Art of Colonialism: Shahzia Sikander’s Power of Apparatus at Asia Society

Shahzia Sikander
Still from Parallax, 2013, 3-channel HD digital animation with 5.1 surround sound
The Scroll, 1989-1990, Vegetable color, dry pigment, watercolor, and tea on wasli paper, H50.8 x W177.8 cm
Empire Follows Art: Endless Inventiveness, 2009, Gouache, ink and colored graphite on paper
A Slight and Pleasing Dislocation, 1993, Gouache and gesso on board
Epistrophe (Triptych), 2013-2015, Gouache, ink and gold leaf on paper
The Last Post, 2010, Single-channel HD digital animation with 5.1 surround sound
Exhibition view. Photo by Scott Brooks
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Calligraphy Rhapsody – Retrospective Exhibition of Georges Mathieu

Shahzia Sikander’s penchant for story-telling comes to the fore in the latest show at Asia Society, where she explores colonial identity with layering motifs.

TEXT: Christie Lee
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and Asia Society

A little known figure outside of the field of horticulture, Batty Langley was a British landscape gardener who, in order that visitors might discover the new surprises that awaited them every turn.

It comes as no surprise then, that Langley was the inspiration behind four drawings by Shahzia Sikander, whose labyrinth-like paintings and works on paper often demand the same kind of attention and intrepidness. They also form part of a complex narrative at Sikander’s solo show Power of Apparatus, which runs until July 9, at Asia Society.

Shahzia Sikander
Shahzia Sikander
Still from Parallax, 2013, 3-channel HD digital animation with 5.1 surround sound
Still from Parallax, 2013, 3-channel HD digital animation with 5.1 surround sound

The first time I’d met the Lahore-born, New York-based artist, she was poised to be honoured at Asia Society Hong Kong’s art gala. Reserved yet eloquent, the artist emphasised the importance of following your intuition. Growing up under Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s oppressive regime, the artist, together with mentor Sheikh Shuja Ullah, the last descendent of painters from the Mughal court, strived to pioneer the revival of miniature portraitures in her home country. That she did, and more, for Sikander’s miniature paintings went beyond the usual themes of floral, fauna and animals, instead choosing to focus on subject matters of more philosophical underpinnings. At Power of Apparatus, the artist tackles colonialism, a laborious theme that would resonate very much with a Hong Kong audience.

The Scroll, 1989-1990, Vegetable color, dry pigment, watercolor, and tea on wasli paper, H50.8 x W177.8 cm
The Scroll, 1989-1990, Vegetable color, dry pigment, watercolor, and tea on wasli paper, H50.8 x W177.8 cm

Rather than confronting it heads-on, the exhibition weaves together a tale with a bevy of motifs, and suggests that storytelling, with its implicated blurring of fact with fiction, might be the best way to contend with difficult political situations.

Upon entering The Chantal Miller gallery, where a combination of the artist’s paintings, works on paper and animation art is known, the air is charged with a tinge of mysticism. The exhibition is divided into four chambers, with artworks in each revolving around a different theme.

2009_Empire Follows Art - Endless Inventiveness
Empire Follows Art: Endless Inventiveness, 2009, Gouache, ink and colored graphite on paper

Set against a lush natural landscape, The Scroll, painted during the artist’s final year in art school, records the quotidian aspects of of life in a traditional Pakistani setting. Lurking beyond the harmonious landscape however, is a row of menacing red fences. A motif that is repeated in I am also not my own enemy (2009) and Empire follows art, what should we make of the red fences? As an ‘apparatus’ to ward off danger, or one that serves to warn those living within not to escape? Either way, some of order is imposed.

Yet, we also realise its fragility – the red fence always appears broken up and in some, even akin to an afterthought.

This disintegration is echoed in various other works. Conceived a mere 1 year after, the life depicted in The Scroll gives way to an derelict and empty house in The Scroll 2.

A Slight and Pleasing Dislocation, 1993, Gouache and gesso on board
A Slight and Pleasing Dislocation, 1993, Gouache and gesso on board

There is also the disassembling of the self, and none epitomises this better than in A Slight & Pleasing Dislocation (1993). Rather than suffused with motifs and symbols, as with the artist’s other works, it features a female body floating in mid-air amid a dark background.

In Singing Sphere and Apparatus of Power, tens and hundreds of the gopi hair motif appear to be sucked to the centre by a centripetal force. Yet, even if it proposes a more orderly construct, the gopi motif, inspired by the goddess Gopi, the consort of Hindu god Krishna, lacks a body, unhinged and swirling about in Sikander’s mini universes. They are not unlike the headless floating body in A Slight.

A riff on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s A Diamond as Big as the Ritz, Big Ritz depicts a faceless monk who is balancing precariously atop a tower of figures and a house. An 18th century colonial merchants – one of Sikander’s favourite motifs – is at the top of his game in Seraph, yet appears to be engaged in a tense face-off with a shadowy figure in Confrontation II (2012, 2015). The tides have turned, and once rich and powerful must come to their new predicaments.

Epistrophe (Triptych), 2013-2015, Gouache, ink and gold leaf on paper
Epistrophe (Triptych), 2013-2015, Gouache, ink and gold leaf on paper

As conventional geometry disintegrates, Sikander’s tale also gets more elusive.

Ink runs down the painting like tears in Epistrophe (Triptych), obscuring the original layer of paint.

A graphical notation of the score from the artist’s The Last Post, Practice makes Perfect is composed of indecipherable notes, Urdu calligraphy and the gopi hair motif, and recalls British composer Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise in the marrying of the visual with sound. At a mind-boggling 193 pages, Cardew never explicit instructions on how to play the Treatise, allowing many different interpretations of the piece.

The Last Post, 2010, Single-channel HD digital animation with 5.1 surround sound
The Last Post, 2010, Single-channel HD digital animation with 5.1 surround sound

That idea is explored further in Parallax, a mesmerising animation art piece inspired by the Emirates’ geography and comprising of hundreds of paintings and drawings. Set against Du Yun’s atmospheric soundtrack, the result is exuberant without being loud. The rapid taking over of one painting by another is said to echo the power tensions within the U.A.E. A tension embodied in the title of the work itself, for in photographic terms, parallax is the difference between what is seen through the viewfinder and what is being recorded.

And if you’re still tempted to ask, “where are the facts, and where is fiction, amid all this storytelling?” Well, it depends on where you stand at the time of that question.

 

Exhibition view. Photo by Scott Brooks
Exhibition view. Photo by Scott Brooks
Exhibition Venue:
Chantal Miller Gallery, Asia Society Hong Kong Center, The Hong Kong Jockey Club Former Explosives Magazine,
9 Justice Drive, Admiralty, Hong Kong
Opening Hours:
Tuesday – Sunday: 11 am – 6 pm
Last Thursday of April and May: 11 am – 8 pm
Closed on Mondays
In view till July 9, 2016

Christie Lee is a Hong Kong-based arts journalist, her articles have been published in Art + Auction, Artsy Editorial, Art in Asia, Baccarat magazine and Yishu. She has a degree in English literature and political science from McGill University.

 
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