One of the stereotypes Shahzia Sikander has encountered since she came to this country from Pakistan is that of the deferential, veiled Muslim woman. A few years ago she asked her mother to send her a veil, and she wore the elaborate lace covering for several weeks. "I did it to document people's reaction, and my own relationship to it and to the act of doing something which is very much on the surface.
"It gave me a sense of security. It was wonderful to not have people see my facial or body language, and at the same time be in control and know that they did not know I was acting, and checking their reaction."
Sikander, a painter of miniatures, learned about the art from British textbooks when she was a student at Pakistan's National College of Arts in Lahore in the 1980s. She and another student had the department to themselves. "Nobody was taking the classes," she says. "Miniature painting was stigmatized as craft oriented, and students thought that it would retard their creativity. I was interested in it purely for those reasons--why was everyone treating it negatively? It was also during the military dictatorship, and nothing was happening in art that was radical or of interest."
When Sikander came to the U.S. in 1993 to pursue an MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design, she saw other styles of miniature painting, including the Hindu tradition, which had been suppressed in her homeland. "In Pakistan, because of the Muslim experience, the work is very abstracted, minimal, reserved," she says. "The Hindu mythology reflected in miniature paintings is more religious and sensual--more expressionistic. But the activity remains the same at a cultural level."
Though miniature painting from the region has its technical requirements of scale and stylized forms, there's a lot of geographical and historical variation. Subject matter can be narrative or abstract. One constant is the treatment of the paper; the surface undergoes a painstaking process until it's dense, almost translucent.
Sikander has played with the form by including images of herself in her paintings, extending her narratives beyond the decorative border, and using symbolism to depict her own inner conflict. "When you start unraveling them, they are addressing multiple identities--and there is an underlying humor there," she says.
Observers don't know what identity to assign to Sikander, either. She's been pigeonholed as a Pakistani artist, a third-world artist, a female artist, an artist who's a person of color, and an Asian-American artist. "There is no contextualization of the work that I do, because there is not much discourse that addresses Pakistani art. That always becomes problematic, because I first have to inform where the work is coming from and not coming from."
Muslim images--including the veil--still show up in her miniatures and in the life-size wall paintings she's been doing to accompany her exhibits. The larger works are reminiscent of a centuries-old Indian practice in which women regularly paint figures all over the walls and floors of their houses. Sikander has been staying up late for the past few weeks, painting her fractured ballerinas and other girl-women on the walls of the Renaissance Society, enlarging on some of the themes found in the smaller works.
"I like making the space, opening it up and leading the person in and out through these images," she says. "It's different from the miniature. It's ephemeral--there's no ownership, and then it dies. It's very temporary."
Sikander's exhibit opens Sunday from 4 to 7 and runs through April 19 at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, 5811 S. Ellis. She will be interviewed by U. of C. professor and cultural critic Homi Bhabha at 5. Admission is free; call 773-702-8670. Sikander will also discuss her work Monday at 6 at the School of the Art Institute auditorium, 280 S. Columbus. It's $5. Call 312-899-5100 for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Walking a Thin Line"; Shahzia Sikander photo by Eugene Zakusilo.