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Shahzia Sikander: The Intersection of Feminism & Visual Arts

In August 2020 Equality Now Board Member, Patricia Amira, sat down(virtually) with groundbreaking visual artist and MacArthur Genius Grant Recipient, Shahzia Sikander.

Shahzia, you have a very unique artistic style and you utilize a large variety of mediums to bring your ideas to life. What inspired you to use visual art and these specific artistic styles to express the issues and ideas you are passionate about?

Shahzia: Well art, for me, was always very natural. I was always drawing as a child. It was something that came more effortlessly to me because I was fairly introverted. I think drawing functioned as a bridge for all those awkward moments when I was too shy to speak up. Art was more or less about developing one’s self-worth. So that for me is the foundation.

I grew up in the 1980s in Pakistan when there was a military dictatorship. It was a time of diminishing women’s and human rights. Blasphemy laws were on the rise and public and private spaces were becoming highly polarized. In general, it was just a discouraging moment for expression and dissent. And at that time I did an internship at a place called Seymour, which was a women’s resource publication center and I worked as a graphic designer there when I was in high school. And one of the leading artists there encouraged me to apply to the National College of Arts and those moments were very instrumental for me as I was inspired by these amazing women I was working with and I could use my skills of drawing and art.

Then once I was at the National College of Arts I was very interested in this idea of who gets to determine what is tradition. It is often written from the perspective of Western curators and historians. So this led me to work closely with miniatures and that is where the journey began. 

In terms of the descriptive nature of some of the historical works, it was mostly written from an outsider’s perspective. So the depiction of women would upset me because they were not necessarily proactive or imaginative relationships of casting gender in creative ways with history. I was interested in how to claim the freedom of the female body as the defining emotion in the work and also how to move away from prevalent layers of patriarchy. 

For me as a young artist, I really noticed the lack of female representation in the art world. And obviously the misogyny present towards women in all spheres of work and life. So the forms are personal in that sense but they are also engaging with forms that can be archetypal. 

As you know, in this At Home With series we have spoken with a variety of authors and you’ve spoken previously about your love of literature, could you tell us more about how to interweave language into visual storytelling? How do you see these two creative mediums collaborating and working together?

Shahzia: For me, I know my limitations. Drawing is a better way for me to do most things in the world. I do love reading fiction, poetry, and other writings. But for me to sit down and write, it takes me forever. So in that sense, I think that drawing is my thinking hat and a notational tool and it allows me to collaborate with other languages. I have also done some close collaborations with one of my dear friends who is a composer as well. I think working in other creative mediums like language and music is an important aspect of being a visual artist.

How does your relationship to Pakistani heritage and culture come through in your work? And how does this link to your life now, living in the United States? 

Shahzia: So I travel back and forth a lot. But broadly, as a Pakistani American, or as a transnational artist, I have been part of artistic movements in both Pakistan and America. And I have an interest in the colonial histories, around migration, and around the history of resources and commodities so my work is constantly evolving and growing but the core concerns are not limited to geography.

Has your view of feminism changed as you’ve grown as an artist? 

Shahzia: Absolutely. For me, early on, it was so much fueled by how to counter narrow representations of the other. So even in the mid to late 90s, there was still no nuanced representation.

But now and in recent years, my interest has been on the fault-lines of how race, class and gender intersect around capitalism. You can’t talk about feminism without addressing that class. And I think that is where it becomes even more important that more voices participate from different perspectives. And there is no way of determining one type of feminism. Everything has to grow and evolve.

What do you perceive as your own contribution to the tradition of miniature painting and how have you changed the practices you have adopted?

Shahzia: I think it is all based in its context and time. In 1986, engaging with tradition at that time was going against the grain of my generation. It was not normal to be sitting down and doing this really intensive work. So that challenged me to learn more about who was deciding what the definition of traditional work was. My engagement with it has been to open up multiple ways of accessing it and opening it up so that it can become collaborative. And in that sense, you can’t determine the outcome, it is going to grow the way it is going to grow.

Have you noticed a change in the acceptance of female artists in the wider artists community? 

Shahzia: I think this needs major intervention. It is shameful how few women get access in the institutional structure. It doesn’t allow for visibility for different identities and perspectives. There need to be more women in positions of power that can open up places of inclusion and representation, including in art.

How has COVID transformed the art process of a transnational artist?

Shahzia: It is still too early to project. Speaking purely for myself, I am such a hermit, so not that much as changed. I am also very adaptable. I can work small and large, I just have to clear up some space. I don’t need a studio to access to make my art. I think in terms of the transnational movement, I am not sure how it will change, we will have to see.