In Conversation with John Zarobell
Pakistani-American artist Shahzia Sikander’s drawings are informed by the intricately detailed miniature painting of the Mughal and Persian traditions. Discussing her work included in Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art, Sikander and art historian John Zarobell will examine the “lost in translation” effect of mixing ancient and contemporary.
Shahzia Sikander works in a time of great geopolitical change. Recent events in the Middle East, for example, have helped to break down clichéd cultural and political boundaries and open up new frameworks for contemporary visual art. Working in painting, drawing, animation, installation, video, and film, and employing ideas that are often subversive and polemical in nature, Sikander creates artworks that are physical manifestations of the momentum of our globalized world.
Born in Pakistan and now based in New York, Sikander studied miniature painting in the late 1980s at the National College of Art in Lahore, Pakistan. Instrumental in the re-contextualization of Indo-Persian miniature painting, Sikander’s work launched a major following in Lahore at the National College of Arts in the 1990s inspiring many others to examine the miniature tradition.
Since then, she has developed an original artistic practice that creates a new dialogue with this historical painting style. Inspired by Indo-Persian schools of miniature painting, Sikander incorporates aesthetic debates of popular iconography and contemporary cultural theory into her work. By referring to the traditional forms of miniatures, she conjures associations with imperialism, as well as storytelling and popular mythology. Yet by unraveling the conventions of miniaturist paintings, she also deconstructs the post-colonial legacy of the Pakistan region. Her work confronts and interrogates the perceptual distances between the cultures designated as ‘East’ and ‘West,’ an area of poignancy and difficulty in the current political climate.
Throughout her practice, Sikander interweaves references to the past with reflections on everyday life and its forms, and these visual motifs, drawn from a rich ‘mental archive of imagery,’ repeat and reinvent themselves across various media. Sikander’s primary materials include graphite, ink, and gouache on paper, and in 2001 she began working in digital animation, setting her miniatures into motion. This use of animation, as well as her layered images and the play between representational and abstract forms, de-stabilizes Sikander’s representations and visually embodies her central concerns of transformation, societies in flux, and disruption as a means to cultivate new associations
John Zarobell is Assistant Professor of International Studies and Program Chair of European Studies at the University of San Francisco. Formerly, he held the positions of assistant curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and associate curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He is a regular contributor to the web-based journal Art Practical and he has written for numerous exhibition catalogues and has published in Art History, Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, and the Berkeley Review of Latin-American Studies. His first book, Empire of Landscape, was published in 2010 and he is currently working on his next: Art and the Global Economy.
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