Artist Shahzia Sikander has been busy the last few years. In 2012, the U.S. State Department honored her and four other artists with the inaugural Medal of Arts, part of its Art in Embassies program. Her four fellow artists were Carrie Mae Weems, Cai Guo-Qiang, Kiki Smith, and Jeff Koons. In 2013, her work was included in the Istanbul Biennial and Sharjah Biennial, and she was featured on the cover of ArtNews Magazine. In 2014 she participated in the Dhaka Art Summit and showed her video installation Parallax at the Bildmuseet Umea and Nicolaj Kunsthal Copehagen, and this summer Parallax goes on view at the Guggenheim Bilbao.
Known for her work in miniature painting mixing ages-old technique with contemporary statements—she studied the traditional art of Indo-Persian miniature painting at the National College of Arts in her native Lahore, Pakistan—Sikander’s work has expanded to include huge painting installations and animated video installations. In 2008, she was an artist in residence at Shangri La, where she created the projection installation Unseen, slides of which take up an entire wall in the exhibition Doris Duke’s Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape, and Islamic Art, now on view through June 7.
Now based in New York, Shahzia arrived in Honolulu last week to give a talk on her work and process at the museum’s Doris Duke Theatre on Thursday, March 26, at 4pm.
She took the time to answer questions about Unseen and contemporary Islamic art.
Due to the nature of your project—projections on Shangri La’s foliage and architecture—Unseen, more than any other Shangri La residency project, engages with the estate. What informed your decision to interact with the site through projection?
I found Hawai‘i’s landscape intense! You turn a corner, and it’s tropical, you drive up a mountain, and it’s craters! The terrain changes so much in a short amount of time. I found it incredibly intriguing. The gardens at Shangri La are such an integrated part of the site’s identity; some aspects of the landscape connected to the larger engagement with the Mughal architecture aesthetic and the influence of Isfahan architecture. The interior-exterior interplay is heightened also by the close proximity of the ocean, which at nighttime was physically (sound) and psychologically intense.
The medium of projection was a great solution for me to respond to the various objects and aspects of the house via drawings first. Then I scanned the drawings and used them as digital data to recast a layer back onto the site itself. Like a light tattoo onto the site.
Projection is sculptural but also ephemeral. When Unseen was exhibited at night, there was a different audience: I saw people fishing at night, I saw several people at night on the Shangri La water interface. Shangri La is perched on a hill. So that also influenced my decision. I thought neighbours would be able to see the projections on the trees from afar. Also there was a noise restriction at night, so it was a way for me to exhibit noiseless work. I am a night person so found myself awake and walking around the site as soon as I arrived there. The environment at night was magical.
You say in your label for Unseen that Shangri La is “engaging yet full of contradiction”—can you elaborate on that contradiction, and did it make it hard for you to get started working, or did it fuel your creativity? Also, would you say contemporary Islamic art is “a thing” today? And if you do see it as a genre (as opposed to seeing it as simply great contemporary artists who happen to be of Islamic heritage), where is it headed?
The quest to define an Islamic identity in the contemporary visual context may be a paradox in itself. Muslim communities have varied histories and geographical locations that challenge singular definitions. Furthermore, in today’s transnational ways of living and being, the older frameworks feel increasingly restrictive. Inherently nationalistic sentiments remain strong even in art history. Though it has been labored upon and often reduced to a cliché, its potential remains strong, since fundamental values of inclusiveness and plurality lie at its core.
The range of mediums and aesthetics residing within Shangri La are varied. Observing objects incorporated and placed around the house and living quarters and learning about Doris Duke’s engagement as a wealthy American patron and collector and tastemaker was also a case study to unpack Orientalist tendencies of that period.
I imagine that for someone exploring colonialism in South Asia, Shangri La, for all its beauty, could be unsettling. Your fellow Shangri La artist in residence Ayad Alkadhi said he is OK with the Islamic art treasures being at Shangri La due to the fact that they are being preserved, rather than at risk of being destroyed by war in regions such as Syria and Iraq. How do you feel about this?
I don’t consider such a discussion about this collection as being any different from other major institutions or individuals collecting art at the time from the region. Doris Duke’s records on provenance on all the objects seemed thorough: they include information on when she was buying, and whom she was buying from. It was at the same time as other institutions such as the Met were building collections also. Often everyone was buying from the same sources! That story of the provenance is so interesting. So much has been destroyed in the name of war—it’s not an “East/West” thing. War has a very long and complicated history. When it’s separated as having a single perpetrator for the destruction of objects, I find that problematic. Afghanistan has been looted in recent years. So I think we have to look at the complexity of how objects are acquired throughout history, it’s not just about current “Middle East” politics.
The Unseen projections are “abstract, representational, and textual forms”—were they created on paper and you photographed them? What are the representational images?
They were created on paper, scanned at high resolution, and then I projected them directly into space with a projector. I’m sitting in one of them as a representation of the artist signature. It gives a reference to scale and I end up participating in the piece. It’s not clearly visible, but I’m sitting there in on the ground in the corner, partly hidden between the various forms and colors.
Does the included Urdu calligraphy say something, or is it purely a visual element, as in the work of Ayad and Lalla Essaydi?
It says “I am also not my own enemy.” The verse is about unrequited love, and it’s from Ghalib’s poem. I thought the text fit well with Doris Duke’s story. I spent time talking to people who either grew up hearing about her or their parent may have worked for her. The oral stories about her are fascinating. I also watched some of the home movies she made with her friends. So there was this intimate insight into this mythic character that was further enhanced by staying in her guest house! She’s often portrayed as a victim of extreme wealth! I used the phrase to elicit the multiple meanings in it also.
Editor’s note: Shahzia Sikander is also a skilled writer. Read her New York Times Opinion Pages piece “The World Is Yours, The World Is Mine” from this past December for more insight into her work.