Shahzia Sikander: A Master of Indo-Persian Miniatures

Medha Kapur of Saffronart shares a note on Shahzia Sikander, a renowned Pakistani artist. 

Shahzia Sikander

Shahzia Sikander
Image courtesy:

Mumbai: Shahzia Sikander was born in Pakistan in 1969, and currently lives in New York. She left Pakistan in 1993, went on to graduate school at the Rhode Island School of Design, and lived briefly in Houston before moving to New York. Sikander is known for the ways in which she adapts Indo-Persian miniature paintings in her work. Besides her small-format paintings, she has also executed a number of large wall murals, video works, animations, and large-scale installations. Sikander’s works combine traditional motifs and techniques with her own personal visions, and her views on politics and sexuality. The artist has also been interested in exploring both sides of the Hindu and Muslim ‘border,’ reflected in  the way she stylistically mixes Mughal and Rajput painting traditions in her work.

Sikander’s work first made a splash when it was shown in 1997 at the Whitney Biennial in New York. Impressed by her work at the Biennial, Deitch Art Projects gave Sikander her first solo show in the city. She has since held solo exhibitions throughout the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Ireland, Australia and Hong Kong.

Shahzia Sikander Apparatus of Power 1995, in the 1997 Whitney Biennial

Shahzia Sikander Apparatus of Power 1995, in the 1997 Whitney Biennial
Image courtesy:

Saffronart’s first auction of the modern and contemporary Art of Pakistan, includes a painting by Shahzia Sikander titled Let It Ride #3, which was exhibited at her 1997 solo show at Deitch Art Projects in New York. This lot reflects the artist’s unique adaptation of traditional miniature painting techniques in her work.

Shahzia Sikander, Let It Ride #3

Shahzia Sikander, Let It Ride #3

According to the Deitch Art Projects press release for the exhibition, “Sikander often tells the story about how she was the first student in ten years to ask to concentrate on miniature painting when she enrolled at Lahore’s National College of Arts in 1987. Sikander’s reinvention of miniature painting inspired numerous others to follow and now the department has about thirty students. The way that Sikander uses the miniature tradition as a structure for visual diversity reflects the multicultural traditions of Pakistan. The culture incorporates both Muslim and Hindu elements and the strong influence of Persia. There is also the legacy of the British Colonial period. Sikander’s work, like contemporary Pakistani society, has elements that are Muslim, Hindu, Persian, Indian and European. Sikander points out how she incorporates such things as Celtic imagery in her work. A careful unraveling of her work reveals dialogues with many unexpected visual sources.”

Dhaka Art Summit 2014

Rashi Parekh of Saffronart announces the forthcoming Dhaka Art Summit 

Dhaka Art Summit 2014

Dhaka Art Summit 2014. Image Credit:

 Mumbai: The Dhaka Art Summit organized by the Samdani Art Foundation, a non-profit art infrastructure development organization, aims to support and promote Bangladeshi contemporary art internationally.

The first edition of the Dhaka Art Summit was a ground-breaking initiative in 2012, that showcased more than 240 Bangladeshi artists.

The 2nd edition focuses on South Asian contemporary art practices. It brings together over 250 established and emerging South Asian artists. The programme includes presentations and several new commissions by artists such as Jitish Kallat, Shilpa Gupta, Rashid Rana, Shahzia Sikander, Tayeba Begum Lipi, Mithu Sen, Naeem Mohaiemen and many more.

DAS 2014 will feature a wide range of programmes including six curatorial exhibitions by international and Bangladeshi curators, 12 solo art projects by celebrated artists from across South Asia, a city wide Public Art Project, Performances, Screening of experimental films, Speaker’s Panel and the participation of Bangladeshi and South Asia focused galleries.

To learn more about DAS 2014 click here.

Seher Shah in Huffington Post’s “10 International Artists to Watch in 2013”

Manjari Sihare shares details of Seher Shah’s mention in Huffington Post’s List of Ten International Artists to Watch in 2013

Seher Shah_Radiant Lines-X Block

Seher Shah
Capitol Complex: X-Block
Collage on paper, 11 x 14 inches, 2012
Image courtesy of Nature Morte Berlin

New York: Contemporary art in Pakistan is finally receiving much deserved international recognition after bordering along the shadows of art from India. Last week, the Huffington Post listed Seher Shah in its take on international artists to watch out for in the coming year. New York based artist of Pakistani origin, Seher Shah has lived in different parts of the world  including Pakistan, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and now the United States. Most recently, Seher’s has been in the news for her work in a current exhibition at the Rubin Museum of Art, Radical Terrain which celebrated the genre of modern Indian landscape painting juxtaposed with new work by younger contemporary artists. Watch the blog for more on this exhibit in the coming weeks.

Over the past 5 years, contemporary Pakistani artists have gained major international recognition. Among these are Rashid Rana who is well known for commanding high prices for his photomontages in global auctions. In November last year, the Deutsche Bank conferred Imran Qureshi with their “Artist of the Year” award. Similarly Shazia Sikander, a graduate of Lahore’s National College of the Arts, now based in the US,  has long been popular across the globe, receiving attention  and place in the collection of avid art collectors such as Bill Gates. In November, Saffronart held its inaugural auction of Pakistani Contemporary Art, which featured a total of seventy lots and represented an eclectic overview of the genre. Read more about some geniuses of Pakistani contemporary art in this article.

The Geniuses of Art in Pakistan

Guest blogger, Ali Adil Khan reflects on geniuses of Pakistani modern and contemporary art

Toronto: Over the last few years, I have often pondered on who could be considered young geniuses amongst the modern and contemporary artists of Pakistan. I have thought long and hard, and researched and discussed my reasoning with fellow art critics and collectors.

Finally, I have settled on a list. My assessment is in no way conclusive and the list is not meant to be exclusive. The result is simply my conclusion based on my definition of a genius in art practice as “someone who invents a new way of looking at or creating art, one who is ahead of their time, creates a following and movement, and is admired by fellow artists, locally and internationally.”

As geniuses are revealed at a young age, among important artists there are young geniuses who tend to be conceptual thinkers and often create iconic individual works. Then there are old masters who make equally important contributions to art forms and movements and produce their greatest work when they are older. Think of Picasso as a young genius and Cezanne as an old master. Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” which he painted at 26, appears in more than 90 percent of art history textbooks published in the past 30 years. Similarly, Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte,” which he finished at 27, appears in more than 70 percent. For old masters, on the other hand, discoveries evolve over years instead of exploding onto the scene in a single masterpiece. Thus no single painting by Cézanne or his friend Claude Monet appears in even half of art history textbooks. Yet no one would question their place among the greats.

Abdur Rahman Chughtai, Zainul Abedin, Sadequain, Ismail Gulgee, Zahoor ul Akhlaq, Rashid Rana, Shahzia Sikander and Hamra Abbas proved their geniuses at a young age. Shakir Ali, Zubaida Agha, Ahmed Parvez, Anwar Jalal Shemza, Bashir Mirza, Jamil Naqsh and Colin David are old masters. The differences between these artists’ creative life cycles are not accidental. Precocious young geniuses make bold and dramatic innovations – think of Picasso’s cubism – and their work often expresses their ideas or feelings. Wise old masters, on the other hand, are experimental thinkers who proceed by trial and error.

Even before Pakistan came into existence, Chughtai had already proven his mantel and established himself internationally as the pre-eminent artist of the subcontinent.

Below is my list of the young geniuses of modern art in the history of Pakistan.

Chughtai (1897-1975) fused miniature paintings from India with a Persian style of painting, and romanticised it to invent a personal style that was later known as Chughtai art or the Lahore School of Painting. As they say, “It takes a diamond to recognise a diamond,” and Dr Mohammad Iqbal acknowledged Chughtai’s genius in the foreword he wrote for the Muraqqa-e-Chughtai, a compilation of Chughtai’s drawings and paintings on Dewan-e-Ghalib in 1928. Iqbal wrote: “He [Chughtai] is only twenty-nine yet. What his art will become when he reaches the mature age of forty, the future alone will disclose. Meanwhile all those who are interested in his work will keenly watch his forward movement.”

Zainul Abedin (1914-1976) played a pioneering role in the modern art movement of Pakistan. Although now legitimately claimed by Bangladesh as Shilpacharya, or father of modern art, Zainul Abedin was instrumental in establishing the first art institute in Dhaka and charting a trajectory for a future generation of artists. His dedication and contribution in establishing and nurturing the art institute and the Dhaka Artists Group is of major importance. His genius as an artist was revealed through his drawings of the 1943 famine in Bengal when he sketched over 2,000 drawings using the barest economy of line with Indian ink and brush on ordinary pieces of brown wrapping paper. His images were so powerful and moving that even if seen today, as I did recently at the National Museum of Bangladesh, they remind us of his extraordinary ability to generate an enormous emotional response.

Syed Sadequain Ahmed Naqvi
Untitled (Acrobats)
Art of Pakistan Auction (November 7-8, 2012)

Sadequain (1930-1987) undoubtedly is the greatest contemporary artist that South Asia has produced. His genius was exposed early on in his career when he was declared Laureate Biennale de Paris when he participated in the 1961 Paris Biennale at the age of 31. Sadequain is single-handedly responsible for the renaissance of calligraphy in South Asia and the Middle East. He was able to accomplish a lot in a short period of time and was able to evolve a unique art form based on the cactus and the Urdu letter alif. Dr Akbar Naqvi writes in his book Image and Identity, “In November 1968, which was Ramadan, his calligraphy of Quranic verses was exhibited in a celebrated exhibition at the Karachi Arts Council. For the first time art touched the underprivileged people of the city, who came in droves to see the exhibition and made Sadequain an Awami [national] painter overnight. Art had broken the class barrier and bridged Lalu Khet with KDA Scheme-1.” Naqvi further says, “As early as 1961, he [Sadequain] invented the style, either in Paris or in Karachi, which was a distinguished contribution to Cubism. Sadequain’s style was, if we must have a name, Calligraphic Cubism.” Furthermore, Sadequain’s phenomenal murals in Pakistan, India and parts of Europe defy Michelangelo. While Sadequain’s figurative work had strong social commentary and criticisms, his paintings also looked into the future.

Zahoor ul Akhlaq, Farman
Art of Pakistan Auction (November 7-8, 2012)

Zahoor ul Akhlaq (1941-1999) has been credited with the revival of miniature paintings, initially in Pakistan and later globally. It was at the behest of Zahoor in the early 1980s, who was then the head of fine arts at the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore, a separate curriculum was designed for students to specialise in miniature painting. Moreover, he sought to insert an element of experimentation in the practise, which challenged the students to look beyond the borders of traditional miniatures. As a post-graduate student at the Royal College of Art in London, Zahoor was greatly influenced by his encounters with the Indian miniature collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. He was immensely fascinated by the entire collection, and in particular the masterpiece titled “Three Young Sons of Shahjahan” executed in reverse perspective by Balchand, circa 1635. Zahoor started rethinking and deconstructing the miniature. He later recreated the “Three Princes” in a minimalist style, which was exhibited as part of “Pakistan: Another Vision” in London in 2000. An exhibition of contemporary art from Pakistan at the Asia Society in New York in 2009, entitled “Hanging Fire,” started from Zahoor, underlining the importance and overarching influence of Zahoor on avant-garde artists such as Shahzia Sikander, Rashid Rana and Hamra Abbas, to name a few, who were all his students. Salima Hashmi in her lead essay for “Hanging Fire” says, “Zahoor’s ability to synthesize innovation and cultural context enabled the generation after him to make work as world citizens.” Or as Rashid Rana explains, “He has made it easy for us.”

Gulgee (1926-2007) invented abstract calligraphy based on action painting popularised by Jackson Pollock in the USA in the 1950s. Gulgee was completely self-taught and began painting while studying engineering at Columbia and Harvard Universities in the US. Early on in his artistic career, he focused on portraiture and excelled in it. He was commissioned to paint the portrait of King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan (1959), Prince Karim Aga Khan (1961), Zhou Enlai (1964), Queen Farah Diba of Iran (1965) and President Ayub Khan of Pakistan (1968). He then turned to making portraits from marble mosaic and semi-precious stones, a technique that he developed in Kabul using Lapis Lazuli. In the late 60s and early 70s, he reinvented himself by working in abstract styles using broad brush and bold colours and incorporating local materials such as coloured beads, small pieces of mirrors, and gold and silver leaf. During this period, Gulgee produced some of the most spectacular works of modern art ever seen in Pakistan. In the late 70s and early 80s, Gulgee started experimenting again, this time combining action painting with calligraphy. By this time, he had already mastered all major styles of calligraphy, and completely modernized it to invent a distinct and unique style, never seen before in and outside of Pakistan. He was very prolific in the 90s and until his tragic death in 2007. He leaves behind a large body of paintings and sculptures for future generations to decipher.

Lot 33: Rashid Rana, Ommatidia II (Salman Khan), 2004
24 Hour Auction: Art of Pakistan (Nov. 7-8, 2012)

Rashid Rana (b. 1968) is one of the most sought after contemporary artist from South Asia. His recent exhibition at the Musée Guimet in Paris and major collections at the Saatchi Gallery in London and the Devi Art Foundation in Delhi are a testament to his genius. His creations in C-print + DIASEC, such as the “Red Carpet” exhibited at the Asia Society in 2009 and “Desperately Seeking Paradise” first exhibited at Art Dubai in 2008 are masterpieces that have no equal.

Lot 30 – Shazia Sikander, Let It Ride # 3, 1987
24 Hour Auction: Art of Pakistan (Nov. 7-8, 2012)

Shahzia Sikander (b. 1969) at age 36 was awarded the MacArthur Foundation’s fellowship (also generally referred to as the genius award) which provides unrestricted use of US$500,000 to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction. Shahzia was the first to breakaway from the miniature tradition, and has been instrumental in the rediscovery, re-infusion, and re-contextualisation of Indo-Persian miniature painting, which has helped establish an art form that is now known and recognised as contemporary miniature, or neo-miniature. She has now entered the mainstream of contemporary art internationally and is a recognised superstar.

Hamra Abbas (b. 1976) left a lasting impression on me when I first saw her sculptures titled “Lessons on Love,” a set of life-size works based on erotic miniature paintings from the Kama Sutra, and in particular, one that showed a man and a woman seated facing each other on a Howdah (an elephant or horse back mount), embraced in love and engaged in a hunting scene. This brilliant composition and a transformation of miniature into a life-size sculpture captured my attention, as I fully comprehended Hamra’s creative expression of a paradoxical relationship between sex and violence. Last year when I saw her masterpiece titled ‘Buraq’ at the “Hanging Fire” exhibition in New York, it further confirmed Hamra’s exceptional talent and genius. Hamra’s versatile practice straddles a wide range of media, as she questions widely accepted traditions and uses culturally loaded imagery and iconography in creating new platforms from which to view notions of culture, tradition and exchange. Hamra’s research on madrassahs [Islamic seminaries] after her return to Pakistan in 2007, resulted in creation of exceptional works: an installation titled ‘Read,’ which was exhibited first at the National Art Gallery in Islamabad and then at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and the 99 faces of children in the madrassahs, which was awarded the Jury Prize at the Sharjah Biennale in 2009. Hamra is the recipient of the 2011 Abraaj Capital Art Prize and currently doing a residency in New York.

Read another article by Adil Ali Khan on Miniature Art from Pakistan and follow his top ten picks in the current auction.

Miniatures: Survival of a Revival

Guest blogger, Ali Adil Khan shares his views on contemporary miniature paintings from Pakistan

Lot 21- Rehana Mangi, 3 Figures (Gadrang)
Art of Pakistan Auction (November 7-8, 2012)

Toronto: We are experiencing a modern revival of the miniature painting tradition that is unrivaled. This contemporary miniature art movement, emanating from a premier art institute of Pakistan, while being firmly grounded in tradition, has taken post-modern art by storm. It has a serious following locally and internationally and enjoys the support of curators, gallery owners, critics and collectors alike.

This movement is strong, moving rapidly, and is sure to leave its mark on the international art scene. The credit goes to the modern practitioners and teachers of miniature art. Early visionaries at the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore, Zahoor ul Akhlaq, followed by Salima Hashmi, Bashir Ahmed and Imran Qureshi have believed in the talents of their students and designed an ingenious curriculum and an exigent training program that continues to bring the best out of them.

Some of these industrious students have become leading proponents of contemporary miniature art around the world with a broad private and institutional following.

Lot 30 – Shazia Sikander, Let It Ride # 3, 1997
24 Hour Auction: Art of Pakistan (Nov. 7-8, 2012)

Some stalwarts clearly standout. Shahzia Sikander was the first to breakaway from the miniature tradition, and helped establish an art form that is now known and recognised as contemporary or neo-miniature painting. She remains the greatest of them all and there are only two ways to describe her art practice — brilliant and exquisite. She has now entered the mainstream of contemporary art internationally and is a recognised superstar.

Others, who followed her success, have held their values and traditional training central to their practice, not compromising them for quick buck. These trail blazers, who are now in the upper echelon of contemporary miniature art internationally include: Imran Qureshi, Tazeen Qayyum, Aisha Khalid, Talha Rathore, Nusra Latif Qureshi, Saira Wasim and Reeta Saeed. They can be referred to as the magnificent seven of NCA. Others who are fast catching up through their prolific practice, creative talents, and international exhibitions are Waseem Ahmed, Hasnat Mehmood, Khadim Ali, Muhammed Zeeshan and Sabeen Raja.

Lot 31 – Imran Qureshi, Moderate Enlightenment, 2007
24 Hour Auction: Art of Pakistan (Nov. 7-8, 2012)

While Imran Qureshi’s work on wasli exhibited in London, Hong Kong, and Oxford more recently continues to be very strong (as he can probably paint with his eyes closed — meant as a compliment), his site-specific wall paintings at the 1st Singapore Biennale in 2006 was most impressive. It was truly outstanding and definitely leading edge.

The contemporary miniature art market is cut throat to say the least. As a new breed of young artists jumps on the bandwagon, there are bound to be more failures than resounding successes. As experienced curators and discerning collectors closely examine and follow the emergence and development of this trend, they will critique the works of the artists. Any repetition, reproduction, stagnation, mediocrity will be severely penalised. It can be said with confidence that not all currently practicing contemporary miniature artists are good.

The ones that are good and with potential of becoming great, are the ones that are continuously experimenting and pushing the boundaries beyond the restrained borders of miniature paintings. For example, Tazeen Qayyum has consistently surpassed expectations of curators and collectors. In the late 1990s she incorporated borders made from collages of interesting newspaper cuttings and quickly moved away from figurative to contextual use of a motifs such as the veil and cockroach that enabled her to assert her socio-political views on the wasli. She experimented and employed the use of block printing, Xerox photo transfer, and digital techniques in her works of the early 2000s. In 2005, she pasted strands of her own long hair on the wasli. In 2006, Qayyum took wasli to a third dimension by adding labels and entomology pins to her work and changed the framing to box frames. Her depiction of the disgraceful human pyramid made forcibly at Abu Gharib Prison in Iraq using cockroaches with minute details was stunning to say the least.

Lot 45- Sumaira Tazeen, Moti Tanka (French Knot), 2008
Art of Pakistan Auction (November 7-8, 2012)

There are many more promising senior artists who can reach new heights through rigorous experimentation and an urge to push and re-invent the boundaries. They are Ambreen Butt, Sumaira Tazeen, Usman Saeed, Sherbano Qizilbash and Saira Sheikh. Curators and critics will watch them closely as they fulfil the much needed requirement to re-invent and progress.

The survival of the revival now solely rests in the capable hands of these practitioners and new comers into the field who must learn from the success of their predecessors and set high standards for themselves. They should not and must not expect to sell their works for exorbitant prices, as they first need to experiment, prove and establish their art practice. As collector of contemporary Pakistani art, London-based Kamran Anwar notes, “The Pakistani art market is clearly at an inflexion point. The contemporary miniature movement has led the way and holds a distinct place in the South Asian artistic landscape.

“The big challenge for these artists is to continue to innovate and create without falling into the temptation of doing the same thing again and again for short term commercial gains.”

Ali Adil Khan is a prolific Toronto based collector and expert of South Asian art and antiquities. Khan has organized numerous exhibitions of South Asian Art in North America including  “Image and Identity: Being Ethnic” and “Cosmic Energy and Tantric Enlightenment: Art of Youngo Verma” which have received widespread critical acclaim. He has contributed notable articles on South Asian art to leading dailies including The Dawn Online Edition and Newsline of Pakistan. He has also been invited to share his expertise at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Art Gallery of Mississauga and the 14th Asian Art Biennale in Dhaka, amongst others. Khan is a guest contributor for the Saffronart blog.

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