"Modern Miniatures"At the Asia Society
Art review by Randi Hoffman February 16, 2002
An Indian and a Pakistani woman who paint in the ancient illustrative form of Indian miniatures have collaborated in a rich, fascinating show, "Conversations with Traditions: Nilima Shiekh and Shahzia Sikander," running through March 3rd at the Asia Society. Indian miniatures reached their peak of popularity in the Mogul courts of the 16th and 17th centuries. At that time, they told the stories of Hindu gods, kings, courtesans and the royal court. Shiekh and Sikander insert decidedly modern content into the structure, painting about forced migration, violence against women, art history, birth and death. The first pieces of the show are encountered before entering the actual exhibition. The Asia Society has a beautiful new building, and commissioned both women to create large scrolls to hang next to a circular staircase. Shahzia Sikander's scroll "Midgets to Monsters," combines sacred and profane themes, ancient Hindu gods and pop art symbols. At the bottom, the scroll reads "No Parking Anytime." Above are birds, utensils, toys some Hindu gods and red concentric targets. Then near the top is a floating banner stating "You are Closer Than You Think." Nilima Shiekh's scroll, "Chenab 4," is moving and breathtaking. It is a green sea teeming with abstract sea creatures. One-third of the way up is one of Sheikh's signature images, a woman who looks like a tadpole, carrying a big, round object in her arms, perhaps, pottery, a gourd, or a child. The Chenab is a river in Northern India, Shiekh explains, and her scroll depicts the tragic folktale of a young woman who drowns in the river while trying to cross to visit her lover. She had used a baked earthenware pot to help her cross, but someone had tricked her into using an unbaked pot, and she drowned. Shiekh says she enjoyed working in the form of a scroll, as it is an Asian historical tradition, and is architecturally significant without being permanent like a mural, or outside and moving in the wind like a banner. Sheikh, in her fifties, was a representational painter in oils, and switched to painting in the more traditional miniature form. "I found working in an intimate scale on paper a very liberating experience," she e-mailed from her home in New Delhi. "I could talk about things that would seem incongruous in a framed canvas on a wall. I still feel new avenues remain unexplored (in this medium), and that there is still a lot to be done." One of the primary works of the exhibition is Sheikh's "When Champa Grew Up," which is comprised of twelve small, tempera on paper paintings that tell a true story. The first few show a happy young girl, playing on a swing and riding a bicycle. Then her marriage ceremony is shown, along with a flock of birds that symbolize her leaving her parents' house. Next she is depicted naked and crying while working in the kitchen, maybe after being beaten. And in the final panels protray her funeral pyre, and women wailing in mourning. Sheikh used the story of a young woman who lived in her university neighborhood, who was given in an arranged marriage while still a minor, and then allegedly murdered by her husband's family within a year. A kerosene stove in the kitchen was set on fire while she was inside. "I had wanted to talk about the dowry deaths I am confronted with daily in the newspapers, but had struggled to find a mode that could contain anguish without reducing it to a cliche," explained Shiekh. "Champa grew up nearby, was the darling of her parents, and one day when I passed her parent's house I came upon a group of women in ritualized mourning. It seemed inevitable that I would paint her story." Shiekh explores a different kind of narrative in "River: Carrying Across, Leaving Behind." The orange landscape with trees, roads and stairs that lead to a river is a representation of the passage from one land to another. The painting is an interpretation of the political partition of India in 1947, when Moslems were forced to move to Pakistan and Hindus living in Pakistan were forced to move to India. The transition was not a peaceful one, and between 200,000 and a million people died of malnutrition and disease. Families were divided, and murder, rape and theft were common on both sides as the populations traveled. "This painting is about the journey along a mountain river, now visible, now around the bend, sometimes close enough to touch," says Shiekh. "It is about the transition from one time to another, one land to another." Nilima Sheikh's work is in the National Gallery of Modern Art in India, and she has exhibited in the Second Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane Australia and the First Johannesburg Biennale. Shahzia Sikander is in her thirties, and was born in Pakistan. She trained formally in miniature court painting at Pakistan's National College of Art. When she wanted to study painting under Nilima Sheikh in India, she was denied a visa. So she studied painting at The Rhode Island School of Design instead. Her work has been exhibited at the Whitney Biennial and the Whitney Museum at Phillip Morris. At the Asia Society, her piece, "The Scroll," shows an apartment house with the outside wall taken off. It offers a rear-window type view into the lives of many households. Some are single-person households and some are families. They are eating, watching television, or having family celebrations. Her most recent work uses computer technology to overlay images and textures. "Pleasure Pillars" is a collage of juxtaposed classical images of women, including a headless, one-armed Greek statue and several Indian dancing girls in profile. Thrown into the mix are a ram's horns, a winding staircase, and clusters of dots. "Mind Games" is a similar juxtaposition with a masked ball, harlequin theme. "Art making is so much about creating your own world, your own language. It's not about reinventing tradition," says Sikander in a New York Times article. "Using this form has so much potential for subversion. I could learn the language and talk back to it. But I knew I had to master the craft in order to be creative." Sikander enjoys process, and makes the smooth, translucent, ancient type of paper in her home. She uses pots of tea as a wash and rubs the paper smooth with a shell. The paint itself is a combination of pigment and vegetable dye. The exhibition, while not large, is laid out elegantly, with Shiekh's work in the front room or two, then Sikander's. The intensity of the content makes this small exhibition very complete. Sikander is experimenting with using ancient and state of the art techniques simultaneously. She has an intellectual, art historical approach, with interesting references to De Chirico and other surrealists, pop artists, and the use of pithy slogans like Barbara Kruger. While both are talented illustrators, Shiekh is more painterly and graceful. Her symbols are simpler and more profound, and her subject matter is more emotional. The twenty years more she has been painting show in the apparent ease and level of accomplishment in her work. Although from two nations at odds, "Shahzia and I have a lot to share, " says Shiekh. "Our countries have a similar shared visual memory, language and history; and we believe that this sharing can have an instrumentality on the future."