In June, the Pakistan-born, New York-based artist Shahzia Sikander and Vishakha N. Desai, president emerita of Asia Society and Asian art scholar, met at Sikander’s studio in Midtown, New York, to mark her participation in Sharjah Biennial 11, the 5th Auckland Triennial and the 13th Istanbul Biennial. Their discussion focused on the transnational nature of Sikander’s work, complexities around the questions of her identity, and her role in the rise of contemporary miniature painting in Pakistan and its reception around the world.
Vishakha N. Desai: So let’s begin with the Sharjah Biennial, as your latest project, Parallax (2013), was unveiled there and will go on to the Istanbul Biennial in September with some modifications. Parallax is an amazingly nuanced installation—an immense three-channeled video projection—but of course you began your career as a miniature artist. So please, could you tell us about the relationship of this new work and its scale to your original training, and describe your experience of working in Sharjah?
Shahzia Sikander: Miniature painting for me has always been heroic in scope and not limited by its scale—it is a space to unleash one’s imagination. Parallax is in fact a compact, varied, multilayered, expandable projection created from hundreds of small drawings. It came about as a result of my visits to Sharjah, and in particular from driving in and around the emirate, across its deserts and up and down its coasts. There is no better activity than driving to get a sense of a space in a car culture, and I picked up a great sense of the topography of the land. Parallax examines Sharjah’s position beside the Strait of Hormuz, and its role as a stopover for the old Imperial Airways. This proximity to water, sand and oil, and of course the historical power tensions surrounding maritime trade, all became fodder for visual play between solid and liquid representations in the work. All of the liquid states in the animation are made up of millions of silhouettes of hair that have been culled from images of gopis—female worshippers of Krishna often portrayed in Indian miniatures. These transform into large swaths of static noise that hover between multiple representations, ranging from oceans, water and oil, to flocks of birds and patterns of human migration.
By isolating the gopi hair from its source, I emphasized its potential to cultivate new associations. Similarly, there is no fixed viewing point in the film. It is simultaneously aerial and internal. For me, even the Arabic recitation in the score doesn’t need a translation, as the emotional range in the delivery is vast and inclusive. This is also a reference to the non-Arabic-speaking Muslim cultures such as Pakistan, where Arabic is primarily aural. I see Parallax as immersive and limitless in scale. Scaled up using certain projectors it could defy all sorts of architectural boundaries, and scaled down it could even be a sort of “Sharjahnama” illuminated manuscript.