November 5 - December 19, 2020
November 5 - December 19, 2020
Weeping Willows, Liquid Tongues, Shahzia Sikander’s first exhibition with Sean Kelly Gallery, is an expansive, in-depth look into the artist’s recent work, featuring dynamic, large-and-intimately-scaled drawings, a captivating new single channel video-animation, luminous, intricate mosaics and her first free-standing sculpture.
In this rich and diverse body of work, Sikander explores various iconographies and power structures to present transformative ideas; her interests in literature, history, sociology, psychoanalysis and the examination of how culture and society shape the imagination are all fodder for her work. Storytelling, language and text are also compelling influences and cornerstones of the artist’s methodology. “Language is fundamental to my practice,” Sikander has noted, explaining,
When I read words that inspire me, the relationship cast with the experience itself is precise and tactile. Visual experience is often a sensorial turmoil. The process of writing allows me to reflect. It will elicit multiple responses over an undetermined period of time. It is that space of interiority and of unknown measure that piques my curiosity. Out of the amalgamation of visual memory, chaos of experience, and influence of the literary comes amorphous creativity through the act of drawing.
The title for this exhibition, Weeping Willows, Liquid Tongues, arose whilst Sikander was “fiddling” in the space between thinking and painting, a territory where, she observes, ideas crystalize through the act of drawing. It refers to a liminal space where silence resounds, melancholy illuminates and truth emerges from darkness; where art, poetry and literature inspire desire over fear. It embodies a fluidity of thought, capturing precise words that can be simultaneously visual and visceral, intricate and dynamic.
Sikander works in a variety of mediums and at various scales to address this multivalence of ideas. Every artwork she creates is conceived of as a poem, exploring tensions between material and meaning, people and society and power and powerlessness, engaging the intrinsically beautiful and poignant into relevant and transformative. Joyous and beautiful, Sikander’s new works also connect with critical socio-economic issues, addressing climate crisis, cyclical themes of struggle, warfare, memory, tradition, migration and the ultimate frame against which all experience unfolds, death and its opposite, life.
Throughout my practice I have aimed at creating work with unpredictable diversity in pursuit of a multi-faceted imagination, open to influences and experiences. - Shahzia Sikander
With its sinuous entanglement of the Greco-Roman Venus and the Indian Devata figures, Sikander’s first sculpture in bronze explores the ‘promiscuous intimacies’ of multiple times, spaces, art historical traditions, bodies, desires and subjectivities. The two female protagonists are modelled on the goddess in Bronzino’s, An Allegory with Venus and Cupid and an Indian Devata figure in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The work takes its title from an essay by Gayatri Gopinath in the forthcoming monograph, Shahzia Sikander: Extraordinary Realities, in which she writes, “In their suggestive embrace, the intertwined female bodies bear the symbolic weight of communal identities from across multiple temporal and geographic terrains. They evoke non-heteronormative desires that are often cast as foreign and inauthentic, and instead challenge the viewer to imagine a different present and future. This backward glance demands that we understand ‘tradition,’ ‘culture’ and ‘identity’ as impure, heterogeneous, unstable, and always in process, disrupting taken-for-granted national, temporal and art historical boundaries.”
This film, made from multiple drawings, reveals the cyclical theme of struggle through kinetic forms. Reflecting upon relationships that embody a moment of reckoning, such as between migrant and citizen, women and power, human and nature, Sikander culls a dramatic sequence of events in her restaging of an imaginary historical Indo-Persian-Turkish painting. The film begins with a female face composed of millions of particles, descending and initiating a rite of passage. This process of expulsion and expansion is carried further via an iconography of a joust, where two warriors are linked to each other in a complex dance of metamorphosis. The human connection to the particles of dust and light is a testament to the numinous nature that can sustain or extinguish human life. The moving, morphing, flowering land emphasizes that earth is not an inert entity where the invisible and the visible world are both animated through the presence of life and death. The lyrics, sung in Turkish by Zeb Bangash, refer to the sensuous world and its enveloping nature, a quest for the unknown and the inherent existential underpinning of human existence.
The uprooted sinuous tree moving through water is about human displacement, alluding to the expulsion from the Garden of Eden while pointing to the sea as a space of peril, where in the annals of time and history colonial trade and theft occur. - Shahzia Sikander
The two interlinked female protagonists depicted in Arose, rich in detail and depth, are portrayed as a circular bloom. Having risen to the top, buoyant and afloat, they exist untethered to any specific time or space, while being a critical part of the natural environment. The artist chose to not grout the mosaic and keep the surface uneven with varying sizes of glass pieces to further endow the work with a sculptural sensibility.
Translation of the Urdu text in Kinship: "The deep decorum of the hidden is misread as revelation, The Clairvoyant lost in dreams, dreams he is awake"
In Kinship, the cavernous interior of the depicted figure's human torso is exposed as the site of a rich and nascent renewal. From the death of the delimited, the simply-personal, this depicted figure finds rebirth, inspiration into realms of greater vibrancy and possibility. Here, creation is seen as a profound act of imagination, one that unites the artist not only with tradition, but with tradition's embodiments of the numinous, itself.
Our ecological condition is a mirror of social conditions: erosion of climate, of borders, rising waters, rising heat, displacement of bodies. - Shahzia Sikander
On her use of Mosaic
What led me to mosaic was animation. It was the dynamism of the pixel that emerged in my mind as a parallel to the unit of a mosaic. I began experimenting with mosaic in 2015 when I received my first large scale permanent public art commission for Princeton University, a sixty-six-foot-high glass, ceramic and marble mosaic, entitled Ecstasy as Sublime, Heart as Vector. The visual language comes from my interrogation of Indo-Persian painting; the compression of space through detail and density inherent in the material is intentional. In the bottom section of the mosaic, the struggle between imagination and the lack of it is represented through the struggle between life and death. The figure’s interface with the skeleton is also a comment on the human struggle with the tragedies of lost histories in the mysteries and annals of time.
The Perennial Gaze is intended as an expression of female agency. The floating headless abstract form, which surrounds the central figure, is a motif present in many of Sikander’s early works; it implies a self-nourishing female that refuses to be fixed, grounded or stereotyped and has continued relevance across cultures.
Both Embrace and Inner Circle, relate to imagery in Arose, but are not “studies” for it. The female protagonists can be seen as equally androgynous, proactive and intelligent, and connect to the past in imaginative ways. Acknowledging the importance of drawing to her, Sikander has described it as “functioning like a libretto” in her work. “I see myself as a thinker and drawing is my thinking hat,” she maintains, referring to drawing as “a notational tool, a fundamental language that allows me to collaborate with other languages.” Describing her drawing practice, Sikander observes,
Space, velocity, magnitude, direction—all essential elements inherent in the process of drawing—become more active through animation and music, linking time-based mediums to the act of thinking. Drawing provides the armature for expression, so remains essential in my practice for working in other mediums and engaging with collaborators. The way I look at drawing is that it is rooted in a human lineage that can communicate across cultures and has the capacity to be introspective as well as forward looking. Imagination can be a metaphor for a soaring and empowering space that is free from constraints, that ties past to present and present to future.
I see myself as a thinker and drawing is my thinking hat. It is a notational tool, a fundamental language that allows me to collaborate with other languages. - Shahzia Sikander
Disruption as Rapture, 2016
Disruption as Rapture, commissioned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, takes an 18th-century Gulshan-i Ishq manuscript in the museum’s collection as a point of departure, engaging multiple narratives within the manuscript to explore its multiplicity. Written in 1657–58 by Nusrati, court poet to Sultan Ali Adil Shah II of Bijapur, the poem, a North Indian Hindu love story recast as a Sufi tale for an Islamic court, is also written in Deccani Urdu and Persian naskh script, the language of the Muslim elite in South-Central India. The story is a classic tale of star-crossed lovers who must face daunting challenges and painful separation before they can live “happily ever after.” The poet recounts this tale of connection, separation, longing and the final union of lovers by creating a world full of lush gardens and magical beings, where the love story emerges.
The garden is a recurring motif in this work as is flight, functioning for the realm of the imagination as well as the search for internal enlightenment. Two types of converging movements occur in the animated paintings: the choreographed female hair silhouettes and the energetic and dramatic firework-like forms made from hundreds of wings, another reference to flight. Disruption as a means of exploration is full of rapture. The notion is to unhinge, so that the implicated story is freed from depicting an authentic illustration into creating an emotional experience.
Translation of the Urdu text in X: "If the divine lives within earthly instruments and the music they produce, where is then the locus of divinity?"
On the use of Urdu text in her work:
Societies are not static, nor histories one dimensional. Entwined between the overlapping linguistic trajectories of local and foreign languages, such as Urdu and English, lies the interstice, the narrow space of translation and reflection, a metaphor for the mythos of the colonized, the migrant, the erased, the transitory, the artist, those that are caught between worlds, artistic vocabularies, cultures, practices, histories. The works X, In sand lay Rustum by his son, and Kinship allude to such sites. The interwoven texts, fluctuating between Urdu and English are excerpts from legendary poet Ghalib’s multi-meaning ghazals.
Translation of the Urdu text in In sand lay Rustum by his son: "The horseman of life speeds by, where can it be stopped, There are no hands on the reins, no feet in the
The urgency of time and the assault on the living planet is teased out in Flared, a comment on the endless wildfires consuming California and other parts of the West. The recurring motif of valves, spools and knobs, serving as armatures, is based on a photograph of oil pumping platforms that Sikander found in a 1962 issue of BP magazine, which referred to the rigs as “Christmas trees.” She equated the term and its context with ingenious English wit, wryly commenting on the gift-bearing capacity of the oil rigs. Sikander's interest in the hierarchies of power, such as the transnational ideology of global privatization where resources are gathered in the rubric of monetization: language, labor, human intelligence and human attention fuels this series, exploring the paradox of abundance and extraction. Oil and Poppies also prominently manifests the opium flower that serves as a recurring symbol of nature throughout the exhibition, as in Constitutions of the Globe and Arose, a work the artist aligns with “the enormous possibility of the feminine spirit.” At the same time, the poppy blossom alludes to the opium industry in Afghanistan and the long-term U.S. intervention and conflict there.
Notions of home and authentic state are embedded within my practice as an artist but not in any definitive ideology, nationalism or geography. The multiple juxtapositions, unexpected detours, dissonance and jostling and shifting of hierarchies are strategies I employ in my work to explode binary thinking in all its forms. – Shahzia Sikander
Each drawing in the Empire series depicts a state of struggle, of being caught variously between monetizing worlds, vocabularies, competing cultures and histories. From the vantage point and interplay of both sides of the hyphenate Pakistani-American or Muslim-American, the drawings reflect on the underlying currents in the political divisions of American society.
– Shahzia Sikander
Images from the Spiritus Mundi
In an age of overwhelming visual profusion, where no visual regime is ascendant, no image primary, where the vividness and sheer abundance the images consumed daily for the purposes of distraction and commerce are truly breathtaking, it might be naive for a contemporary visual artist of any gravitas to stake her claim on the quest to find and make images of incantatory, even magical power. In short, to seek a holy relationship to the image today is seen as nothing if not foolhardy.
In the Western tradition, before the Renaissance and Reformation, images were the vehicle of presence; images conveyed not only the idea of the holy saint, but summoned her being. Images served no “artistic” purpose, but instrumental ones. Observers stood in veneration, seeking intercession, dialogue, wisdom; an image was the basis of a relationship with an order of experience far deeper than aesthetic appreciation, in whatever form. It was for this reason that theologians sought to strip images of their power, for they engaged the faithful emotionally, imaginally, fundamentally, in ways that the Church could not control. Something of this need to control the emotional and imaginal life of the faithful might be at the heart of the much-misunderstood Islamic proscription of the figurative image, as well.
The extraordinary and unique work of Shahzia Sikander proceeds from a faith in this primal power of the image, and in the belief of an artist as a seer (and maker) of such images. It is a timeless faith, at odds in our accelerated times, which only makes Sikander’s commitment to plumbing the mysterious power of images all the more remarkable.
Over the course of her career, Sikander’s image production has grown—at once— more subtle and more encompassing, with a recent explosion of creativity resulting in images both archetypal and contemporary. Her reclaiming of the iconography of the Prophet from the historical Indo-Persian painting canon, replete with representations of the otherworldly and its angelic hosts, is more than just a nod to a historical mythos. It is an ensign signaling her profoundest ambition: to reclaim the mythic and sublime not as modes of commentary, or even of expression, but as gateways to experience itself.
– Ayad Akhtar
The interlinked bodily forms in these works joust and jostle for personal space, refusing to be boxed or pinned. Both archetypal and contemporary, the images straddle lines dividing citizen and migrant, good and evil, men and women, truth and fiction, acceptability and unacceptability. – Shahzia Sikander
Parallax is a monumental three-channel, single-image audio-visual video animation. Produced in 2013 for Sharjah Biennial 11, it is created from hundreds of detailed, hand- drawn paintings and was inspired by Sikander’s journey through the unique landscape of the United Arab Emirates. Parallax investigates interdisciplinary visual and verbal languages, migration patterns, cultural quarantine and the flux of human identity. Motifs, trenchant historical symbols, and poets’ words are given shifting identities as they come together to cultivate new associations through movement, repetition, velocity, and magnitude to challenge perceptions around historical narratives, conflict, omission and loss.
The work examines contested histories of colonialism, mechanisms of power and cultural authority and tensions over the control of the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. Maritime trade, movement of resources and commodities (such as bodies and oil), naval warfare, the East India Company and the imperial air and land travel routes are all points of reference. Sikander has written, “I want people to engage the work and once they’re drawn in, read more, understand more, and as the work starts to unravel, in its unraveling…time is captured...not just the time of that one person’s experience, but in terms of their visceral and emotional interface with the work and its broader ideas.”
Sikander lives and works in New York City. Her innovative artistic practice led to her meteoric rise internationally in the mid-nineties with survey exhibitions at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, 1998, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art 1998, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden 1999, and the Whitney Museum of American Art 2000. Sikander has had major solo exhibitions throughout the world, including most recently at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, 2017; the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, 2017; MAXXI | Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo, Rome 2016; the Asia Society Hong Kong Center, Hong Kong, 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. Sikander has been invited to participate in significant international biennials such as the Lahore Biennale 01, Pakistan; the Karachi Biennale 17, Pakistan; the 6th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, Manege, Russia; the 8th and 13th Istanbul Biennial, Turkey; the 5th Auckland Triennial, New Zealand; the Sharjah Biennale 11, Sharjah Art Foundation, UAE; the 54th and 51st International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, Italy; and The Whitney Biennial, New York amongst others.
In addition, she has been included in notable group exhibitions at institutions such as the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul; Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin; the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Amongst the numerous awards, grants, and fellowships Sikander has received are the KB17 Karachi Biennale Shahneela and Farhan Faruqui Popular Choice Art Prize, 2017; the Religion and the Arts Award, 2016; the Asia Society Award for Significant Contribution to Contemporary Art, 2015; the National Medal of Arts Award presented
by U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, 2012; the John D. and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation Achievement ‘Genius’ award, 2006; and Tamgha-e-Imtiaz, the National Pride of Honor Award presented by the Pakistani Government.
Shahzia Sikander will be the subject of a traveling retrospective titled Shahzia Sikander: Extraordinary Realities, 1987-2003. The exhibition will open at The Morgan Library, New York in June 2021 followed by the RISD Museum, Rhode Island in November 2021, and MFA Houston, Texas in Spring 2022. On the occasion of these exhibitions, there will be a major new monograph published. Shahzia Sikander: Extraordinary Realities is an exhaustive examination of Sikander’s work from 1987 to 2003, charting her early development as an artist in Lahore and the United States, and foregrounding her critical role in bringing Indo-Persian painting into dialogue with contemporary art. Edited and with essays by Jan Howard and Sadia Abbas, it includes contributions by Gayatri Gopinath, Faisal Devji, Kishwar Rizvi, Vasif Kortun, Dennis Congdon, Bashir Ahmed, Rick Lowe and Julie Mehretu.
Shahzia Sikander would like to thank her video animation collaborators Patrick O’ Rourke and Du Yun, Franz Mayer of Munich, Ayad Akhtar, her longtime studio manager Shannon Ryan, and everyone at Sean Kelly Gallery for their unwavering support.
A version of Ayad Ahktar’s text, “Images from the Spiritus Mundi,” included here, appeared in The Nation, September 15, 2020.
The drawing Constitutions of the Globe derives its title from Sadia Abbas’s essay “Not a Breach, but an Expansion,” from the forthcoming monograph, Shahzia Sikander: Extraordinary Realities.
The English translations of Ghalib’s ghazal in Urdu are taken from the book, Ghalib: Epistemologies of Elegance.
Frieze x Shahzia Sikander, November 5, 2020
In conversation: Shahzia Sikander and Jeffrey Grove, December 3, 2020
Breaking Binaries: Thinking About Art in the Covid Age - Shahzia Sikander and Vishakha Desai, November 12, 2020