Artist Residency: Shahzia Sikander at the Nasher Museum of Art

One reason contemporary art is exciting is that we can sometimes meet an artist and learn the stories behind the work.

Artist Shahzia Sikander visited the Nasher Museum in mid November 2013 as part of a Visiting Artist Grant from the Council for the Arts and the Office of the Vice Provost for the Arts. Her connection to Duke was the Nasher Museum’s exhibition Doris Duke’s Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape, and Islamic Art, on view August 29 – December 31, 2013. The story though, begins in 2008, when Sikander took part in a residency at Doris Duke’s Honolulu estate, Shangri La. There, she created large-scale projections of her own abstract drawings, transforming elements of the architecture and landscape at night. Photographs of those projections were included in the Shangri La exhibition.

We asked Sikander to tell us about one of her mysterious projections, a multi-armed female form.

The projection is a metaphor for Doris Duke herself,” Shahzia said, in her talk. “Mythical, majestic, monumental, rising from the Mughal Suite looming over Shangri La, overlooking the formidable Pacific where her ashes were sprinkled. The paradox of Shangri La is omnipresent. With its American Orientalism, stunning craftwork and collections from many Muslim cultures, it is engaging while full of contradiction.

During her residency, Sikander met with Duke Professors Pedro Lasch and Kristine Stiles and their students. One afternoon, she took part in a critical review of work presented by students in Duke’s MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts program. She also gave a public talk at the Nasher Museum about her work, where she took issue with the term “Islamic Art,” part of the subtitle of the exhibition.

I find the definition for traditional Islamic or contemporary Islamic art or just Islamic art to be problematic and a misnomer as it encompasses far too much to be an apt representation of any sort. Muslim communities have varied histories and geographical locations that challenge singular definitions. If traditional Islamic art’s implication is all of the art made by artists and artisans who may or may have not practiced Islam, but who are part of Islamic cultures of several centuries and over large geographical territories, then reducing such enormous complexity into a definition such as Islamic art is confounding. As well as in today’s transnational ways of living and being, such a framework feels even more restrictive; on the other hand, a quest to define an Islamic identity in the contemporary visual context may also be a paradox in and of itself.”

Originally from Pakistan, Sikander now lives and works in New York. She was a 2006 MacArthur Fellow and studied at the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan, and the Rhode Island School of Design. Her visit and her comments about Islamic Art and the Nasher Museum’s exhibition are documented in the video that follows.