Shahzia Sikander: Readdressing Orientalist Narratives

Shahzia Sikander: Readdressing Orientalist Narratives
Shahzia Sikander (1969) is a Pakistani-American visual artist living in New York. She studied in Pakistan, where she was taught the traditional discipline of Indo-Persian miniature painting. Today she illustrates contemporary narratives through her pioneering use of the neo-miniature.


Born in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1969, Shahzia Sikander took up the traditional practice of miniature painting during Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime, at a time when the medium was deeply unpopular among young artists. She was influenced by her mentor Bashir Ahmad, a fellow artist at the National College of Arts who was devoted to preserving classical representations of the Mughal tradition of miniature painting.

Persian and Mughal Indo-Persian manuscript painting often integrates traditional forms of Mughal (Islamic) and Rajput (Hindu) styles and culture; engaging with the contextual complexities of religious narratives, scenes of battle and court life. Sikander’s re-telling of these tales relies on forms and figures that exhibit a continuous evolution which “dismantles hierarchical assumptions and subverts the very notion of a singular, fixed identity of figures and forms.”

The Scroll, 1992, is a semi-autobiographical manuscript painting, and was the inspiration for Sikander’s thesis project – launching what has come to be called the neo-miniature. The Scroll portrays scenes of everyday contemporary Pakistani life, including rituals that explore cultural and geographic traditions. By bringing traditional and historical practice into dialogue with contemporary international art practices, Sikander’s multivalent and investigative work examines colonial archives to readdress orientalist narratives in western art history.

Interrogating ideas of language, trade, empire, and migration through imperial and feminist perspectives Sikander’s paintings, video animations, mosaics and sculptures explore gender roles and sexuality, cultural identity, racial narratives, and colonial and postcolonial histories. Integrated with both personal and social histories, her work invites multiple meanings, operating in an open-ended state of flux.


The Last Havah

‘Havah’ means ‘air’ or ‘atmosphere’ in Urdu, and ‘Eve’ in Arabic, Hebrew, and other languages. A towering skirted female figure, titled Witness (2023) was part of the Havah commission at Madison Square Park, with a second sculpture, NOW (2023), also an allegorical figure, installed on the courthouse rooftop. Across the two sites, Sikander united female figures and motifs from nature, confronting symbols of power and justice to examine long-standing practices and attitudes that she believes impede the advancement of women.

Justice has often been rendered in the form of a woman, usually holding scales, to symbolise the balance of power. Paradoxically, she is often blindfolded to indicate impartiality, her concealed eyes preventing clear-sightedness by eclipsing the lawgiver’s vision. In Sikander’s sculptures, the allegorical figures have their eyes wide open; Both wear a decorative jabot at the neckline, referring to the lace collar popularised by the United States Supreme Court associate justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the feminisation of the black judicial robes traditionally worn by male justices of the court.

In Witness, a steel hoop skirt with mosaic detail adorns a golden female. The skirt is inspired by the historic courtroom’s stained-glass ceiling – leaded lines that resemble the longitudinal and latitudinal lines on a globe act as a proclamation of the figure’s authority in the world. Her appendages suggest tree roots, something the artist has likened to the “self-rootedness of the female form.” Sikander states that “it can carry its roots wherever it goes.” The figure’s hair is braided to resemble two ram’s horns, identified in many traditions as symbols of strength.

By opening the Snapchat app on their device, visitors scan a Snapcode to unlock Apparition (2023): an augmented reality (AR) experience that features a colourful display of particles and ghostlike images of the courthouse figure. Nearby on an adjacent lawn, Sikander’s video animation of Reckoning (2020) includes figures at once in accord and in conflict within a flowering, nurturing landscape.

On the courthouse roof, NOW rises from the base of a lotus plant, a symbol of wisdom. Sikander’s sculpture is the first female figure to be installed here among a group of nine male law-givers including Confucius, Justinian, and Moses. Through her work, the artist addresses systems of justice and injustice by situating women in positions of power. Sikander has stated: “If we use art, media, and culture to reverse stereotypes about gender, race, immigrants, and the unfamiliar, the beliefs we pass on to future generations will better reflect the complex and dynamic world we live in.”

Through luminous allegorical female figures, Shahzia’s project asks who is historically represented and who wields power in the justice system, both symbolically and practically. Sikander’s eye can turn inward, but much of her work addresses a Western gaze that perceives entire swaths of the world as ‘other.’

After 9/11 and the subsequent American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, that gaze found a new fixation in the Muslim woman: a veiled object, oppressed and in need of liberation. Contemporary art’s engagement with the ‘Muslim world’ involved a visual aesthetic that fetishised imagery of war and the Muslim woman’s body. Sikander resisted this, developing an iconography – severed, androgynous floating bodies – that pushed beyond the bounds of geography, nationality, and identity.

As a female Muslim artist, Shahzia Sikander often had to endure stereotyped biases amongst her community. The veil (a scarf often worn by Muslim women) covers the hair and neck and is symbolic of both religion and womanhood. Sikander’s miniature paintings often refer to the veil, exploring her own religious history and cultural identity. In a performance piece, Sikander wore an elaborate lace veil for several weeks while documenting the reactions of her peers. Sikander explains that the veil gave her an ultimate sense of security, stating that, “It was wonderful to not have people see my face or body language. I felt in control knowing that they did not know I was acting, and checking their reaction.”

In Pleasure Pillars, dancing Mughal and Rajput women surround the headless torsos of a South Asian sculpture and a European Venus. At the centre, a self-portrait crowned in spiralling horns rests beneath two winged objects. One is a mythical beast that emits fire from its limbs; another is a technically drawn military aircraft, hovering in place. Sikander offers an expansive vision of femininity while exposing the threat of violence – a stark indictment of how the war on terror was justified, in part, by weaponising the plight of women.


Collecting Collective Behaviour

In 2019, two Persian paintings sold in a private-auction house in London for roughly eight hundred thousand pounds each. The paintings were illuminated manuscripts, or miniature paintings, and they belonged to the same book: a fifteenth-century edition of the Nahj al-Faradis, which narrates Muhammad’s journey through the layers of heaven and hell. The original book, once an artistic masterpiece, had been ripped apart and reduced to sixty lavish images. Bound, the manuscript was likely worth a few million pounds; dismembered, its contents have sold for more than fifty million.

The dismembering of manuscripts is part of a larger story, a tale of extractive patronage and the passage of empires. The term ‘miniature’ is a colonial creation, a catchall category for a diverse array of figurative paintings that emerged in modern-day Iran, Turkey, and Central and South Asia.

During imperial rule, most illuminated manuscripts were claimed by private collections and museums in Europe, where many still reside in storage, effectively erased. (In 1994, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran had to trade a de Kooning in order to repatriate part of a sixteenth-century manuscript.) The craft, too, was diminished. When colonial schools taught the ‘fine arts,’ manuscript painting was neglected. Even after independence, Pakistan’s premier art academy, the National College of Arts, mainly emphasised Western traditions.

The process of creating the paintings, which historically were commissioned to illustrate religious stories, scientific texts, poetry, tales, and imperial histories, was meticulous. While immersed in her training, Sikander also began interrogating power – the way it shaped the world, and at whose expense. Growing up in the eighties, during Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship, she experienced a shift toward restrictions on freedom, the politicisation of religion, and the policing of public life.

At the same time, America’s military presence in the region was seeping into Pakistani culture, introducing anti-Communist propaganda and the valorisation of war. As Sikander observed this complex political landscape, the art of miniature painting presented her with a frontier. Using a subjugated form that had been consigned to the past, she could try to depict the tensions of the present.

Whereas much of the European artistic tradition centres naturalistic composition – focussing on shading, perspective, and a consistent light source – manuscript painters sought to depict the world through a minute execution of detail, articulating a field of figures with equal legibility. This approach was intended to overload the senses. Rather than mimic the human perspective, it offered a God’s-eye view, in which every object had an ideal form and shape in a codified visual lexicon.

The Timurid sultan Husayn Mirza Bayqara described this process as a stringing together of “pearls of meaning,” during which inherited shapes were enhanced, through the sumptuous application of dyes, paints, and gilding, with the “garb of adornment.” Every painting in Sikander’s canon is such a pearl, the meaning of which derives not only from its beauty but from its meditations on the manuscript tradition itself.

Sikander’s anti-nostalgic relationship to the manuscript tradition allows her to both advance and deconstruct its idioms. In one series, she’s painted over meticulously crafted miniatures, evoking graffiti. In Who’s Veiled Anyway?, she challenges the form’s male-dominated imagery, covering a male polo player with a female silhouette and a trailing burqa. Her signal motif­ – a headless woman – appears again, arranged in a multitude of ways: veiled, winged, hovering in the clouds, and jutting, phallus-like, from a horse.

Manuscript painting was never a static tradition – artists in the Persian world were influenced by the Byzantines, Arab bookmaking traditions, and Chinese figurative techniques – and Sikander often draws on cultural exchanges she’s experienced herself. In the early nineties, she spent time in Houston, and for a year she worked with Project Row Houses: a housing-and-arts community in the Third Ward. While sharing her artistic practice, learning from local artists, and exploring interests ranging from poetry to jazz, her iconography expanded.

In Eye-I-ing Those Armorial Bearings, she layers shields bearing row houses among Safavid arabesques. Behind a striking portrait of the artist Rick Lowe, a co-founder of Project Row Houses, silhouettes that critique negative depictions of Blackness and the Islamic veil float within a sea of symbols including a winged beast, and a many-armed figure – which has previously been banned from some exhibition spaces. These unexpected juxtapositions, which suggest the overlapping politicisation of the Black body and the Muslim woman’s body, evoke binaries in order to dissolve them.

Collective Behavior is the most comprehensive presentation of the artist’s work to date, together an exemplary selection of artwork from across the artist’s career, illustrating her distinctive iconography and continuous reinvention through the adoption of new mediums. At a visual level, her extraordinary realities overturn the dominant subjects of traditional manuscript painting, using pre-modern techniques to lodge arguments about gender, race, and political history. But on a larger scale, it has already disrupted power in the art world itself – signalling to a new generation of artists that a once marginalised form can be turned to fresh and interrogating ends.