A nationally traveling Shahzia Sikander exhibition makes its final stop this spring at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “Shahzia Sikander: Extraordinary Realities” presents some 60 paintings, drawings and video animations examining the prolific first 15 years of the artist’s career. Organized by the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, the exhibition will be on view at the MFAH from Sunday, March 20, 2022 through June 5, 2022.
Born in Lahore in 1969, Pakistani American artist Shahzia Sikander is internationally celebrated for bringing manuscript painting traditions from South and Central Asia into dialogue with contemporary art practice. This exhibition includes nearly 60 works borrowed from public and private collections and tracks the first 15 years of her artistic journey: her groundbreaking deconstruction of manuscript painting in Pakistan; development of a new personal vocabulary in her graduate years at the Rhode Island School of Design; expanded explorations around identity as a Core Fellow at the Glassell School of Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and her global approach during her first years in New York, when Sikander richly interrogated gender, sexuality, race, class, and history, creating open-ended narratives that have sustained her as one of the most significant artists working today.
“Her vibrant synthesis of illustrated manuscript painting with contemporary art practice has played a critical role in recognizing a wider range of perspectives, including those of women, people of color, Muslims, and artists working outside the US and Europe. We are pleased to bring back Sikander’s richly vibrant and varied work to the MFAH,” Gary Tinterow, Director and Margaret Alkek Williams Chair, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, said.
The Shahzia Sikander exhibition begins with work she made while studying miniature, or manuscript, painting at the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore (1987–91). Her decision to major in this tradition was met with skepticism at the school, where many viewed the practice as lacking in creativity.
Manuscript painting had a tireless advocate at the NCA in Professor Bashir Ahmad, whose passion intimated the potential of this territory. Working under his mentorship, Sikander ruptured all expectations with her thesis, The Scroll (1989–1990), which was striking for the originality of its subject, format, scale, and execution. With this work, she demonstrated the tradition’s potential for experimentation and relevance to contemporary art, beginning what would become a neo- miniature movement in Pakistan.
Also featured in the Shahzia Sikander exhibition is work from her graduate studies at the Rhode Island School of Design where she embarked on a renewed journey of investigation from 1993 to 1995. She took up new materials as she confronted the “cultural dislocation” of coming to America. Working with gouache and ink on tracing paper and clay-coated paper, she continued an interrogation of gender and power begun in Lahore, developing new archetypes and applying materials and techniques with new abandon to continue a deeper investigation of feminism and sexuality through her drawings to create a personal lexicon and strategies for layering her new imagery within traditional paintings.
During her residency at the Glassell School of Art from 1995 to 1997 Shahzia Sikander began creating narratives that referenced multiple time periods, geographies, and traditions. Her work became more expansive in its interpretation, and at the same time began to increase in scale as she combined and layered her tracing-paper drawings. Her focus on women continued with new imagery and themes inspired by the region’s culture as well as her engagement with Project Row Houses, in Houston, through which she gained a deeper understanding of American race relations as she explored racial and other underrepresented narratives and scaled up her work. Sikander created imagery that quickly brought her to the fore of the American art world with shows in a number of prestigious venues.
The final section of the exhibition includes work following Sikander’s 1997 move to New York, where she still lives. She has continued to make work grounded in manuscript painting traditions while expanding her ambitious wall drawings and floor-to- ceiling installations, layering works on tracing paper.
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 and their aftermath opened up new engagement around economics, global trade, and news cycles, and Sikander’s work became more overtly political. The dynamism of her drawings led Sikander in the early 2000s to video animations, which today comprise a major part of her practice.
The MFAH presentation of “Extraordinary Realities” will showcase the animation Parallax, a shared acquisition between the MFAH and the Whitney Museum of American Art, which exploits the manuscript painting’s capacity for transformation to maximum effect: by combining digital technologies to that add movement and sound, and by magnifying the tiniest, indiscernible details, Sikander reflects on past and present to tell the story of colonialism and capitalism.