The Neo-Miniature Painting of Shahzia Sikander

Shahzia Sikander. Photo: Courtesy of Shahzia Sikander
Shahzia Sikander. Photo: Courtesy of Shahzia Sikander

Shahzia Sikander is a Pakistani-American visual artist born in 1969 in Lahore, Pakistan. Sikander works with different media such as painting, printmaking, drawing, video, animation, installation, and performance. Her work has been described as eclectic and fuses historical and artistic references with contemporary themes of Middle Eastern identity. Her work establishes an aesthetic bridge between two cultures. Sikander has been able to mix traditional Indo-Persian miniature painting with minimalist abstraction.

First learning and practices

Sikander received severe training with the miniaturist master Bashir Ahmed at the National College of Arts in Lahore (Pakistan) where she obtained her degree in 1991. She was the first student Ahmed invited to teach with him. She later became the first artist in the NCA’s Miniature Painting Department to challenge the technical and aesthetic frameworks of the medium. Sikander was also the first woman to teach miniature painting at the school.

The Scroll, Sikander’s graduate thesis. Photo: Courtesy of Shahzia Sikander

She has been working since the late 1980s in areas of art such as sculpture, acting, video projection, and digital animation. She has received significant critical acclaim and international attention for her work. She traveled to the United States in 1993 and studied at the Rhode Island School of Design where she received her MFA in 1995.

Sikander has promoted the artistic genre called neo-miniature with her thesis project The Scroll (1989-90). This innovative work helped her rapid international ascent in the mid-1990s. The Scroll was acclaimed by national critics in Pakistan as an innovative project, launching the medium at the forefront of the NCA program. Due to its excellence in miniature painting, it won the prestigious Shakir Ali and Haji Sharif awards.

Teaching miniature painting

Sikander began teaching miniature painting at the NCA in 1992, along with Bashir Ahmad. She returned to the traditional practice of miniature painting during the military regime of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. A time when the medium was deeply unpopular among young artists.

In the international arena of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Sikander’s work brought recognition of this medium into contemporary art practices around the world. Her work launched what is now globally called “neo-miniature” to the forefront of the NCA program in the early 1990s. This encouraged students who were on the sidelines to engage in miniature painting with experimentation.

Shahzia Sikander, Transformation as Narrative, 2007. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York © the artist

During that time she participated in exhibitions at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art (1998), the Renaissance Society of the University of Chicago (1998), the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (1999), and the Whitney Museum of American Art (2000). Sikander’s pioneering practice takes classical Indo-Persian miniature painting as its starting point. But she does not stop there and challenges the strict formal tropes of the genre by experimenting with scale.

Sikander has developed a very personal and original approach to her work that is critically charged. Drawing on South Asian, American, feminist, and Muslim perspectives, she has used her ongoing capacity for reinvention to question ideas of language, migration, trade, and empire. “I find this attitude a useful way to navigate the complex and often deeply rooted cultural and socio-political postures that surround us 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” she said.

Three decades of multimedia practice

Sikander has developed a multimedia practice over the course of three decades. This practice encompasses the production of compelling objects that transcend borders. Her artistic works explore stories of colonialism, mechanisms of power, notions of language, and migration. This work goes against the idea of homogenous and authentic national cultures.

Shahzia Sikander, Transformation as Narrative, 2007. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York © the artist

She wants to make people understand that words like “tradition,” “culture,” and “identity” are unstable, abstract, and constantly evolving terms. Her interdisciplinary practice radically alters assumptions about national, political, and historical borders in art. It also offers a more inclusive and different way of delimiting the arbitrariness of geopolitical boundaries.

Shahzia Sikander will be the subject of a traveling exhibition opening at the Morgan Library, New York, in June 2021. Titled Shahzia Sikander: Extraordinary Realities, this exhibition will be shown at the RISD Museum, Rhode Island, in November 2021, and the MFA Houston, Texas, in the spring of 2022.

Extraordinary Realities brings to light its critical role in the dialogue of miniature painting with contemporary art. It is a complete review of Sikander’s work, tracing her early development as an artist in Lahore and the United States from 1987 to 2003. Due to these exhibitions, a new monograph will be printed.

Achievements and recognitions

Some of her work can be found in the permanent collections of many prestigious institutions worldwide, including the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia; Asian Art Museum, San Francisco; Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas, Austin; Brooklyn Museum, New York; DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Arts, Athens; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C. amongst others.

Shahzia Sikander: Extraordinary Realities Hardcover. Photo: amazon.com

Sikander has had major solo exhibitions throughout the world, including the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (2017); MAXXI | Museo Nazionale Delle Arti del XXI Secolo, Rome (2016); the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao (2015); the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C. (2012); the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (2010); the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin (2007); the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney (2007); the Pérez Art Museum Miami (2005); and at the San Diego Museum of Art, California (2004) amongst others.

Between the numerous awards, grants, and fellowships Sikander has received are the Tamgha-e-Imtiaz, the National Pride of Honor Award presented by the Pakistani Government (2005), the John D. and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation Achievement ‘Genius’ award, (2006), the National Medal of Arts Award presented by U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton (2012); the Asia Society Award for Significant Contribution to Contemporary Art (2015); the Religion and the Arts Award (2016); and the KB17 Karachi Biennale Shahneela and Farhan Faruqui Popular Choice Art Prize (2017).

Her work is featured at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Sikander currently lives and works in New York, NY.

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