Artist, Feminist, Detective: How Shahzia Sikander Disrupts Art History

The Pakistani American artist and manuscript painting historian asks us: who gets to determine what is “tradition”?

M.Z. Adnan

January 5, 2022

Artist, Feminist, Detective: How Shahzia Sikander Disrupts Art History
Shahzia Sikander (Shahzia Sikander)

On a stark, white wall at the West Court Gallery of Jesus College at the University of Cambridge hangs Zarina (2018), a glass mosaic by Pakistani American artist Shahzia Sikander. Last October, I met Sikander at the opening of “Unbound,” an exhibition that included Zarina. Sikander, clad in black, was standing in front of the mosaic, which depicts two faceless feminine forms reflected in one another, draped in pearls. It is not clear where one form begins and the other ends. “It is kind of a reflection — a shadow image or a mirror image or a distortion,” Sikander told me. “Or it could be one’s own distorted view of oneself.”

 A painting at the San Diego Museum of Art, in the donated collection of Edwin Binney III, an heir to the Crayola fortune, inspired Sikander. But the pose of the figures in Zarina evokes that of a recurring archetypal female in the Indo-Persian manuscript painting canon: a woman seated in a window holding flowers, a bird, or pearls. Typically, the unknown woman is painted by an anonymous artist. “That generic representation is perhaps because things have been unbound and moved around,” Sikander pointed out, “and we don’t know which Western collector donated it to the museum, how it arrived there, how it arrived in the West. All of that is so nebulous, right? The mosaic enables that type of shattering.”

At the heart of Sikander’s practice, which has been the subject of recent retrospective exhibitions at The Morgan Library in New York and the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, is a 30-year-long engagement with the manuscript painting — what has popularly, and problematically, been called the “miniature.” Problematic, because the term dislocates these paintings from their manuscript contexts, according to Vivek Gupta, the curator of the Cambridge exhibition. Islamic art historian Christiane Gruber has referred to collectors and art dealers selling manuscripts folio by folio as a sordid practice that turns masterpieces into “master-pastiches.” The size of the paintings is secondary to the import of these works, Glenn Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, told me. “These are worlds unto themselves.”