Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking

Shahzia Sikander
Perilous Order

Shahzia Sikander. Perilous Order. 1997

(b. 1969 in Lahore, Pakistan, lives and works in New York) Vegetable pigment, dry pigment, watercolor, and tea water on paper, 10 3/8 x 8 3/16" (26.4 x 20.8 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Purchase, with funds from the Drawing Committee. © Shahzia Sikander. Photograph: Sheldan C. Collins, courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art Audio courtesy of Acoustiguide

SHAHZIA SIKANDER: My name is Shahzia Sikander. Born in Pakistan. Came here in ’92. The works come from looking at Indian, Persian miniature paintings. Book illustrations. Illuminated manuscripts.”

 Sikander’s miniature paintings are rich with issues and references completely foreign to the miniature tradition. Perilous Order includes not only Islamic, but also Hindu, modernist, and personal imagery.

SHAHZIA SIKANDER: I have a very strong affection, actually, for this work, because it was layered very slowly over a period of years. It has multiple very thin layers of paint, and thus it allows light to be trapped. And the title, Perilous Order, is about a variety of structural devices which can lead to order, or a chaos of order.

The male figure in the center portrays a friend of Sikander’s. But it is modeled on aristocratic portraits from the Muslim Mughal Empire of India. The marbled border is a traditional framing device. The grid of repeated black circles, which obliterates part of the underlying image, is a reference to minimalism.

SHAHZIA SIKANDER: So I was playing with multiple formalist issues.

 Over the portrait is an amorphous form, of a female, with roots instead of feet. It evolved from quick, gestural works Sikander made without premeditation.

SHAHZIA SIKANDER: The form is self-rooted. So self-feeding. It is independent. But at the same time disconnected. This form has recurred in a variety of works. It almost is actually a very signature form in my work.

 The women here are Gopis – traditional lovers and worshippers of the Hindu god Krishna.

SHAHZIA SIKANDER: There's always a large group of women worshippers, against the singular notion of the male god. And the multiplicity of the Gopis symbolizes women's view of their own spirituality as opposed to a male dominated view. At times they have come across as very humorous for me, where I'm questioning their role.

 To the right, on the adjoining wall, you see a number of drawings by Sikander from her black and white series Fifty One Ways of Looking. In the image nearest the corner, Sikander has reduced the Gopis to the silhouettes of their hair.

SHAHZIA SIKANDER: So the bodies disappear, and the hair remains. A figurative element gets reduced into extreme abstraction. And the meaning changes. The hair sometimes can look as if it's swarms of birds, or bees, or bats. I'm challenged to seek an image which has this potential to change its meaning so many times.

I don't necessarily just see myself as political, or feminist, or dealing with just championing a tradition. I am interested in as many categories as possible. The more the categories, the merrier. Because as an artist, I am not trying to give answers. It's all about questions, and opening new ways of looking at work. And keeping it open ended.

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