Shahzia Sikander’s Lesser Known Works Offer a Kaleidoscopic Glimpse of Islam

Sikander’s work has long been lauded as in direct opposition to colonialism, though her more recent works have tended to take a more out-there, esoteric style. But many of her older paintings have tackled colonialism head-on, offering more concrete glimpses of resistance.

Shahzia Sikander’s Lesser Known Works Offer a Kaleidoscopic Glimpse of Islam
Shahzia Sikander at work in her studio. Photo source: Shahzia Sikander and The Art Newspaper

Shahzia Sikander is an artist perhaps best known for her recontextualization of Mughal-inspired miniature painting. Sikander was born in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1969 and studied under renowned miniaturist Bashir Ahmad at Lahore’s National College of Arts (NCA), from which she received her BFA in 1991. She ultimately became the first woman to teach at the NCA’s miniature painting department, and her work "The Scroll" (1989–90) launched her to national fame in Pakistan. 

Sikander received her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1995 and has won an array of awards. To date, Sikander’s art spans a wide gamut of interdisciplinary practices, from large-scale painting to projections in Times Square, mosaics and sculpture, as well as performance. Sikander’s work has long been lauded as in direct opposition to colonialism, though her more recent works have tended to take a more out-there, esoteric style. But many of her older paintings have tackled colonialism head-on, offering more concrete glimpses of resistance.

"The Scroll," from Sikander’s website.

"The Many Faces of Islam" (1997–1999) offers one such fascinating look at Sikander’s previous artistic approach. Stylistically speaking, we see Sikander again borrowing largely from Mughal miniature painting, as well as classical Islamic art, particularly with her inclusion of geometric shapes that border the painting. But in and among these shapes, Sikander places famous Muslims who are read as both “good” and “evil” depending on who you ask. These figures include Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Benazir Bhutto, Malcolm X, Salman Rushdie and more. Next to some we see quotes, while others have other labels; Bhutto dons a hijab made of an American flag and has a banner underneath her, reading “daughter of the East?”. Not only are these famous Muslim leaders, but they are individuals that many folks here in the West see as representative of us as a people; they dictate the world’s impressions of who all Muslims are.

"The Many Faces of Islam," from Sikander’s website.

In the center of the painting stand two women: on the left (read: West) is someone clearly reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty and on the right (read: East), a woman in a white niqab holds up a sign that says “who’s veiled anyway?” Between the two of them, the women hold up a dollar bill, suggesting that money is what connects and controls the relationship between East and West. Next to the Statue of Liberty figure float two machine guns pointing in either direction, hinting that perhaps the relationship between East and West is not symbiotic but rather mutually harmful.

“The Many Faces of Islam” offers a stunning portrayal of something many of us Muslims are already aware of: our people contain multitudes, and so do our leaders. This isn’t something that should come as a shock and surprise to anyone, but unfortunately, even today, we are aware of the way people like us are consistently vilified. Here, we see the suggestion that perhaps it is by the Western hand that we Muslims have been driven to such extremes, whether it’s through the actions of war criminals such as Hussein, freedom fighters like X or even the founder of Pakistan, Jinnah.

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