RISD Museum announces Shahzia Sikander: Extraordinary Realities to open November 12, 2021

October 19, 2021, Providence, RI—The RISD Museum announces that Shahzia Sikander: Extraordinary Realities will be on view in Providence at the RISD Museum from November 12, 2021 through January 30, 2022. The show first opened at the Morgan Library & Museum (NYC) in June 2021. Once it closes at the RISD Museum, it will finish its tour at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (TX) March 13 through June 12, 2022.

This exhibition and its accompanying book, co-published by Hirmer, track the first fifteen years of Sikander’s prolific career, reclaiming her pioneering role in reviving manuscript painting traditions from South and Central Asia as contemporary practice in Pakistan. The project also traces how she brought the practice into dialogue with contemporary art during her early years in the United States through work that explores gender and sexuality, cultural identity, racial narratives, and colonial and postcolonial histories. Following her personal journey from Lahore to Providence to Houston and New York, the exhibition of 60 works includes drawings, paintings, animations, and a wall installation of drawings on layered transparent paper. More than half of these works have not been exhibited since the time they were created, and about a quarter have never before been exhibited.

The exhibition and book begin with work Sikander (born in Lahore, 1969) made while studying miniature painting, as these manuscript illustrations are also referred to, at the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore (1987–1991). Her decision to major in this tradition was met with skepticism at the school, where many viewed the practice as lacking in creativity. Yet for her, the Western genres she was taught seemed fraught with the weight of colonialism. Miniature 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 the originality of subject, format, scale, and execution of her thesis, The Scroll (1989–1990). With this work, she demonstrated the tradition’s potential for experimentation and relevance for contemporary art, beginning what would become a neo-miniature movement in Pakistan. The interest in studying this discipline increased so dramatically she was asked to teach in the department in 1992, the first female and the first student of Ahmad's to do so. 

The radical nature of Sikander’s pursuit and her extraordinary success in Pakistan was unknown at RISD during her graduate studies (1993–1995). 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 as loose gestural marks suggesting figures. Responsiveness to materials and techniques was now applied with new abandon as drawings informed by deeper investigations into feminism and sexuality emerged.

By the time Sikander left RISD, she had created a personal lexicon and strategies for layering her new imagery within traditional paintings. She juxtaposed these invented motifs during her 1995–1997 residency at the Glassell School of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, creating new narratives that referenced multiple times, 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, where she gained a deeper understanding of American race relations.

Even before Sikander left Houston, her work was quickly gaining the attention of the art world. In 1997, she was invited to show at the Drawing Center, New York; Whitney Biennial, New York; Johannesburg Biennale; Deitch Projects, New York; and the Queens Museum of Art, New York, among many other venues. Moving to New York in 1997, where she still lives, her work continued to be grounded in manuscript painting traditions while simultaneously expanding her ambitious wall drawings and floor-to-ceiling installations layering works on tracing paper. By the early 2000s, the dynamism of her drawings led Sikander to video animations, which today are a major part of her practice. 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 publication, Shahzia Sikander: Extraordinary Realities, edited by Sadia Abbas and Jan Howard, includes contributions from Bashir Ahmad, Dennis Congdon, Faisal Devji, Gayatri Gopinath, Vasif Kortun, Rick Lowe, Julie Mehretu, Kishwar Rizvi, Shahzia Sikander, and John W. Smith. Comprising new archival material, fresh scholarly essays, and conversations with artists, curators, and Sikander’s teachers, the book is a bold new in-depth examination of Sikander’s early work. The RISD Museum’s Houghton P. Metcalf Jr. Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs Jan Howard states, “It has been such a privilege to work with Shahzia and especially exciting to closely consider her early work through the critical perspectives of my exceptional co-editor for the book, Sadia Abbas, who was instrumental in its conception, and our outstanding contributors. They have enriched the interpretation of Sikander’s work enormously.”

For Sikander, “This project is an important opportunity to historicize and coalesce themes and multiple languages in the work from perspectives within and outside of the US.” Throughout her career, Sikander has been remarkably prescient, and the vocabulary and themes she has developed since the early 1990s continue to resonate in contemporary discourse. Multifaceted, nuanced, and open-ended, these narratives shatter expected hierarchies, norms, and stereotypes with an imagination and wit that have conjured extraordinary realities indeed, placing her among the most significant artists working today.