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Shahzia Sikander

Pakistani-American Contemporary Artist
Born 1969, Lahore, Pakistan
Lives and works in New York

Shazia Sikander is an internationally acclaimed Pakistani contemporary artist who works in painting, animations, installation, video and performance. She has made social, political and cultural interventions through her experiments with the traditional form of miniatures.  



Master of Fine Arts Rhode Island School of Design, Rhode Island, USA


Bachelor of Fine Arts National College of Arts, Lahore, Pakistan


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UNDERSTANDING Shahzia Sikander

The distance between the origin and contemporary practice informs Shahzia's works

Shahzia Sikander maintains her fascination with the distance between the origin and its evolved state. This is conveyed with her association with the historical tradition of miniature painting of the Mughal Empire as well as the Hindu kingdoms of that period, and the ruptures she introduces in her contemporary renderings. This distancing provides different frames of critical impetus to re-define what tradition was and what potential it has of becoming presently.

She is interested more in the forms and structures of miniature painting than the narratives, something that they were known for as story-telling devices. At her hands this form departs from being just narratives and cultivates different critical degrees.

Shahzia Sikander, The Pathology of Suspension, 2008.

The confluence of Hindu-Muslim imagery re-forms notions of power and identity

Shahzia Sikander creates a fusion imagery borrowing from both Hindu and Islamic archetypes. Mythology and contemporary, of both religious groups are both brought together in an anachronistic whole to situate the politics of religious and cultural identity. Even with a precedence in the representation of tolerant motives in the historical miniatures, where both Mughal emperors and Hindu princes shared the same space, Shahzia’s works resort to a more radical re-imagining of the body and identity.

In Fleshy Weapons, 1997, Shahzia creates a dual existence for the female body with the multi-armed Hindu goddess co-habiting the veiled face, in a reference to the Muslim woman. This assaults the conventions that one is accustomed to and attempts to re-look at the politics of power that is attributed or derived from an image and its iconography.

Shahzia Sikander, Fleshy Weapons, 1997, acrylic, dry pigment watercolour, tea wash on linen, 96 x 70”.

Animation technology provides a transformative dimension to her art

Technology for Shahzia opened up new sequences of creativity that she could experiment with. Animation technology and applications like Photoshop specially gave her an exciting window to produce new movements and transformations in her art. From a static image, her works could now transcend the confining boundaries, and move to accommodate more narratives and newer meanings within that single frame. With this new edge, she could question the fixity of an image and revere fluidity and change as novel creative charges in her art.

In The Last Post, 2010, Shahzia explores the binaries and interactions between the East India Company and China over opium trade. In one of the sequences, the Company man disintegrates into smaller bits, alluding to the end of the Anglo-Saxon dominance with the form of the art and its transformation within, acting as a visual allegory.

Shahzia Sikander, The Last Post, 2010, still from a HD video animation.

Shahzia's oeuvre also includes large-scale installations

Shahzia’s rigueur with small-scale miniatures can also be seen with an equal measure with her large-scale in situ installations. These installations are usually in multiple layers handing from the ceiling of the exhibition space with long scroll-like paintings and then layered in a free-flow layers of tissue paper.  The layers help in manipulating or rendering meanings to different contexts, offering a density rather than simplifying the readings of different personal or cultural constructs.

In To Be, 2004, the artist conceives long, hanging paintings being layered with tissue paper, with a luminosity generated by the glass window. The viewer is then challenged to penetrate the layers in order to see the actually piece of painting, thus offering multiple constructions and multiple combinations of meanings.

Shahzia Sikander, To Be, 2004, watercolour, ink, and acrylic on tissue paper and window, 30 x 8’.

Calligraphy as just a visual entity without any production of linguistic meanings

The miniature tradition of the Mughal period that Shahzia draws upon laid an emphasis on calligraphy. The written word almost always accompanied the historical miniature as they came out of manuscripts, adding and complementing meanings. Although the exquisite penmanship is read in conjunction with the image, its existence in the margins of the paintings or within, Shahzia upturns this tradition and formulates the written word as a purely visual device, stripping it of any linguistic meaning.

This fascination with the visuality of the written word impressed upon Shahzia when she read the Quran in Arabic without understanding a word of it. She introduces this feeling in her Writing the Written, 2000, where within the borders the calligraphy is made to look like horses with a hint of movement. The calligraphy is transformed to possess a pictorial beauty irrespective of any meaning.

Shahzia Sikander, Writing the Written, 2000, vegetable colour, dry pigment, watercolour, tea, on hand prepared Wasli paper, 8 x 5 1/2”.