Shahzia Sikander

Shahzia Sikander, born in Pakistan but currently living and working in the United States, deconstructs an Indo-Persian tradition to which she remains attached. Sikander is fascinated by Mughal miniatures, paintings that use intense, fully saturated pigments, and is particularly fascinated by their underdrawing. Does she believe that their essence lies beneath the surface? Perhaps, but her art doesn’t attempt to answer that question. Sinopia, the drawing that underlies European frescoes, does reveal structural information, but the relation of Sikander’s drawings to Mughal art is more complex. Not interested in merely making literal reproductions, she employs faint colors and lines in geometric patterns along with fragments of figurative images.

“Shahzia Sikander: Nemesis,” at the Aldrich, had four parts. Near the entrance of the museum was Duality (all works 2004), a large wall painting in which the heads of five turbaned men touch at the center of a pinwheel pattern. Upstairs was Collaboration, a thirteen-minute video of a performance staged at the opening of the exhibition showing the dancer Sharmila Desai, long dark hair flowing, performing on a floor mat painted by Sikander. In the next gallery was 51Ways of Looking, a suite of small drawings made with graphite, ink, and paint on paper. And in the last room was Pursuit Curve, a seven-minute digital animation.

In 51 Ways of Looking, one seemingly unfinished portrait is accompanied by two pictures drawn in pencil, one soft, the other with hard lines. A second sketch from the suite, also apparently incomplete, is in the style of Ingres, as he might have worked had he lived in India. Still other drawings show Escher-like dissolves, organic imagery coming into being, and fields of animal forms. But Sikander also draws circles set on a black background or off-center in a field of colored straight lines and curves. She has a fondness for patterns, solid grids, and more lightly sketched ones with superimposed curvilinear forms.

Perhaps the most revealing work on display was Pursuit Curve. An arching horizon is covered with trees, and soon the interior of the earth below is filled in. That picture in turn dissolves, replaced by a field of Indian heads before a background of changing colors. Finally the whole scene is covered with forms in furious motion, and there are explosions and fireworks above a field of waves.

Initially this enchanting exhibition seemed slightly baffling: I didn’t see what unified its four parts. But on further reflection, I realized that this confusion was central to Sikander’s project. The world coming into view, as if we were just coming to consciousness, is her essential concern. Reading 51 Ways of Looking as the sketch for Pursuit Curve, I began to see how she thinks. The content and geometry of her work may come from Mughal art, but her way of seeing is all her own. Some artists merely offer exotic subject matter: Sikander’s more elusive achievement is to make persistent gentleness a convincing and consistent strength.

David Carrier