Paradoxes and Polarities

In closing her April 15 lecture at RISD’s Chace Center, multidisciplinary Pakistani artist and MacArthur Award winner Shahzia Sikander MFA 95 PT/PR showed an excerpt from Parallax, her latest animated video installation. A hush fell over the audience as hundreds of birdlike illustrations swirled and dove onscreen, exploding into fragments and then coming back together again to form new shapes. The ever-changing visuals were choreographed to a gripping musical score by Chinese composer Du Yun and a turbulent sea of voices reciting contemporary Arabic poetry.

“With this piece I’m using the infinite space of the digital realm to explore themes of disorder and dissonance – paradoxes and polarities,” says Sikander, whose talk was part of the spring lecture series presented by the department of Teaching + Learning in Art + Design and co-sponsored by RISD’s South Asian Student Association. “My process is driven by my interest in exploring and rediscovering cultural and political boundaries as a space for opening up new frameworks for dialogue and visual narrative.”

As a young artist in Lahore, Pakistan in the 1980s, Sikander primarily worked to perfect the craft of Indo-Persian-style miniature painting, striving to honor the tradition while “expanding the medium from within.” She further redefined the painstaking practice at RISD in the mid-1990s but has since moved on to work in a variety of mediums and formats, including murals, animation, installation and video, always pushing boundaries, playing with scale and challenging the relationships between objects. “It is the artist’s duty,” she maintains, “to question societal norms and reimagine the future.”

Sikander has met with phenomenal, international acclaim, earning recognition in the form of a MacArthur Fellowship in 2006, the US State Department's inaugural Medal of Art in 2012, the National Pride of Honor from the Pakistani Government and a Joan Mitchell award. Her work is included in the permanent collections of museums around the world and at MoMA, the Whitney and the Guggenheim in New York City, her home base.

Disparate global influences

Among Sikander’s influences are fellow alumna and Pakistani native Huma Bhabha 85 PR and the late German-born sculptor and materials pioneer Eva Hesse. The recent resurgence of Turkish “graffiti poetry” by such artists as Efe Murad and Nazim Hikmet, she says—as well as recent political protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and Taksim Square—inspired her to create Pivot, an animated video installation shown at the 13th Istanbul Biennial in 2013. “There is so much within the art world that happens by word of mouth, by engaging, by making a connection,” she says.

Sikander began working with projected images during her 2012 residency at the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art in Honolulu, HI, where she found the collection to be “a study in contradictions.” While in residence, she played with dislocated framing devices to create “a theater of light.” The multi-armed female figure in Parallax (pictured above) was, in fact, inspired by the late Doris Duke herself.

Parallax is on view in Sweden’s Bildmuseet in Umeå through May 18. This spring Sikander is also exhibiting work in group shows at the Belson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City; ArtC in Chennai, India; the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul, Korea; and Exhibit320 in New Delhi, India.

This summer the Pérez Art Museum Miami will exhibit Sikander’s 2010 video animation The Last Post, which focuses on 18th-century colonialism and the infamous East India Company. “The title refers to the bugle call commemorating the soldiers who die in war,” she says. “It also signals a call for the end of the day. Here it refers to the collapse of the Anglo-Saxon hegemony over China.”

–Simone Solondz

April 22, 2014