‘My Whole Purpose Was to Break the Tradition’: Watch Pakistani Artist Shahzia Sikander Subvert the Ancient Practice of Miniature Painting

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Artist Shahzia Sikander poses at Asia Society Hong Kong Centre in Admiralty. (Photo by K. Y. Cheng/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

The Pakistani artist Shahzia Sikander helped create a whole new genre of painting known as neo-miniature—all before she’d finished her art degree. The extremely time-consuming practice is based on Indian and Persian miniature painting, which are rooted in traditional manuscript and book illustration.

For her BFA thesis at the National College of Arts in Lahore, Sikander made The Scroll (1989-90), which represented the aesthetic challenge of a scroll’s rigorous framework, and was more than five feet long and almost a foot high (decidedly not miniature).

“My whole purpose of taking on miniature painting was to break the tradition, to experiment with it, to find new ways of making meaning, to question the relevance of it,” Sikander told Art21 in an exclusive interview from 2001.

Since that first breakthrough in the medium, Sikander has received a MacArthur “Genius” award, and raised the profile of neo-miniature painting to an international level. A survey of the first 15 years of her work, titled “Shahzia Sikander: Extraordinary Realities,” is now on view at the Morgan Library and Museum.

Production still from the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” Season 1 episode, “Spirituality,” 2001. © Art21, Inc. 2001.

In the video, which originally aired as part of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series, the artist described her work as a continual process of investigating Western stereotypes of her Eastern heritage, power structures in both societies, and her personal identity.

A recurring theme in her work is the juxtaposition of Hindu and Muslim imagery. In one work, she depicts a multi-limbed Hindu goddess with a traditional Muslim veil covering her face, combining the iconography in order to address the “entanglement of histories of India and Pakistan.”

“These are very loaded issues to take on,” Sikander tells Art21, “because anything and everything associated with Islam is either terrorism or oppression for women.”

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series, below. “Shahzia Sikander: Extraordinary Realities” is on view at the Morgan Library & Museum through September 26, 2021.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org

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