Shahzia Sikander

Category: Culture, Painting
Last Updated: 28 Jan 2021
Pages: 6 Views: 303

When finding a definition for ‘art’ the only phrase that comes to my mind is the expression of one’s creative skill and imagination. The word imagination brings out this thought of largeness and expressiveness to me and therefore when viewing a large painting, one immediately gets drawn towards it and tries to create a connection with the painting. Shahzia Sikander was an artist who was known for her embrace of miniaturist paintings in the Indo-Persian style.

To many, miniature paintings seemed somewhat restrictive because of the space present for the artists to express themselves and are also looked at as a “faded genre that had more to do with craft and technique than genuine expression”(Bhaha, Homi). But according to me, Sikander’s artwork successfully portrayed her thoughts and helped us gain knowledge about her culture.

What attributes to making her paintings so acknowledged is the way her artwork embodies not only her culture but also “works across diverse cultural references – Hindu, Christian, Classical, mythological and folkloric” (Rachel Kent). When talking about ‘elements of narrative’ in artwork, I feel that one is referring to the way in which the particular artwork is portrayed and the techniques that the artist has used to portray his/her skill and imagination. Viewing all of Sikander’s artwork, the one element that is seen as having and influence on all her works of art is her cultural background.

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Her adoption of the miniaturist tradition took place while she was studying at the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan where this form of art was seen as an “unconventional choice that conjured associations with imperialism on one hand and, on the other, deeply rooted local traditions of story-telling and popular mythology” (Rachel Kent). One of the reasons that it felt like story telling and popular mythology to me was because when viewing each painting, it felt like one was viewing a page from a book.

The paintings looked flat like a page but at the same time contained layers within which gave them depth. One particular artwork of hers that gives me this impression is “Writing the Written” (2000). In all her works and this one in particular one can see how “she explored compositional constructs such as repetition, the placement of color across the surface of the work, the use of a flattened, stacked perspective and the relationship between image and border” (Rachel Kent). Repetition is seen a lot in “Writing the Written”, whether it is the repetition of certain symbols of just design.

The most important factor to keep in mind when analyzing Sikander’s artwork is the size of each piece. Each miniature painting is not more than 8 x 51/2 inches, which is just like analyzing a painting that has been printed on an A4 sized paper. Viewing a painting so small can make us see the artist in a completely different light because as the audience, we are usually not used to being able to glance at a whole painting at one time, and by this I mean that our eyes are usually used to moving around, moving to different corners of the painting since we relate the size of majority of paintings to being large.

When viewing “Writing the Written” for the first time, the first thing that caught my eyes was the repetition of horses in the boarder. Since I am of Hindu religion, the whole painting felt like Sikander was trying to tell her audience a story about the Hindu culture. The horse is linked to the Hindu god Varuna that shows how Sikander is incorporating mythology in her artwork. Also, the focus of this painting seems to be the two figures that are placed somewhat in the center of the painting, which to me represents the Hindu gods Krishna and Radha.

Considering that this is a miniature painting, it doesn’t seem ‘small or simple’ in any way because there is so much going on in it. The blurred circle in the center is what got me thinking because in the article “Intimate Immensity”, Rachel Kent mentioned, “historically, the circle invited a range of associations. It is at once a complete unit, unbroken at any point so without a beginning or end; a spiritually changed symbol across cultures, associated with the continuity of the life cycle”.

But I felt like by using the circle to blur out the faces she was in some way referring to the problems that Muslim women have to face everyday. In an interview by Homi k Bhabha, Sikander mentions that even for her such things as the veil that she uses a lot in her work, remains exotic. She states that the first time that she put one in her work everyone reacted strongly. So when looking at the blurred faces in her painting I felt like she was trying to portray how Muslim women are forced to hide their faces from the rest of the world. Images within images, borders within borders; all form active constituents in Sikander’s art of transformation”(Rachel Kent). This technique of Sikander’s is seen in a lot of her artworks especially in “Writing the Written” where at ones first glance of the painting it seems like there are three different frames to it and this to me makes the painting look layered and gives it some form of depth. The outer most layer is that of the border with the horses imprinted on it, the second layer consists of the two blurred figures and the third layer is that of the backdrop.

The tiny blue circles that start of big on the outer most layer and then gradually become smaller as they move towards the inner most frame better represent this depth that Sikander is trying to portray. According to me it is quite difficult to analyze every aspect of Sikander’s paintings because there always seems to be so much going on. One of the reasons that I feel this way is also because of the way she represents movement in her paintings. In “Writing the Written”, the movement is solely portrayed by the various horses.

First, the way she draws them in different directions on the outer most border and then by the single house that is shown jumping on the top left edge of the painting. At first, when I read the title “Writing the Written” I didn’t necessarily understand why she would give the painting that name but then I started notice the writing on the outer most border which seemed like Arabic to me. In an interview Sikander says, “The text becomes more like horses or there’s the suggestion of movement, and that aspect is my experience of reading the Koran where I would read it with no particular understanding because I was a child.

I could read Arabic, but I couldn’t understand it and the memory of it is this amazing visual memory where the beauty of written words supersedes everything else” (Bhabha, Homi). One can see that Sikander used the Arabic words for the beauty of the language rather than the meaning behind the words. Through these minor details we can see how Sikander incorporates different cultures her painting rather than being this ‘traditional’ artist that many consider her to be.

Seeing that Sikander’s artwork consisted of so many traditional figures and symbols, many considered her artwork as that of a traditional Muslim artist who I trying to portray the different between the East and West to her audience. But seeing how she incorporated cultures such as Islamic, Arabic and Hindu in her painting “Writing the Written”, it seems like she is trying to “bring together the difference between the East and the East, the nearest difference, the intimacy of difference that can exist within any culture” (Rachel Kent).

It took me a while to understand the complexity of her miniature paintings, but in the end I feel that they are as expressive and creative as any other ‘large’ painting because of the addition of intricate details and the incorporation of various cultures. Bibliography Bhabha, Homi. "ESSAY: THE RENAISSANCE SOCIETY. " SHAHZIA SIKANDER. Web. 20 Nov. 2011. <http://www. shahziasikander. com/essay03. html>. Rachel Kent, “Intimate Immensity: Shahzia Sikander’s Multi-Dimensional Art,” Shahzia Sikander, pp. 11-25.

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Shahzia Sikander. (2017, May 04). Retrieved from

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