Shahzia Sikander is one of the contemporary art world's most celebrated stars. She's projecting her hypnotic video installations onto Times Square billboards; she's led exhibitions at major art museums across the world; and she was recognized by the MacArthur Foundation as a "genius" fellow in 2006. The Pakistani-born artist says art has always been a "ticket to life," but what distinguishes Sikander's art from her contemporaries is her training in a centuries-old handmade form of Islamic art — the bejeweled world of Indo-Persian miniature paintings.
The Finest Pictures With The Finest Lines
While the Renaissance masters were going big, the royal ateliers of India's Mughal dynasty were going small. Miniature painting thrived in the 15th- and 16th- century courts of India's Islamic kingdoms. Sometimes as small as 3 inches by 3 inches, these paintings were highly decorative, graphical pages that wove stories of heroism, lovers and political intrigue into gilded works of art. Artists followed stringent rules, and in addition to years of training, the craft required incredibly precise techniques. Pakistani art historian F.S. Aijazuddin says, "For the finest pictures and for the finest lines, they would use what was called an ek baal, which was a single hair — a single squirrel hair — to achieve the finest line."
These miniature paintings are often at the center of the world's leading collections of Islamic art. Navina Haidar curates one such collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She says miniature paintings are "dependent on tremendous technical finesse. As an artist, you are trained by your father, your forefathers, in a workshop setting to create a world that's miniaturized in its scale but absolutely universal sometimes in its content or in its ambition."
But as the Muslim kingdoms of India faded in the 18th and 19th centuries, so did the patronage and the practice of miniature painting. Then in the 1980s, the artist Bashir Ahmad. revived the tradition by establishing a formal department of miniature painting at the prestigious National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan.
Taking Miniatures To A New Level
As a young art student at Lahore's National College of Arts, Shahzia Sikander says she was fascinated by miniature paintings. And while she acknowledges it was a strict and "craft-oriented way of working," she saw miniatures as a language to say new things. For her graduate thesis, she created a miniature painting that broke the mold: a scroll that was 13 inches tall and 5 feet long and featured more than a dozen interconnected illustrations. More importantly, it was a deeply personal piece depicting the daily life of a modern Pakistani woman.
Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal says that thesis was a breakthrough in the history of miniature painting. "Miniature went in decline only because of absence of patronage, not because of loss of technique — so that technique was there," she says. "So when these techniques were passed on by Bashir Ahmad to younger people — I mean especially Shahzia, Shahzia took it to a new level. I mean, it was her thesis work that was sensational. Everybody talked about her work."
Sikander was invited to show The Scroll and other works at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, D.C. The show lasted one day and she didn't sell a single piece of art, but she spent the rest of her visit knocking on the doors of as many American graduate schools as she could, eventually winning a spot a the Rhode Island School of Design. There, Sikander began the academic process of further deconstructing miniature paintings. She says she often faced questions about her ethnic origins and was frustrated to be reduced to an ethnic artist. After all, at the heart of her ambition was the same ambition as any artist — the burning desire to communicate.
She says, "People want to know ... 'What is that cultural practice? Do you, like, run around catching your squirrel?' So I think some of these topics hijacked [the work], actually. They were detrimental."
Finding A Home In New York
Sikander eventually moved to New York City and began creating a new body of work that integrated her illustrations with her training as a modern artist. She says, "This is the first place that I'd been in my three or four years in the U.S. [where] I wasn't being seen through an ethnic lens. ... So I could be who I wanted to be. ... I felt the same kind of confidence that I had when my work got recognized in Pakistan."
In New York, Sikander began merging components of miniature paintings with modern, abstract designs. The result was a blend of surreal shapes and vivid colors that would be at home in a Salvador Dali painting. But her pieces were also tightly controlled, featuring geometric patterns and intricate Indo-Persian borders.
Glenn Lowry, director of New York's Museum of Modern Art, was astounded by the craftsmanship and beauty of her work. "There is a visual lushness," he says. "She has a capacity to draw that's absolutely breathtaking, so she can make images small or large with such precision that you look at them and you're dumbfounded."
In recent years, her illustrations have moved beyond the page into animation, video and large-scale projections.
Control, Exploitation And Hope In 'Parallax'
Sikander's latest piece, Parallax, is cinematic in its scale and ambition. It's a 15-minute film derived from hundreds of handmade illustrations and paintings. The title of the piece suggests a shifting point of view, disorientation and new ways of seeing. Sikander says was inspired by a drive she took across the United Arab Emirates. She spent that trip reflecting on the conditions facing millions of migrant workers from Pakistan, and both the curse and opportunity of the country's immense oil wealth. The result is a work where colorful flows of paint (echoing oil) collide with layers of illustrations and animated forms. She's interested in the layers of history and change that are remaking this region.
Parallax made its American debut at Tufts University at the invitation of historian Ayesha Jalal. She says Sikander is not an overtly political artist, but by disorienting the viewer she's forcing you to see reality in a new light. "She's not really making a political statement but the way in which she presents her work makes you understand that there is exploitation," Jalal says. "Something is going on here — there's control and there is exploitation but there is hope as well."
Breaking Out Of The Muslim Artist Label
So is Shahzia Sikander making Islamic art? Is she making American art? Or is what she does contemporary? Ruba Kana'an is a curator at Toronto's Aga Khan Museum of Islamic art. She says Sikander evades easy categories, and that is a breakthrough in its own right. "It takes quite a lot for artists from Muslim heritage to lose that sort of hyphen that identifies them," Kana'an says. "You're either [an] Arab contemporary artist or you're [a] Pakistani contemporary artist. Well, many artists want to be identified first and foremost as artists. ... Their work is not limited to or restricted to their heritage."
That's exactly what Sikander has been trying to do since she first tried her hand at traditional miniature painting. She says, "Whether it was the Muslim identity, whether it was the female identity or the Asian identity or the Asian-American identity or the hyphened identities ... I felt all of them were essential to who I was. All of it. I couldn't reject one for the other. I didn't want to be labeled by just one. That's still part of who I am."
And in the process of establishing who she is, Sikander has paved the way for other Muslim artists to break out of the frame.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Last night at midnight, the billboard screens of Times Square became a canvas for the artist Shahzia Sikander. She's a painter, animator and video artist. She's also a former recipient of a MacArthur Genius grant. Her contemporary installations began in the centuries-old tradition of Islamic art known as miniature painting. For the conclusion of our series Muslim Artists Now, NPR's Bilal Qureshi introduces us to an artist infusing the future with her cultural past.
BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Walking through the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, I'm always struck by the scale of the Renaissance paintings - the epic portraits and crucifixions. But at the same time the Italian masters were going big, painters in the Muslim world were going small - miniature, in fact. Around the corner from the Met's European collection, the Islamic galleries are home to museum's prized collection of miniature paintings.
NAVINA HAIDAR: Oh, one of our young visitors. I'm so delighted.
QURESHI: Navina Haidar curates Islamic art at the Met. She says miniature paintings thrived in the 15th and 16th century courts of Persia and India. They weren't designed for palace walls. They were tiny pages in gilded storybooks, created for the perusal and pleasure of the nobility. Imagine an incredibly detailed graphic novel with gold leaf borders.
HAIDAR: It is dependent on tremendous technical finesse. You - as an artist, you are trained by your father, your forefathers in a workshop setting to create a world that's miniaturized in its scale but absolutely universal sometimes in its content or in its ambition.
QURESHI: The artist Shahzia Sikander trained in that tradition.
SHAHZIA SIKANDER: If you pick up a catalogue on Islamic art, you're going see there's always a section on miniature painting. And I'm aware of it, but I was interested in new narratives.
QURESHI: The old narratives were epic stories of heroes, lovers and palace intrigue. Shahzia Sikander wanted to tell her story. But first, she had to study the ancient masters. Pakistani art historian F.S. Aijazuddin describes just how exacting that technique could be.
F.S. AIJAZUDDIN: For the finest pictures and for the finest lines, they would use what was called ek baal, which was a single hair, a single squirrel hair, to achieve the finest line.
QURESHI: Shahzia Sikander studied these techniques in the late 1980s under Bashir Ahmad, an artist who revived the miniature at the National College of Art in Pakistan. Sikander says making her thesis was a grueling process.
SIKANDER: Eighteen hours a day sitting in a certain posture - so it's very rigorous. It's very intense, like, the most intense experience I've ever had.
QURESHI: The result was called "The Scroll." It was five feet long and 13 inches tall and featured more than a dozen interconnected paintings. More importantly, it was a personal piece, depicting the daily life of a contemporary Pakistani woman. South Asian historian Ayesha Jalal says it shattered the tradition of miniature painting.
AYESHA JALAL: Shahzia took it to a new level. I mean, it was her thesis work that was sensational. Everybody talked about her work.
SIKANDER: The response was so phenomenal - like, phenomenal.
QURESHI: Shahzia Sikander was invited to show "The Scroll" and other pieces at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, D.C., for one day. She didn't sell a single piece. But instead of heading home, she knocked on the doors of every leading art school in this country. One of them was the Rhode Island School of Design.
SIKANDER: I showed up with my scroll painting in a big, black garbage bag, (laughter), literally because I was, like, how am I going to protect this painting? It can't fit in a portfolio. You know, it's, like, five-foot long with so much detail on it. So I couldn't roll it up. It's very fragile. So I just, like, loosely rolled it and then put it in a garbage bag.
QURESHI: And once the art was out of the bag, she earned her admission. But in those early years, she says many of her colleagues didn't understand where she was coming from.
SIKANDER: People want to know how, culturally, it's coming from a cultural practice. What is that cultural practice? Do you, like, run around catching your squirrel?
QURESHI: With annoying questions about her ethnic brushes and techniques, she found it frustrating that the focus was so often on her rather than her art. That changed when she moved to New York City.
SIKANDER: This is the first place that I'd been in the U.S. where I was not being seen through an ethnic lens. So I could be whoever I wanted to be. I was myself.
QURESHI: Shahzia Sikander began merging components of miniature paintings with abstract design, blending surreal shapes and vivid colors that would be at home in a Salvador Dali painting.
Glenn Lowry is a historian of Islamic art and the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He says, when he first saw her work, he knew she was a star.
GLENN LOWRY: There is a visual lushness. She has a capacity to draw that's absolutely breathtaking. So she can make images, small or large, with such precision that you look at them and you're dumbfounded.
QURESHI: In one piece, she layers the faces of veiled women with the Statue of Liberty, political slogans from the Middle East with winged horses. But her pieces are also tightly controlled. They feature geometric patterns and intricate Indian borders. And in recent years, she's taken the miniature way beyond the page.
SIKANDER: For me, it's always, like, OK, how do you reinvent yourself endlessly?
QURESHI: Her latest piece is a 15-minute film with music, called "Parallax." The piece was inspired by a road trip through the United Arab Emirates. Shahzia Sikander says she was thinking about the conditions facing migrant workers there, about the blessing and the curse of oil wealth. The video takes up an entire room at the Tufts University Art Gallery in Boston. And it's made up of hundreds of hand-drawn illustrations set in motion by a score of music and voices in Arabic.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PARALLAX")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Arabic).
QURESHI: She was invited to debut the piece by historian Ayesha Jalal.
JALAL: I mean, a lot of people are doing digital stuff nowadays - a lot of artists are. What makes Shahzia different is her training as a miniaturist. I really do think that, technically, it does matter. You can't just do gimmicky things. You don't get that impression with "Parallax." There is a lot of substance there.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PARALLAX")
QURESHI: But while Shahzia Sikander has pushed the miniature painting in new directions, her art begs a fundamental question - is she still making Islamic art? Is this American art? Is it modern art?
Ruba Kanann is a curator at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. She says Sikander has succeeded because she transcends those labels.
RUBA KANANN: It takes quite a lot for artists of Muslim heritage to lose that sort of hyphen that identifies them. You're either, you know, Arab contemporary artist or you're Pakistani contemporary artist. Well, many artists want to be identified, first and foremost, as artists. Their work is not limited or restricted to their heritage.
QURESHI: And that's exactly what Shahzia Sikander has been trying to do since she made her first version of a miniature painting.
SIKANDER: Whether it was the Muslim identity, whether it was the female identity or the Asian identity or the Asian-American identity or the hyphened identities, I felt all of them were essential to who I was - all of it. I couldn't reject one for the other. I didn't want to be labeled by just one. That is still part of who I am.
QURESHI: And in the process of establishing who she is, Shahzia Sikander has paved the way for other Muslim artists to break out of the frame. Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.
SIEGEL: You can see Shahzia Sikander's work and hear our entire series, Muslim Artists Now, at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.