Against Erasure: Shahzia Sikander at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Shahzia Sikander recognizes the many forms that the erasure of women can take, whether historically or in contemporary life. And she has focused her art practice on changing that reality.

Shahzia Sikander: Extraordinary Realities, on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), March 20 through June 5, includes nearly 60 works from the first 15 years of the artist’s career. The MFAH, where Sikander was a Core Fellow at the Glassell School of Art, is the final stop in a three-venue tour that includes the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, where the show originated and where Sikander did her graduate work, and the Morgan Library in New York City where she is based. A scholarly catalog is being published on the occasion of the exhibition with critical writings by Bashir Ahmad, Sadia Abbas, Kishwar Risvi, and others.

Sikander has described the exhibition as a “Pan South Asian, feminist, American, global, historical, archival perspective telling the story from Providence to Houston to New York.” She also frames the show as a survey of the work she made between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11, including her move from living in Pakistan to living in the US.

The artist is known for launching the neo-miniature, or manuscript, painting movement in Pakistan with her thesis work The Scroll (1989-1990). The work launched her almost 30-year research-driven process through which she examines the relationship between traditional and avant-garde, as well as resisting the erasure of women in art, history, and society.

Born in Lahore and studying at the National College of Arts (NCA) from 1987–91, Sikander learned the techniques, histories, and discourse of Central and South Asian pre-modern manuscripts. She explains that the term “miniature” is problematic because, due to European colonialism as early as the 1600s, it aims to reduce a vast history of pictorial languages as analogous to European miniatures.

“European colonial legacy shaped miniature painting’s fate as many South Asian manuscripts were dismembered and sold for profit during colonial occupations,” she says. “Many important historical paintings of Central and South Asia reside in collections at the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, The MET, the Royal Library, and the Louvre, and are not accessible for those living in South Asia.”

Because of the genre’s forced fate, most of her exposure to the manuscripts was through reproductions in books, an experience that prompted her to ask critical questions, always with women at the center: “Who gets to speak on behalf of a presumed culture? Who gets to define the perspective of history?” She explains further that she is interested in who and what defines “tradition” and how ideas of such are performed.

For example, her works Mirrat I and Mirrat II depict several figures whereas the manuscript tradition was to depict a singular figure; when that figure was female, she was ambiguous, passive. In a contrasting, interventionist response, Sikander modeled the women in her works after her friends, locating them in politically complex, historical architectural places. By playing with compositional moves at the center and margins in this and other works, she broadens narratives of gender, sexuality, and other social constructs and even international relations, including American foreign policy.

When Sikander came to the US, she started deconstructing ideas about and interpretations of her work as an “other” culture by reimagining archetypal characters to tell richer stories and prompt more meaningful and critical reads.

Her experiences in the Core Program and recognition of the lack of Brown South-Asian representation in prevalent binaries (i.e., the West and the rest of the world) led to what she describes as “an outburst of androgynous forms, fragmented bodies, headless torsos, and self-rooted floating half-human figures that refused to belong, to be fixed, or to be stereotyped.”

During her time in Houston, she found “a natural place of connection” at Project Row Houses. “It was a shining example of the local artists and collectives operating outside of the traditional spaces of power and narrative, where the everyday functioned as sites of transformation, where women, students, third ward residents, artists of color, thinkers, poets, musicians, and social activists could engage,” she says.

​​”I also made efforts to engage with other local Indians and Pakistanis—some students, some aspiring writers—who I had met in Houston in 1995, and started bringing them to the Row Houses in the Third Ward for spontaneous gatherings. In that respect, I was aware of my role as a bridge between communities of color. “

In Eye-I-ing Those Armorial Bearings, Sikander paints a portrait of Rick Lowe, artist and co-founder of Houston’s Row Houses, and juxtaposes Western art history’s orientalist represenation of Muslim women and anti-Blackness.

“Reclaiming positive representations, I created multiple images, like armorial seals with the row houses and Rick Lowe’s portrait within Project Row Houses as a community leader. I was addressing politicized contemporary representations of the veil, and reimagining such entrenched and contested historical symbols by bringing them into conversation with overlapping diasporas of Asian-American and African-American,” she says.

For Who’s Veiled Anyway?, she engages on a conceptual level with the materials—the human body and the body of the paint itself, challenging orientations, lineages, and histories. The main character appears to be a veiled woman, but a closer look reveals a man, a polo player common in manuscript imagery. By painting over that figure with white lines, Sikander androgenized the subject, commenting on the history of the genre and tracing her relationship to it.

She continues to activate these topics and more by expanding the genre of neo-miniature painting through murals, wall drawings, and floor-to-ceiling installations as well as time-based mediums such as animation and video. For example, Parallax, a three-channel, single-image video installation with soundtrack by Chinese composer Du Yun. Readers may recall the piece being shown at Linda Pace Foundation in San Antonio in 2014.

Sikander’s ongoing relationship with scale parallels her investigation of anti-monument ideas, raising questions from a variety of histories and representations, but always focusing on the woman at the center of her practice.

“I imagine her existence itself as disruption, where she refuses to—and cannot—be erased.”