Shahzia Sikander at Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
April 3 to May 2, 2009
530 West 22nd Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212 929 2262
When Shahzia Sikander’s viewers first walk into the gallery, they find themselves facing a brief but powerful video entitled Observation Post (2009). The filmed narrative, lasting only a minute and a half, consists of an older black man playing “The Star Spangled Banner” on the harmonica, against a backdrop of a decrepit, rusting building. America’s bitter racial legacy is reprised in this telling incident, made all the stronger by the black man’s seeming patriotism, which moves past irony into an unspoken accusation that the state of the nation is not well. Music thus becomes a weapon against social entropy. Sikander’s show, whose name is “Stalemate,” describes a political distress that is not so much geographically specific as it is universally experienced—much as the artist herself has moved into a place and time that are larger than the specifics of her biography. Born in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1969, Sikander has now lived for quite some time in New York City, noted of course as a center of mixed nationalities and ethnicities. The internationalism here is in fact a place she calls home, yet she remains wary of the paradox to which her status concedes.
The drawings and paintings in “Stalemate” consist of images that draw upon mislaid existences, and describe psychic loss. Identifying with the powerless, she brings forth into awareness the raw wounds of neglect—as she comments in press materials, “I am interested in recorded histories and their paths of evolution in terms of what gets culled and elaborated.” Her series of drawings and paintings, called “Mapping the End of Something,” pays homage to the dispossessed, in particular those whose identity has been lost in the fray of an uprooted existence: “Drawing upon literature, political and national histories, art history, media and language, and lived experience, I find shifting geographical locations compelling.”
It is hard to be a patriot if one’s affiliations are divided between a homeland no longer truly one’s own and a current address in which a utopian universalism covers up a much harsher set of circumstances. In the graphite, ink, and gouache drawing Power of Silence, we see a figure almost hidden by what look like instruments; two large cones—megaphones of some sort?—occupy the drawing’s upper registers, with a background of what seems to be overlapping feathers. Perhaps here the artist is making the case for a silence that rejects and rebels against the noise of our epoch; perhaps, as happens in Blood Lines (2009), music becomes a way of supporting the self: the red tuba in the composition becomes a weapon, while the abstract, intertwining lines may be seen as representing the complexities, personal and political, so many of us bear.
In Garden for an Interpretation Center (2009), another small painting, a portly figure stands surround by abstract effects: a white decorative pattern envelops him, while above other abstract images—a spiral maze, a red ribbon—take up the rest of the painting. Sikander has always been a bit of a magpie, eclectically picking up what is useful to her. Cheerfully ignoring unities of place and culture, she delivers a complex image in which her training as a miniaturist in Pakistan evolves alongside her appreciation of Western abstract and decorative imageries. This intricacy, usually a strength, can also obscure her art’s ability to communicate—it is sometimes hard to know what she means. But if we, like the artist herself, hold true to her theme of equal worthiness, and forsake historical reference for an all-encompassing present, perhaps we can see her transparent, layered imagery as rendering an utterly apt metaphor for the spirit of the time. In the very large work entitled Template for Stalemate (2009), Sikander proves herself as adept at work of outsize dimensions as she is of smaller sizes. Brilliantly colored, covered with decorative motifs and gestural abstractions, the work suggests a gorgeous manuscript, a place where the politics of place and the pain of indifference no longer exist.