Through the looking glass: Shahzia Sikander, Pakistan’s most celebrated global icon of the arts

Raza Rumi in The Friday Times:

ShahziaIt is a pity that I got to discover Shahzia Sikander’s work only when I left Pakistan. After her initial successes in the 1990s, with her migration to the United States, she slowly disappeared from the local art scene and the narratives within her country of birth, almost rendered invisible, like the mythical characters one reads in the folklore. In a different country, she would be celebrated for being a global icon, intensely original and gifted. Not in her country of birth where talent is subjugated to the cliques that define ‘excellence’ and where history has to be doctored to make the present legible and comfortable.

…Sikander’s two decades of practice has seen three distinct phases: first pushing the boundaries of miniature and subverting the tradition; second the early 2000s where she distanced from the form but not its essence and delved into larger questions of global relevance. Her third and more recent phase is turning her art practice into a three dimensional endeavour where the form holds a dialogue with the content, the artist engages in a discourse with her medium; and the viewer is pulled into that conversation. This is reflected in her recent works such as Parallax and ‘The cypress despite its freedom is held captive by the garden’ based on a dilapidated cinema Khorfakkan and a Pakistani labourer. This amazing repertoire, unmatched by any artist of her generation, is nearly invisible in her own country. As Faisal Devji wrote last year in a hard-hitting piece entitled ‘Little Dictators’: “Sikander’s pioneering work is under threat, being routinely censored…”. Devji cited two books – Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia and Art and Polemic in Pakistan (by Iftikhar Dadi) Cultural Politics and Tradition in Contemporary Miniature Painting (by Virginia Whiles) that ignored the ‘foundational character’ of Sikander’s work. These are two major art histories of Pakistan and both omit Sikander’s vital contribution to contemporary Pakistani art at home and abroad. Devji added, “..If anyone can break this stranglehold on the narrative of Pakistan’s cultural history, it is Sikander, who achieved global fame in the pre-9/11 world and whose work is not over-determined by the “war on terror,” itself now an aesthetic commodity.”

Picture: Unseen, 2011-2012, Outdoor Projection at Doris Duke’s ShangriLa, Honolulu, Hawaii.

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