The U.S. Department of State Medal of Arts, only given to artists that have participated in the Art in Embassies (AIE) program has been awarded so far to two Pakistani artists including Shahzia Sikander and Imran Qureshi. The award was created in 2012 to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Art in Embassies (AIE) program. This award is given to artists who are not necessarily U.S. citizens. The U.S. Department of State’s Medal of Arts is given in recognition of the artists' "outstanding commitment to AIE and to international cultural exchange.”
Sikander, along with Jeff Koons, Cai Guo-Qiang, Kiki Smith, and Carrie Mae Weems comprised the inaugural group of honorees who were presented the award in 2012. The inaugural U.S. Department of State Medal of Arts award was presented by the then Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Here in an open dialogue with Nigaah, she shares her opinion about her work.
Nigaah: You have been the first Pakistani recipient of the Medal of Arts Awards given by US State Department. How do you feel about this?
Shahzia Sikander: Recognition is wonderful for all artists. I am happy to open the door for other Pakistani artists including Imran Qureshi and I am sure there will be more. This Medal of Art by US State Department is about their Art in Embassy program sponsored by them across the world. In one sense the award is about using art as soft diplomacy. The art commissioned is placed inside the walls of the US Embassy in Pakistan. The Pakistani public is not able to see the work. That undermines the purpose of art in my humble opinion. Art should be visible and experienced by all.
As an artist, one of the most important roles for me is to engage in the conversations that are happening in the larger public consciousness about representation, history, values and justice – especially in an era where truth is itself under attack. I am currently on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s advisory commission to help determine the role of Public Art, the policies and actions that the City may consider to review existing monuments seen as oppressive and to recommend initiatives to advance positive change.
There is another award, the MacArthur Fellowship “Genius” award I would like to point out. Only two Pakistani women have won it to date; myself and the historian Ayesha Jalal. MacArthur award supports work across sciences and humanities by nurturing creativity that advances research in fields. The MacArthur Genius Award and related grant allowed me to explore new technologies to engage a global audience. Ayesha Jalal and I have recently worked together on a publication Parallax, published by Tufts University just this month. The book examines my work in light of the contested histories of colonialism and role of maritime trade in the Straight of Hormuz and
Nigaah: Your work has been greatly recognized on other forums as well, what advice would you like to give to the aspiring artists from Pakistan?
Shahzia Sikander: Critical thinking, creativity and collaboration are the three tenets on which I have built my entire understanding of being an artist. I am not a commercial artist, not that I am against commercially driven art. My personality is introverted and I spend a lot of time researching, reading and writing. I develop ideas with other artists like my long term collaborator the Pulitzer prize winning composer Du Yun who I introduced to Ali Sethi and the three of us collaborated on a live performance with the children of the traditional musicians of the walled city and the catholic girls’ choir for the opening of the Lahore Art biennial. My advice to the younger generation of Pakistanis is to recognize and harness the power of creative thinking and to apply it to ideas that can challenge hierarchies and entrenched systems of representations in different fields. There is no one way of being an artist. The young generation is more attuned to social media and can use its platform to come up with new languages around art and outreach. I came of age in the 1980s and was influenced by the Women Action Forum in Pakistan and human rights champions like Asma Jehangir.
Finding ways to engage audiences in unexpected ways is often an outcome of empathy and curiosity. I would advise youth to always remain curious! I also would encourage young people to research Urdu literature and poetry and also Islamic philosophy. What inspires me deeply is history. It is important to open the discourse, to challenge and re-examine our histories as much of it is buried under colonial representations.
We can use imagination to create more just and inclusive futures. I have worked with young girls and boys from South Asian diaspora and Muslim communities in America. Youth is often challenged by cultural expectations. I want to also share with the Pakistani youth an important inspiration as a young child. A quote by Quaid-e-Azam “No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you” My grandparents who immigrated to Pakistan from India shared stories of Quaid-e-Azam when I was 5 years old. I carry this quote close to heart and never give up that one day we will have a more egalitarian society. My family also encouraged me to neither discriminate nor seek knowledge by here say, but rather seek it through hard work and by experience. For me home is a spiritual idea. Home is service to knowledge. We always have a choice to either see our path in narrow terms or from a wider perspective that is more inclusive of others.
Nigaah: You work in large scale in various media, what is the biggest challenge in that?
Shahzia Sikander: I work across media and forms, including digital animation, video, performance, large – scale murals, installation, projection, and works on paper. Drawing is my thinking hat, a fundamental language through which I construct a range of works to engage with the world.
The challenge is often to find a good partnership where the content of the work is also in conversation with the architecture and history of the site through active engagement of space and scale. For example the two works I created in 2016 – 2017 in glass (Ecstasy as Sublime, Heart as Vector) examine global economic histories critiquing also the militant East India Company. The work is now permanently installed in the Princeton University’s Economic building. The works are 70 feet tall. If the ideas are complex and can remain relevant over time, then scale is secondary. Shifting scale itself is not of concern having worked on numerous 50-200 foot murals and immersive installation in the past, including at the Hirshhorn Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, Kogod Courtyard at National Portrait Gallery, the MCA Sydney in Australia, L’Arc at the MoMA Paris, National Gallery in Ottawa, among many others. More recently, multi-channel video works have also taught me to engage monumentality through ideas of velocity, magnitude, and direction. My work excavates the colonial history of trade to create visual iconographies around power hierarchies and expunged narratives. Women across cultures, nations, religions and histories have dealt with erasure and misrepresentation.
The two most significant elements running through my work are light and scale. Using glass recently has allowed me to work in a permanent and malleable material where scale can be radical and work can also go in the direction of sculpture.
Nigaah: You have rejuvenated miniature painting and have given a different perspective to that. What made you delve into miniature?
Shahzia Sikander: Bashir Ahmad, the master miniature painter and my ustaad, convinced me when I was a first year student at NCA to take miniature painting as my major. I was inspired by Bashir Ahmad’s skills and dedication to tradition. I was also inspired by many other painters including Zahoor-ul-Ikhlaq, Collin David, Lala Rukh and Zubeida Agha. I am proud that my NCA thesis painting, The Scroll (1989-90) was the first time a BFA student made a 5-foot detailed miniature painting.
The Scroll won the Haji Sharif award, the Shakir Ali award, the Principals Honor list and Thesis Distinction. As a young artist it was encouraging how others responded to my work, including Mrs Salima Hashmi who wrote in one review “The enfolding of the narrative, which began as a self-portrait and then proceeds to become a delicate blend of fact and fantasy is a real tour-de-force. Sikander intelligently incorporates conventions from the Persian and Moghul and then defies them in her treatment of form and surface.”
My thesis at NCA in 1990 was innovative: unlike earlier single-page miniature paintings, the 5 –foot painting combined multiple narratives into a singular frame.
The Scroll was made at a time when contemporary miniature painting was not yet popularized, and I had a prescient understanding of the potential in engaging with the medium. I am proud of what Quddus Mirza wrote in 2004 in Pakistan’s Encore: The News on Sunday, “Sikander’s work proved a breakthrough not only for the painter’s individual practice, but carved a new way for generations of miniature artists to experiment in multiple directions.”