This is Shahzia Sikander’s first exhibition in New York City in nine years. “Weeping Willows, Liquid Tongues” is an expansive, in-depth look into Sikander’s recent work, featuring the artist’s dynamic large-and-intimately-scaled drawings, a captivating new single channel video-animation, luminous, intricate mosaics and her first ever free-standing sculpture.
Shahzia Sikander takes classical Indo-Persian miniature painting as the point of departure for her work. From premodern beginnings to contemporary influences, it is precisely this historical continuum and its continuous capacity for reinvention that has sparked Sikander’s visually rich engagement in multiple media. The works in the exhibition explore tensions between power and powerlessness to present transformative ideas. Sikander’s interest in sociology, psychoanalysis, and the examination of how culture and society shape the imagination is all fodder for her work. The ways in which violence, systemic racism, class and cultural fears are deeply entrenched in media and political representations, be it the fear of the unknown, the migrant, the immigrant, the Muslim, the LGBTQ community, the ‘other’ and the various fault lines of race, class and gender also intersect within her work. In this tangled web, the extractive nature of capitalism appears to promise liberty and happiness, but too often bestows debt and despair. These ideas are all explored in her new series of paintings The Shroud, 2020 and Oil and Poppies, 2020, which emerged whilst the artist was researching symbols of extraction.
Sikander’s first major sculptural work, Promiscuous Intimacies, borrows its title from Gayatri Gopinath’s forthcoming essay on Sikander’s practice. This bronze sculpture, with its sinuous entanglement of a Greco-Roman Venus and an Indian Devata, explores in Gopinath’s words, “the promiscuous intimacies of multiple times, spaces, art historical traditions, bodies, desires, and subjectivities.” In their suggestive embrace, the intertwined female bodies bear the symbolic weight of communal identities from multiple geographic terrains. They evoke non-heteronormative desires that are often cast as foreign and inauthentic, and instead challenge the viewer to imagine a different present and future. The backward glance of the lower figure “demands that we understand ‘tradition,’ ‘culture,’ and ‘identity’ as impure, heterogenous, unstable, and always in process,” disrupting “taken-for-granted national, temporal, and art historical boundaries.”
Presenting a comprehensive overview of Sikander’s films, the exhibition will feature three animations: Parallax, 2013, Disruption as Rapture, 2016, and her most recent film, Reckoning, 2020. The new film, made from multiple drawings, reveals the cyclical theme of struggle through kinetic forms. In it, Sikander considers the relationships between migrant-citizen, conflict-erosion, memory-myth, warfare-fatality, father-son, and human – nature. The musical score accompanying Reckoning is written by the inimitable composer Du Yun, awarded the Pulitzer in Music in 2017, and features the Pakistani singer Zeb Bangash. Du Yun and Sikander’s decade-long collaborations (including Parallax and Disruption as Rapture) span Shanghai, New York, Sharjah, Istanbul, Hong Kong and Pakistan and speak to their ‘creative intimacy,’ female agency and shared passion for finding common ground through multiple languages.
While questioning the very concept of national culture, Sikander provides deep aesthetic reflections on the history of colonialism, capitalism and the formation of racialized identities in the present. Our ecological condition is a mirror of social conditions: erosion of climate, borders, rising waters, rising heat, and displacement of bodies amongst others. All resources are gathered in the rubric of monetization: language, labor, human intelligence and human attention. Sikander reimagines the United States’ foundational claims of freedom and liberty, that were never applicable to all, by presenting overlapping diasporas and using art to imagine the possibilities of a more just and livable future. Sikander’s work is not about hybridity. It is not fusing cultures or aesthetics. The multiple juxtapositions reflecting gender, race, class, and language differences are arranged and rearranged to imagine visual forms that challenge fixed narratives and break binary thinking in all its forms. Sikander’s work is the antithesis of the fictions of purity and authentic national culture.