in New York, Sikander talks about her passion for literature in an interview, “I see myself as a thinker. Literary histories, poetry, ghazal, rap, fiction, opera are magical places of departures for me. Such an interface with language has been hand in hand with my growth as a visual artist and an individual interested in story-telling and collaborative works.”

Shahzia Sikander | STIRworld
Shahzia Sikander Image Credit: Courtesy of Matthias_Ziegler

The accomplishment of the art forms does not limit its demands to admiration, but its sustenance is dependent on expanding its scope to let the artists experiment with its language. In a similar vein, given the finesse and intricate work of Indo-Persian miniature paintings, Sikander has persistently strived to re-examine its patronage, origin and ownership. The richness of the illuminated manuscripts and unarchived materials has been a repository of signs and symbols to add to her contemporary visual idiom. Interestingly, the wide usage of media and scales of her artworks – from murals, multichannel single-image video to permanent public-art, allow her to effectively translate these knowledge-systems to the artworks.

Gopi-Contagion, 2015. HD video animation on digital LED billboards |Shahzia Sikander | STIRworld
Gopi-Contagion, 2015. HD video animation on digital LED billboards Image Credit: Courtesy of Shahzia Sikander

Within the socio-cultural fabric of South Asia, the history of British imperialism creeps in to shape the politics of representations. History is not accepted as a clean slate but regularly negotiated and reconciled with to raise multiple realities. Sikander poses a pertinent question on the layers of history when she asks, “When one thinks in terms of narratives, and how history, including art history, is determined, how real is that account?” To counter the colonial amnesia, Sikander’s works challenge patriarchal and colonial narratives to give a voice to women who are relegated to the margins of the history. She adds, “It is inspiring to see how a young demographic of women is opening the political discourse towards a more participatory space for non-white people. In that spirit of empowerment, many young women are fighting for equal rights and representation and climate change.”

Parallax, 2013. Three-channel, single-image HD video animation
|Shahzia Sikander | STIRworld
Parallax, 2013. Three-channel, single-image HD video animation Image Credit: Courtesy of Shahzia Sikander

Her complex mosaic portrait Mary-Am at Midtown Houston celebrates the presence of the feminine force in nature, cultures and religions across the globe. If human life on the earth came from water, then the face of the woman with its painterly marks, as seen through the rushes of water, is looking at the open sky to symbolically lay bare the truth of abundance of life and harmony. Resonating with the contemporary times of shrinking cultures and shifting borders, Sikander’s artistic journey is a careful craft of experimentation with the technical and aesthetic aspect of the art to let the viewers partake the pleasure of criticality and sensitivity towards the surrounding.

Mary-Am, a permanent public art fountain | Shahzia Sikander | STIRworld
Mary-Am, a permanent public art fountain Image Credit: Courtesy of Shahzia Sikander

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About Author

Dilpreet Bhullar

Dilpreet Bhullar

Bhullar is a writer-researcher based in New Delhi. She has been co-editor of the books Third Eye: Photography and Ways of Seeing and Voices and Images. Her essays on visual sociology and identity politics are frequently published in leading books, journals and magazines. She is the associate editor of a theme-based journal dedicated to visual arts, published by India Habitat Centre.

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