Critics’ Picks

Nilima Sheikh, Gathering Threads, 2004, casein tempera on canvas, 120 x 72”.


Nilima Sheikh

Chemould Prescott Road
G. Talwatkar Marg, Fort Queens Mansion, Floor 3
March 29–April 29

The title of Baroda, India–based artist Nilima Sheikh’s latest exhibition issues a clear suggestion: “Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams.” Sheikh’s shimmering gold-flecked paintings about India’s erstwhile “Paradise on Earth” make it impossible to disregard her plea. Nine scroll-like canvases hang suspended from the ceiling, alluding to Kashmir’s multicultural history: In bygone times, Srinagar’s Jhelum River was once a conduit for trade and the spread of Buddhism to Central Asia. Hence, small capering golden deer, flying sprites from the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang (the oldest Buddhist shrines in China), a mourning Mother Mary from a Fra Angelico fresco, and the delicate geometric friezes favored by Persian miniaturists coexist in Sheikh’s images. But her rainbow-hued heaven is shot through with menace: Jinnis brandish knives, a vermilion monster harasses innocent picnickers, and a mangled pair of iridescent wings plummets through blue skies. These are reminders that Kashmir’s verdant valley is now disputed territory, fought over by Pakistan, India, and Kashmiri separatists alike—not to mention that its borders are claimed by China. In Going Away, 2010, a veiled woman forlornly cradles photographs of her two missing sons while a man swallows a cutlass. Gathering Threads, 2004, depicts an old man bowing his head in prayer while a lion pounces on its prey by the banks of a ribbonlike river.

Sheikh says her multilayered imagery is meant to recall the complex patterns of traditional Kashmiri shawls. The only awkward stitch in an otherwise perfect weave is the quantity of printed text on the reverse of the canvases—quotes from historical tracts, Salman Rushdie’s novel Shalimar the Clown (2005), and fables bemoan Kashmir’s lost cosmopolitanism. Yet Sheikh’s fragile motifs don’t need words to evoke a onetime haven gradually ripped apart.