17 October 2019
Shahzia Sikander says artists should be defined by their creation and experience rather than their ethnicity. Photo: HKEJ
Shahzia Sikander says artists should be defined by their creation and experience rather than their ethnicity. Photo: HKEJ

From Pakistan, an artist without borders

At the Third Art Gala of the Asia Society Hong Kong in March, four Asian masters received recognition for their distinguished achievements in art. Among them was Pakistani artist Shahzia Sikander.

Born in 1969 in the Pakistani city of Lahore, Sikander grew up with the extended family of her grandfather. She says the women in her family are tough and independent-minded. Many of them have become writers, academics and even human rights activists.

Sikander chose to be a painter. She showed a passion for painting at an early age. With the encouragement of family members, she went to the National College of Arts to study miniature painting, a rare visual art form originating from ancient India and Persia.

Pakistan then was under the dictatorship of president Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, and almost all aspects of life in the South Asian country was under strict state control. 

Under this environment, Sikander wanted to find a way to respond to the socio-political issues of her time.

In order to master the technique of miniature painting as quickly as possible, she spent more than 10 hours a day practicing the craft, and often alone.

It never bothered her at all. She says once she decides to do something, she will definitely give it her best shot, and won’t give up until it’s finished.

The job was no doubt difficult, but she saw it as a challenge.

As a painter who also loves literature and films, Sikander often adds unconventional elements to her paintings, such as maps, narrative and moving images, imbuing them with abstract features.

At that time in Pakistan, young people were fascinated by globalization, and everyone was looking beyond the national borders.

She wanted to find a kind of global language from within the Pakistani tradition which people from other places could also understand.

As a result, she made a breakthrough in her miniature paintings by blending the elegant traditional format with new subjects.

It was during her days at the National College of Arts that Sikander produced one of her most famous works, The Scroll, a 2-meter-long painting depicting the living environment of her family.

A work that defies traditional rules and aesthetic standards, The Scroll made big waves in the international art scene.

Later she received the Haji Sharif and Shakir Ali awards in Pakistan for her distinguished achievements in painting, and was hailed as a pioneer in the modern revival of miniature paintings.

Her quick rise to fame became an inspiration to a lot of contemporary Pakistani artists, who suddenly realized the modern essence of an ancient art form.

After graduation, Sikander was hired by her own school and she began to teach alongside her former instructors. Her paintings were often used during lectures and discussions with her students.

In 1992, she was invited to exhibit her paintings at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, and after that she decided to stay in the United States to pursue her career.

In the following year, after a touring exhibition of her works at different art schools, she went to the Rhode Island School of Design to do her master’s degree.

In 1997, Sikander’s works were exhibited at the Drawing Center in New York and at the Whitney Biennial, building her reputation in the American art scene.

In the ’90s, diversity was a major theme in the art world. And given her talent and ethnic background, Sikander aroused much interest from around the world with her paintings.

However, after 9-11, people started viewing her works with prejudice against her identity as an “Islamic woman”.

Back home, the local art world began treating her as a foreigner because she had been away for so long. Many refused to consider her as part of Pakistan’s art history.

Indeed, the situation could trigger questions about her identity as an artist. Where does she belong?

Sikander says her paintings reflect nothing but herself, and therefore she is not limited by any region or space.

There’s always a dispute over the exact definitions of being “local” and being “international”, and that being the case, it is probably better not to argue about it, she says.

Sikander believes artists should be defined by their creation and experience rather than their nationality and ethnic or religious background.

She’d prefer to be called a “trans-nationalist”.

The article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 28.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Miniature painting is a rare visual art form originating from ancient India and Persia. Photo: HKEJ

Sikander’s multimedia work: The Cypress Despite its Freedom is Held Captive to the Garden(2012-13). Photo: HKEJ

Sikander believes artists should be defined by their creation rather than their nationality.

Writer of the Hong Kong Economic Journal