Home Culture The Forgotten Daughter

The Forgotten Daughter

by Ayeda Iftikhar
Courtesy of Shahzia Sikander

Courtesy of Shahzia Sikander

Pakistan’s most successful artist is barely known in her own country.

Her works are part of the permanent collections of some of the world’s most famous museums—the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, the Guggenheim. In 2005, The New York Times called her an “an artist on the verge of shaking things up.” The year before that, Newsweek counted her among the clutch of overachieving South Asians “transforming America’s cultural landscape.” Shahzia Sikander, arguably Pakistan’s most famous living modern artist, has been wowing the international art world with her multidisciplinary works inspired from Mughal-era miniature painting techniques and tropes. She’s been scoring accolades since graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1995. Last year, the U.S. secretary of State awarded her the Inaugural Medal of Art. She’s previously won a MacArthur “Genius Grant.” While Pakistan hasn’t entirely ignored Sikander—she won the President’s National Pride of Honor award in 2005—she’s hardly a household name in her home country, and viewed by Pakistani critics as an outlier. We spoke with Sikander recently about her art and life. Excerpts:

From the National College of Arts in Lahore to the pinnacle of the global art scene, what’s the journey been like for you?

Complex, the way life is. It’s hard to summarize more than two decades in a single answer—besides, the journey is still unfolding. In retrospect I would have, perhaps, made some different decisions, but I’m appreciative of all the opportunities and detours I experienced that helped me develop my ability to think and express.

You’ve rarely held any shows in Pakistan, why?

Not being invited in any serious manner to exhibit works in Pakistan is an issue. Compounding the situation is also the fact that almost all of my work got collected rapidly by international museums in the late 1990s and early 2000s. To show the work, it has to be loaned directly from the [collecting] institutions. It was never as simple as putting the work in a suitcase to be brought over to Pakistan to exhibit.

Do you think your work has helped change how women artists from the Muslim world are viewed abroad, judged on the basis of the work rather than the baggage of biography?

Our actions speak for ourselves. If anything my choices in life do not fit into any stereotypes. I am a strong advocate for women’s education. The support I received from my family and mentors in Pakistan was instrumental in allowing me to think for myself, take responsibility for my actions, and develop a healthy sense of independence and self-worth. Unfortunately, stereotypes get resurrected often around the world for all sorts of people. Muslim women are subjected to this much more frequently. Over the years there have been numerous opportunities to debunk or challenge these stereotypes, and I have been there many times through my work and through my life.

How much of your work is informed by your heritage, your Pakistani identity?

My identity is very much about my being from the subcontinent. It is not as if I left my roots and have to find ways to engage with them. I came of age in Pakistan. My engagement with Indo-Persian miniature painting started in the mid to late-’80s when I was studying at the NCA. My interest in miniature painting was primarily to explore its context to address contemporary practices. It was more of a conceptual activity from the beginning, but I also embraced its craft and technique and illustrative sensibilities. At the time there was no serious interest at the NCA in critically engaging with miniature painting. I wanted to understand the social construct of a so-called traditional genre in a contemporary society. It was exciting to examine, imagine, and explore the many possibilities of a traditional genre whose future had not yet been laid out in any clear terms. Miniature painting still remains a space to unleash my imagination, a genre heroic in scope and not limited by its scale. Even my most recent work, a multichannel film, is technically made from hundreds of small, detailed drawings and paintings. The outcome might not be a typical miniature painting, but the process is uncannily similar.

Is there meaning behind the repetition of certain symbols and shapes across your work?

I’m interested in the idea of transformation and often cull forms and motifs from historical sources as well as pop culture to cultivate new associations. In some instances the same imagery gains a different meaning by virtue of being presented in a new context or format. For example, from 1993 to 1995, I experimented by isolating forms from within small miniature paintings and painting them large, often at the scale of 100-feet-plus. The shift in scale was an attempt to test the abilities of the forms to expand in their meaning and become confrontational. It was also an attempt to move out of the preciousness of the small, detailed miniature paintings toward more ephemeral wall and floor drawings. I get drawn toward cultural and political boundaries as a space to examine and to locate ideas for my work. In some instances the language is metaphoric and in some situations it is a sum of various aesthetics and mediums. My most recent work brings together all sorts of disciplines—poetry, painting, calligraphy, vocalists, sopranos, composing, choreography, and performance—into one piece.

You have two degrees in painting, but your work has increasingly incorporated elements from other disciplines, including film. Which medium do you most connect with?

I’m interested in flux, perhaps as a response to having my work often be straight-jacketed in terms of my biography or nationality. It’s not unusual to move back and forth between different modes of expression. Working across multiple genres allows more dialogue to emerge and opens up a range of perspectives. In the end it does not matter if I use painting or video to address a topic. Whatever makes the overall work more compelling is usually the direction I take. Another way to examine a shift in mediums is by observing the transformation of a traditional topic like portraiture; it can gain as well as lose meaning depending on what form it is represented in. I’m interested in that moment of transformation when, say, portraiture becomes caricature or when satire loses its humor. Another fundamental difference between painting and animation is that given how fast technology is changing and becoming accessible, mobility becomes paramount: video can reach a much larger audience and be exhibited simultaneously in multiple venues.

Do you feel your work would have progressed to the same point had you continued to live in Pakistan?

The experimentation is more an outcome of growth rather than access to technology. It is difficult to know what direction my work would have taken under a different set of situations. My curiosity about different mediums and methods is linked to the process of how I conceive an idea and its outcome. The creative process is often complicated, an outcome of imagination, knowledge, and risk taking.

What has been the most encouraging or disappointing response to your work?

One of the most memorable experiences was the introductory reception to my work by the New York art world in 1997. At that time I was living in Houston, Texas, but got the opportunity to show my work simultaneously at the Drawing Center and the Whitney. Both shows were received exceptionally well and were reviewed by two of the most important art critics, Michael Kimmelman and Roberta Smith. However, there has also been some work that’s better hidden under the bed.

From our Aug. 9 & 16, 2013, issue.

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Shireen Gheba August 18, 2013 - 11:22 pm

Feel so proud to read about this Pakistani artist. Wish her all the best in future also.

Ali August 19, 2013 - 12:16 am

Thank you so much shahzia .. We are proud of you! 🙂

naheedfakhar August 19, 2013 - 7:19 am

i feel proud because i was in ur jury at NCA
feel good to read about u n ur achievements

Nasir Hassan Nasir August 19, 2013 - 11:05 am

Wow . . .

I suggest NCA should invite her to visit Pakistan and arrange a series of her lectures about her success.

Nasir Hassan Nasir August 19, 2013 - 11:02 am

A great example of passions and obsession. Exhibiting her work in Pakistan doesn’t matter much but she must visit Pakistan and tell the new generation her story of success herself. I’m sure she’d steal the hearts.

Aabdara August 19, 2013 - 11:57 am

All the very best and may the Almighty bless you with continued success. Bring a good name to our ailing nation.

Umair Saeed August 19, 2013 - 11:59 am

Started reading about her a couple of years ago when I came across an old magazine in the waiting room at my dentist’s. She is truly an inspiration and I know a lot of students who religiously follow her. It is sad though, that she’s never been properly invited to come back and engage, even if it is with the educational institutions only.

Mohsin Sayeed August 19, 2013 - 1:40 pm

I have always loved her work. And she is not forgotten in her own country. Art community remembers her fondly. And people like me who are not artists know her and feel very proud of her. The reason for her not becoming a household name in Pakistan is she did not have many shows in Pakistan and soon after graduating from NCA she left for US. Be it Sadequian or Ali Azmat, the only reason they are known in their home country is because they worked and showed in Pakistan unlike Ali Kazim, Shazia Sikandar. And Now Salman Toor is also going the same way. But having said that, we are very proud of her. And she is becoming more and ore like her mother Ajji who is a very elegant, stylish lady. I have a huge crush on Ajji, and now on Shazia.

Phyza Jameel August 19, 2013 - 5:22 pm

Who says she is forgotten — she is even part of modern art curriculum taught in art schools!

Madyha Leghari August 19, 2013 - 7:32 pm

The case this article tries to make about Shahzia Sikander being under appreciated in Pak is really really misguided. Many in fact think she is over appreciated. For one, there is no reason to put the nationalistic spin on everything especially since the artist in question does not primarily identify herself as a Pakistani artist. The reasons for that may be debatable but are very relevant.

And secondly art appreciation is limited to a very select circle as it is. Oh no, she isn’t a household name but who really has been one since Gulgee (the reasons for which are again not as simplistic as the worth of an artist)?

It would be nice to see Newsweek Pak encouraging critical and informed discourse in art that is not limited to the circles of diaspora and the mainstream. Really it doesn’t kill to have an opinion on ‘Art’ that is not homogeneously over enthusiastic. In fact, there isn’t even a need for a value judgement as long as your content raises questions.

Triz August 20, 2013 - 3:37 pm

Couldn’t have said it better. Artists are individuals & mostly working for individual success. She found her success and good for her but it she never tried art in Pakistan. We should be more concerned for lack of opportunities & talent we waste here. My question is: would she have been as successful if she were in Pakistan? We need to ponder on the question and help the artists in Pakistan. Her success is good for her but I can’t understand the national flag the writer is trying to put on her when the artist didn’t wear it as well. Frankly, even I won’t in my Professioinal field. Individual work done for ourself is for us-country can be proud of it like a family would be. However, no need to get dramatic about it.

Kamran March 12, 2014 - 2:19 am

Triz i Agreed 100% with u.

Awais August 20, 2013 - 4:55 am

Im sorry, she is not the “forgotten” daughter. Call her the Unknown daughter. Is it our fault that the media in pakistan only covers the shit our politicians feed us with?; We only watch crap like how many taliban killed, or took under hostage or how much inflation. besides how many in the US celebrate her as a “Pakistani artist”, can you please tell me? fail

numan August 20, 2013 - 11:09 am

Pakistan forgets everyone, and i think its a cultural problem, the minute we see another national doing better we want to drag them down, its not only limited to artists but in every sphere of life, we as pakistanis have lost our own identity. Its not a duty of an individual but a responsibility of Pakistan to promote them and provide an environment. why do so many artists and singers go and work in India, for the very simple fact that we as a nation do not appreciate talent, and now we are very much behind in every aspect that i would love to think we have touched the rock bottom and can only come up, stop bashing individuals like Salman toor or Shahzia, seriously who would want to pay top dollars to buy art in our country where we don’t even have basic necessities,Lets wake up and smell the coffee, anyone of you or shall i say us given this opportunity wud because to be a player at the world stage you have to perform at that level, sorry to say but the objective should be a world household name.

Junaid August 20, 2013 - 4:44 pm

I think it is a very dumb excuse that she hasn’t presented her work in Pakistan because she has not been ‘seriously’ invited. If she is ‘seriously’ committed to present her work in Pakistan, she can donate some of her work to Pakistani art museums. How can she expect local art museums to compete with Whitney and MOMA to acquire her work. Even the museums in the Western world are full of donated art work.
Pakistanis will appreciate her art more if they can see it hanging in local museums.

Tahira, USA August 21, 2013 - 6:39 pm

I think Pakistan has hundreds of brilliant miniaturists. Any one of those would have achieved the same or more fame if luck would have provided them the same opportunities as Shazia’s. I am happy for Shazia and all other forms of art in Pakistan. Art appreciation comes with enlightenment but poverty in Pakistan makes art enjoyment unavailable to all Pakistanis.

Basit August 23, 2013 - 10:01 am

Khaas hai tarqeeb mein Qaum-e-Rulas-e-Hasmi.
Zara numm ho tou yeh matti bari zarkhaiz hai saqi
Well done

Farooq August 23, 2013 - 10:09 am

I am proud any of my country person no matter where in the world who creates a niche of recognition. Well done

Ashar August 23, 2013 - 10:54 am

Q) How much of your work is informed by your heritage, your Pakistani identity?

A) My identity is very much about my being from the “subcontinet”

….wow…and here we are crying over the fact that a person who is too ashamed to say directly that she is from “Pakistan” has been ‘forgotten’ by us…..she has never come to Pakistan to do anything in Pakistan……or give back to the country so whats the big deal here??
Please stop labeling these articles in such mellowdramatic painfully-patriotic headings.
“Ask not what the country has done for you…ask what YOU have done for the country”……have you forgotten that. Unfortunaltey here the matter seems reversed…the Country has given her everything…the education, the surroundings to build that artistic aura, the mannerisms to execute her abilities etc. etc…but unfortunately the Country has not recieved anything back from her…..alas….it’s the ‘sub-continent’!! Sorry Shazia….I was beginning to like you, but you left me no choice!

Fayeza Kamal August 23, 2013 - 11:45 pm

Fabulous to hear how well Shahzia has done and continues to do. Kudos.

Mian M. Saeed August 24, 2013 - 9:54 am

I feel proud that she is a Pakistani artist and an art ambassador representing Pakistan and sub-continent art.Being a graduate from NCA, i feel proud that she also belongs to this Institution. I pray for her success in her life.

Hussain August 24, 2013 - 9:49 pm

Keep it up,we are proud of u,u are real Pakistani and real leader ,God bless u

seema August 28, 2013 - 10:59 am

I loved her responses to the questions. To me she seems very humble and modest and though i am not an art person and might not be able to truly understand the beauty of her work but I think women, muslim or non muslim, should get inspiration from her. I sure do.

Wasif September 25, 2013 - 6:56 pm

Proud to be related to her …. 🙂 God bless her ……

Vasaf Arsalan December 26, 2013 - 11:26 pm

As i have heard you will be visiting Pakistan in January 2014 …
You are welcomed !
Your story of success needs to be told to the upcoming artists so you have to promise thhat you gonna give a lecture at The Bamian Cavalry Club at Thokar .
It is requested that please allocate time and confirmation so that I can arrange a perfect show in your honor.
contact number :

Feroze July 7, 2014 - 11:46 pm

Shazia proud of you.

Sponge June 11, 2015 - 5:13 am

She is not the forgotten daughter. It is just as much her responsibility to represent her nationality as she climbs up the ladder of success. The country itself cannot keep track of its 182+ million population. This article is superb but very portrayed with a negative title for an unnecessary reason.

Raazia June 11, 2015 - 10:05 am

She isnt forgotten. I had a chance to see her in LLF last year. Her work is my inspiration and now herself too. She is a great lady with great success

Munir Pervaiz June 12, 2015 - 7:37 am

May I suggest that Shazia is not forgotten in Pakistan. The writer herself mentions that Pakistan has bestowed a civil honor on her. Many other artists have not been that fortunate.

Who in the troubled and tormented milieu that Pakistan is , remembers great artists like, Sadequain, Shakir Ali, Zahoor ul Akhlaq, Hanif Ramay, Iqbal Mehdi, Jameel Naqsh, Mansoor Aye, Sheherezade Alam, Shahid Rassam, and so many other wonderful artists, before and after Shazia Sikandar, as household names. It is the painful culture of ignorance that ails Pakistan.

Maslow’s hierarchy on needs – in which ART belongs to the top of the pyramid and can be deemed in the realm of self-actualization – explains it so well.
If the very basic needs are not met, people sink further and further in the hell of cultural ignorance.

As a Canadian of Pakistani origin, I came to know of Shazia through Ali Adil Khan of South Asian Gallery of Art (SAGA), and Asma Mahmood of Promenade Gallery, and they presented her as an important Pakistani artist.

I am certain that connoisseurs of arts in Pakistan know her and also acquire her works. But for the writer to expect that Shazia should be a household name is wishful thinking at best.

Fauzia Zubair June 12, 2015 - 5:36 pm

The right time, the right place, destiny, good fortune, opportunities along with a blend of many other variables determine fame and fortune. Shazia is smart enough to know that her fortune lies where she presently is. She cannot, unfortunately disassociate herself from the country of her birth and upbringing. You just can’t erase a fact like that, but you can downplay it if it is to your advantage. Being on the walls at MOMA and Guggenheim makes one proud but it also does not mean there are not equally fine, or even better female artists in Pakistan. They just have not had the same exposure and good fortune as Shazia Sikander. Also lets be generous in acknowledging her good fortune. After all she was born here, like all those millions of expats who live in countries across the world, and try as they might, cannot detach the country of their birth from their existence.

Shoaib Afzal June 14, 2015 - 11:39 pm

In my words, artists are poets with paints and brushes. She actually transcends those boundaries by mixing different mediums and new technology infusion. Proud of you being, Muslim, Pakistani artist. Keep expanding your signature vision to new levels of artistry.


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