Ahmad Minkara talks to Shahzia Sikander…

Ahmad Minkara talks to Shahzia Sikander…




Sikander studied at The National College of Arts Lahore in Pakistan, where she was taught the traditional discipline of Indo-Persian miniature painting.



Can you tell us what how you got inspired by Indo-Persian miniatures? What was it about that specific art that sparked your passion? Did this art originate in Persia and copied by the Ottomans?


Persian miniature was a significant influence on the Ottoman genre several hundred years after its own encounters with Chinese and European takes on the tradition. My instinct has always been to go against the grain. The miniature- painting department at the National College of Art in Lahore, where I earned my undergraduate degree, was virtually empty in 1986-87 and several people advised me not to enter the department because miniature doesn’t exactly allow much room for creative exploration. It wasn’t so much that miniature painting sparked my passion but rather I knew the medium had untapped potential to be a contending platform within the contemporary art world.  


In 1987 I started working with the master teacher Bashir Ahmad who had taught miniature painting since 1976 at NCA, Lahore. I also encountered a few classes by the conceptual painter Zahoor-ul-Akhlaq. Ahmad was exploring the miniature from within the thematic prism and Akhlaq was deconstructing it on canvas within the canon of abstract expressionist western painting. My interest in miniature painting emerged to expand the medium from within, embracing its craft, technique, rigor, detail and small scale, as well as its historical contexts.  I chose to work with its traditional materials, language and methodology with the aim to subvert it with a polemic narrative outside of its accepted thematic discourse and to dislodge it from its dominant history. The idea and intention was to ‘transform’ something old into something new, something that was stagnant to something that would spark a discussion.




How does your work address the tension between illustration and fine art? Is there a conflict there? 


I don’t necessarily think in such binaries as illustration and fine art. 

Imagination and intuition inform my process and words validate my experience.  Art at times a solitary practice is sustained by the desire to connect and communicate, the pendulum between conformity and freedom, craft and

culture, fragility of emotion and tenacity of control. Art engages the heart and heart functions as a filter for truth. Within the work of art, the elasticity of the form is its ability to remain relevant over its various iterations within geographical, historical, socio-political, cultural, gendered and psychological transformations.



What is the difference between Persian & Mughal miniatures? Which one of them influences your art more? Can you define the Rajput style to our audiences? Is there a strong influence by the latter?


Mughal miniature developed during the Mughal Empire, much later during the

16th-19th centuries.  It is a natural juxtaposition of Persian and indigenous

Indian elements.  Court paintings within the Rajasthani school and period have Mughal influences too.  All various schools of miniature painting have unique aesthetic sensibilities.  I am interested in all of them.

The epic narratives of Rajput, the refined and observational Mughal style, the boldness of Pahari/ Basohli are just a few examples. I have examined Miniature Painting for almost 3 decades and see my role as primarily investigative.


Miniature painting’s audacious and bold line, inventive perspective and unparalleled range and juxtaposition of color hold infinite worlds of possibilities within its expression. History also occupies a central theme in my imagination.

My interest in story telling was also a response to the intense visual stimulation of Indo-Persian miniature painting.  My first visual encounter with miniature painting was with its facsimile, while perusing a handful of western museum’s exhibition catalogues in the mid- eighties.


There were no ‘real’ miniatures to look at.

The bulk of information was through printed images from western institutions where many of the works reside.  Of course there are fantastic private and

public collections in India like the Jagdish Mittal museum. Growing up in

Pakistan it was not that simple to travel across to India. I have also been working with historian John Seyller who collaborates and curates with the Mittal collection bringing new scholarship on many old and unseen works every year.



Can you elaborate what you mean by dismantle hierarchical assumptions and subverts the very notion of a singular, fixed identity of figures and forms?


Simply that the vocabulary of forms I’ve culled from traditional Indo-Persian imagery are inherently endowed with the power to rock the status quo when cast within contemporary contexts. The whole process of locating ones’ relationship to tradition is not about ‘copying’ or ‘appropriating’ but how to actually regurgitate to ‘own’. How does that ownership occur? What is originality? What is creativity? What is imagination? How does one create something anew?  Imaginative possibilities abound within the world itself, not just within the realm of the mind. The world is full of mystery, containing within it a variety of distances between the real and the imagined. I am interested in the dynamism of form.  Form as something alive and in relationship to its space, technique and time.


The usage and reference of text in my work is multi-fold from interest in textual artifacts, historical writing, fiction, lyrical expression in rap, the terseness and wit in ghazal, I engage text with no particular allegiance. What captures my imagination about writing is its inherent ability to redact. Redaction is a critical issue, especially in terms of how history is constantly being rewritten in both cultural and political spheres. So what is original? Where in space lies the rupture that separates the past from the ‘new’ Is original just a concept? What is the distance between the original and its iteration and at what point does the iteration become an original.




You are a Pakistani woman. How did that influence your art? Is there an element of contemporary Pakistani art in your work? Any feminist theme in your work?


Obviously the regional history of Pakistan, its consequences of partition and its relationship to the west, and the gender expectations, both born of that and pre- existing, have to be put into context. Writing interests and informs my work a lot.  Writers like Qurratulain Hyder, Ismat Chughtai have been influential. But so have been artists like Eva Hesse and writers like Fatema Mernissi. 


In general my work itself was an exploration of my identity as early as 1987-89

while I was still in my teens. Humor, irony, wit and self-critique were instrumental in my dialogue with miniature. By 1990 my signature thesis work in Pakistan (Scroll, 1989-90) and related works launched a rigorous inquiry and deconstruction of miniature painting by inserting into the thematic and traditional the intimate, personal, untranslatable and incompatible ambiguities of youth, the flux of identity, and narrative as a moving image and the picture plane as an infinite space.


The work stood out because it had gone beyond the traditional illustration. The sheer recognition I received in the press on my thesis exhibition impacted the miniature painting department at NCA (National College of Arts) directly with an influx of many students opting to ‘specialize’ in it.  I was hired to teach, the first person to teach alongside master teacher Bashir Ahmed in the miniature painting department as well as the very first woman teacher in the entire history of the miniature painting dept. at NCA 


Subsequently throughout the 90’s by engaging the personal and the private and subverting the patriarchal thematic and the non-personal historical representations within the Indo-Persian miniature painting tradition, my work catalyzed a movement to upend gender-specific assumptions while contributing fresh feminist discourse from multiple perspectives including Muslim, South Asian and American. 




Works of Helene Cixous, Jacque Derrida, Fatema Mernissi, Gayatri Spivak, Julia

Kristeva, Arjun Appadhurai, Muhiyuddin Ibn Arabi, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Manto, Susan Sontag, Bell Hooks, Sara Suleri, were all influential in a variety of ways. The departures or ruptures that happened during this period 1993-2000 were varied in both technique and form. By inverting the center and margin relationships I dislocated framing devices to open up the narratives of gender and identity. Examining Hesse’s work offered a perspective from a female artist’s interventions into minimalism. It allowed me to trace my own relationship with the male dominated miniature painting field. My work started reflecting an evocative engagement with feminism and sexuality. I also became interested in cultural semiotics within religious representations, as well as juxtaposing anti-classical impulses in Western art, such as Mannerism, with a variety of outsider aesthetics. 


The oscillation of miniature painting between illustration and ‘illumination’ has also served as a significant format. I explored the ‘illuminated manuscript’ as a devise for political proposition, as in the Many faces of Islam, (1997-99) which first appeared in NYTimes Magazine (sept 19, 1999) highlighting its function as a vehicle for historical narrative with a political bent by looking at the interface of American policy in Islamic countries.  


The work appeared in 1999 as part of 'Imagining the Millenium' by living

artists and came to be regarded as a prescient work in the awake of September

11th, 2001.   


Layering strategy to juxtapose overlaps of culture, art, history, and social commentary continues in my process. The intent is to transform motifs in order to cultivate new associations for trenchant historical symbols and this way I can service more than one vantage point.



How did you branch out into digital animation?


My digital work is a natural progression of my mural and installation work done throughout the 90’s, just as murals and installations are a natural progression of drawing on a page. I experiment with scale by digitizing drawn images and projecting them many times larger so the experience becomes theatrical and immersive, especially with kinetic painting, original score and live performance as part of the work. The vantage point is dramatically different enabling a radically new way to interpret the drawing.



Have you read Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Read? If yes, what did you think of it?


Yes, of course. In a strange way the entire process of engaging the works of dead miniature painters for decades has been a current and ‘alive’ dialogue in the sense that I have to resurrect the dead artist to have a conversation with them. I have to imagine what Behzad would have been like as a personality to have produced the utterly complex, original and stunning work.  I have to take that

leap of imagination.


Also what is fascinating is the issue of provenance.  Often art history related to

traditional miniature painting is not able to attribute works to ‘real’ dead artists.  Many works are attributed to ‘fictional’ artists as it is not clear who made the works, as artist identity (signatures) were not necessarily the "raison d’être" of the art. 



Where are you exhibiting in 2016. Which galleries represent you? Are you going to have any shows in the Middle East?


I have a survey exhibition currently at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center and Maritime Museum HK till july 9th, 2016. I also have a solo exhibition opening June 21- Oct 30th 2016 at the Zaha Hadid built - MAXXI National Museum in Rome. I have a few commissioned pieces in the works for Princeton University and the Philadelphia Museum of Art all opening in fall 2016. I would love to exhibit in Middle East.  Infact this week I have a big article in Newsweek Middle East. (April 20th week)



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