Pakistani artist Shahzia Sikander (b 1969) has created and installed two site-specific installations commissioned by Princeton University’s funding for campus art by living artists. Quintuplet Effect, a painting on glass, and Ecstasy as Sublime, Heart as Vector, a glass, ceramic, and marble mosaic, each continue Sikander’s exploration of miniature painting traditions on a contemporary scale and sociopolitical stage.
Sikander was born, studied, and taught miniature painting in Lahore, Pakistan. The rich heritage of miniature painting in the former Mughal capital of Emperor Akbar and his son Jahangir’s Lahore is maintained at the National College of Arts in the city, and Sikander’s mastery of the technique from her earliest education is exceptional. Her Western and non-Western historical perspectives took shape in travel and education across the United States, Berlin, Australia, Laos, and Somalia.
The evolution of her training into artistic expression of another world is evidenced in Ecstasy as Sublime, Heart as Vector. The massive installation measures 20 metres high, delighting viewers as they ascend the stairwell. At the bottom of the work, two bald figures touch hands in an abstract interloping, mirroring one another in form. While the first figure is intensely alive, vividly depicted with colourful organs, the second figure is a ghostly white skeleton almost unnoticed in the face of the brightly hued top form. The form slowly abstracts into flight and fireworks, the gestures immaculately crafted in mixed media mosaic.
The Pakistani influence can be seen in the depiction of a buraq, the mythical beast who carried the prophet Mohammed. The silvery figure at the top of the mosaic hits the light at particularly sunny times of day, infusing the work with religion and spirituality. Making the bold choice to study miniatures and its mystical influences after life in the militaristic climate of Pakistan continues to be radical. As Sikander herself noted, the overtones of the work at Princeton may not have been permitted in her hometown.
The word ‘soaring’ arises in Sikander’s commentary, not only in the massive scale of the works, but in the transcendent property of imagination. Although the aesthetic bears reference to her miniature training, the gestural forms and shadowed silhouettes tell untold stories in an ultimately radical way. As Sikander told visitors, ‘Tension between craft and meaning is almost essential to imagination, and views … active imagination as a fundamentally political stance’. The work’s meaning detaches from itself, and the sensitivity with which the glass is transformed is inherent to the viewing experience.
As such, Sikander dismantles aspects of tradition with her unique style. The vivid figure is evocative of Africa’s glowing gold heart, while the blue and red fireworks are borne of arms struggling in an American flag colour palette. Given the politically charged climate in the United States, fraught by terse American relationships with Pakistan and Iran, the evolution of Indo-Persian miniature into contemporary commentary is particularly prolific and apropos.
There is a growing category of art delving into this heritage technique alongside political discourse, namely the ongoing exhibition of work by Iranian Shiva Ahmadi at Leila Heller and 2015s Bazm and Razm: Feast and Fight in Persian Art exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, curated by Dr Navina Najat Haidar. That exhibition drew inspiration from the enduring 10th-century Shahnama, Book of Kings, completed by Abu’l Qasim Firdausi Tusi (935-1020), circa 1010, with mythical stories from 50 kingdoms of the Arab conquest in 651. Despite tumult in the region over the centuries, the Shahnama continues to hold meaning into present day.
The earlier Bazm and Razm showcase drew great parallels to Sikander’s Quintuplet Effect, the new painting on nine stacked glass panels. Like the exhibition which was inspired by the Shahnama, Quintuplet Effect explores themes from the 16th-century manuscript of the Peck Shahnama, housed in Princeton’s University Library. The painted figures spiral through the panels, with dark hues and vibrant hues that still filter the light through the installation. Ever juxtaposing, the work also includes a silhouette loosely based on British soldiers of the East India Company, rendered as Adam Smith with wings to take flight through intellectual theory.
Sikander’s work is arguably also part of a larger contemporary reaction to Pakistan’s traditions, alongside Pakistani artists Rashid Rana, Imran Qureshi, and the geometric plays on light of Anila Quayyum Agha, as well the post-miniature artists represented by Taseer Gallery locally in Lahore. There are also similarities to Shiva Ahmadi’s Persian miniature adaptations, and Kenyan-born Wangechi Mutu’s gestural female forms. She has been extensively honoured, from her showcase at the Pakistani Embassy in 1992 before RISD to debuting at the Whitney Biennial in 1997, just two years after completing her MFA. Her solo exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC was held in 1999. More recently, in 2012, she received a Medal of Arts from the former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and showed work at the Sharjah Biennial in 2013.
Quintuplet Effect is installed at the newly renovated Julis Romo Rabinowitz Building, home to the Departments of Economics, Finance and Public Policy, Ecstasy As Sublime, Heart as Vector is located at the adjoining Louis A Simpson International Building, which houses 10 academic departments and five international programs.
Princeton has been growing its collection of contemporary artists, which currently includes Sol Lewitt, Alexander Calder, Frank Gehry, Henry Moore and Richard Serra among many others. However, Shahzia Sikander is a new kind of voice for Princeton, and will certainly be a welcome addition.
Ultimately, the site-specific works speak to an important contemporary moment from East to West, and have the potential to impact not just Princetonians, but the art historical canon and political discourse overall.
By Alexandra Bregman