Shahzia Sikander's Khilvat I (2021).

Shahzia Sikander's Khilvat I (2021).

Shahzia Sikander Unbound

Can decolonisation involve forms of intimacy? Must it entail toppling monuments of the past? Shahzia Sikander envisions a Hindu celestial dancer entangled with a Renaissance Venus. Archetypes of the divine feminine embrace.

Shahzia Sikander: Unbound focuses on themes of manuscript techniques and archives, abstracting the feminine, and decolonisation through the early and more recent works of contemporary artist Sikander.

Shahzia Sikander (b. 1969) received her Bachelor of Fine Arts at the National College of Arts Lahore, Pakistan, in 1991, where she specialized in “miniature” painting and was the first major artist to train with Bashir Ahmed. She went on to become the first woman to teach in the Department of Miniature Painting alongside Ahmed in 1992, being a pioneer for an entire generation of artists. Although a few universities grant degrees in “miniature painting” and artists self-identify as “miniaturists” or “neo- miniaturists,” art historians and artists like Sikander are now moving away from this term because of its colonial connotations.

“Miniature” dislocates painting practices that occurred in a variety of media from their original contexts. The term was first used for medieval European manuscript illumination because of the presence of the lead compound minium (Pb3O4). “Miniature” has suited the needs of art dealers and “collectors who cut up masterpieces” in the words of art historian Christiane Gruber.

For Sikander, painting is her process. Her early paintings made in the ‘80s and ‘90s anticipated her forays into animation, mosaic, and now sculpture. Medieval and early modern artists of South and Central Asia similarly moved between media. This is how visual vocabularies evolved.

By abstracting the feminine, Sikander takes Muslim women out of the bounds of the stereotypes in which they are often placed. And yet, Sikander does not forsake her art historical lineages. She excavates archives to learn from tradition. In Unbound she debuts the Khilvat series, which is her response to an album of seventeenth-century erotic Indian paintings housed at the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Sikander decolonises the “miniature.” She unbinds it from archives of the past to envision new futures.

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