Shahzia Sikander thought about sculpture for a long time before she made Promiscuous Intimacies, her first work in the medium, in 2020. Even though she mentioned during a talk in 2003 that she constantly viewed figurative statues and abstract constructions, she took her time making one. Initially, she studied the practically moribund craft of miniature painting during the late 1980s at the National College of Arts in Lahore, where she was born and raised. Citing the fall of the Berlin Wall, she remembers this period as “a time of change in the world.”
Scroll I, her five-foot long, multi-scene thesis project that she executed in 1989-90, updated traditional traditional skills she’d been taught. In various rooms of a large, beautifully furnished home, a young woman with long, dark hair dressed in white and seen from her back, walks and, at times, interacts with family members and servants. About the lengthy, well-received work on paper, Sikander once explained, “I was making a statement on the restlessness of youth and the quest for identity.” Subsequently, she became a lecturer at her school, and was credited with starting a neo-miniature painting movement.
In the years since, Sikander has made art in a variety of mediums. Besides paintings, both small and mural-sized, she has worked with watercolor, gouache, ink, and graphite on paper that she’s specially treated. She’s painted on glass, created mosaics using stone and marble, and produced room-sized, site-specific installations. Along with prints and photographs, she’s made digital animations replete with music.
And so it was surprising to some when Sikander, who tends to excel at whatever she does, moved into the third dimension. So far, she’s executed three remarkable figurative sculptures, some of which can now be seen around New York.
In an interview, Sikander said that, as a painter, she had looked to sculpture for inspiration. “I didn’t wake up one day and say, ‘I’m going to make sculpture,’” she recalled.
Her interest in creating in the medium was piqued in 2017, when she served on New York’s Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers. That’s when, according to the artist, she was “exposed to tension-ridden situations around public monuments, their complicated histories, historical reckoning, and conflicts between competing visions of history.” She felt her own work had a “similar ethos, engaging with colonial and Orientalist histories and their often reductive representations of the Other.”
Instead of looking at sculpture to generate paintings, Sikander mostly consulted her own unique body of work to make her three-dimensional figures. Aspects of her four full-length figures can be discerned in her earlier paintings and drawings where she already introduced similar nudes and motifs.
Maligned Monsters (2001), executed in graphite, ink, and watercolor and just 13-by-5 ¼-inches, for example, morphed into her first sculpture, Promiscuous Intimacies (2020). The work on paper, which contrasts a pale figure in front of a more elaborate goddess, morphed into the latter piece, featuring two substantial bronze nudes that together measure 42-by-24-by-18-inches. The artist borrowed the title from an essay on her work by scholar Gayatri Gopinath. As Gopinath put it, “Sikander’s work traffics in promiscuous intimacies… We can understand Sikander’s work as promiscuous in the sense that it lays bare the intimacies, the deeply imbricated nature, of apparently discrete aesthetics and cultural traditions, histories, and geographies.”
Sikander also had to consider a practical matter. If she placed her two nudes in an unusual configuration, she had to be sure her sculpture would not topple over. Fortuitously, when she hired two models to pose for her work, she discovered one figure could indeed balance atop the other. She photographed them for further study.
The topmost nude figure is similar to 12th-century Indian sculptures of a celestial dancing figure. Her companion, who reaches up to tug on a necklace, evokes Bronzino’s goddess in his 1545 painting Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time. In Promiscuous Intimacies, East meets West. Centuries are spanned. The past transports us to the near future.
Sikander’s NOW (2023), which is currently installed among a group of robed male figures on the roof of the Courthouse of the Appellate Division, First Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, just across the street from Madison Square Park, also relates to earlier paintings and drawings by the now 54-year-old artist.
Besides having NOW emerge from a cluster of lotus leaves, Sikander, as she had done earlier, replaced the majestic sculpture’s arms and feet with winding roots. As she explained to me, in her previous paintings and drawings, “There was so much more to explore in terms of layers of ideas and complexity.” She thought to herself, “I’m going to dismantle what I’ve done and see what happens.”
When Sikander placed NOW on an unoccupied socle—its predecessor had been removed years ago—her work functioned differently than it would have had she put her sculpture on a pedestal in a museum. After all, a lone, ethereal woman on a courthouse roof viewed among a group of nine robed men is exceptional. Moreover, Sikander’s sculpture is not an allegorical figure of Justice who wears a blindfold or holds a scale.
Instead, she wears a golden catsuit as if she were a stand-in for Irma Vep, the character in a fictional movie within a movie from 1996 as well as a fictional television series within a movie from 2022, both directed by Olivier Assayas. Her intricate collar and pleated jabot in the style of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the only pronounced aspect of her clothing. As Sikander told me, “I’m interested in detail, not as embellishment but as a concept.”
Purple lotus flowers enhance NOW’s presence. Ubiquitous in South Asian sculpture, these natural growths often accompany images of Buddha. They refer to humility, clarity, awakening.
Because it is located in Madison Square Park, Witness (2023) is more immediately accessible. Like NOW, the figure dons a bodysuit, has arms and feet comprised of roots, and wears her hair in spiraling braids that look like ram’s horns. A voluminous, open work skirt projects the sculpture skyward. And it is decorated with a colorful, winding mosaic band that features plants, the detail of at least one head, assorted abstract forms, and Urdu calligraphy.
Sikander wanted, she said, “to create an armature where Witness would not touch the ground.” The hoop skirt, which also alludes to the stained glass domed ceiling in the nearby courthouse, was the solution.
For Sikander, the space of this sculpture is heroic. Unlike her miniature paintings, she was not restricted by size. “The world,” the artist said, “is bigger.”
An augmented reality (AR) snapchat app and a video animation complete Sikander’s offerings in Madison Square Park. Apparition, the AR, is a ghostly rendering of NOW that mingles with people dressed in winter coats visiting Witness. The particles that fall resemble snowflakes. Are we viewing the present and some sort of depiction of afterlife?
Rapture, a 4-minute video animation that is projected on a screen after dark, on the path between Witness and the courthouse, relates to Apparition. Its opening moments picture the cosmos being created. This gives way to particles that become a rock-strewn landscape that next leads to an expanse of blue (is this water or sky?). Flowers are scattered about and leafless branches sway to the music that has been playing. A duel between Medieval warriors is fought. Eventually, colorful particles reappear.
We tend not to think of Sikander as an abstract artist. But both the opening and closing of Rapture reveal this other side of her.
NOW and Witness represent an ensemble collectively entitled, “Havah…to breathe, air, life.” In an extensive statement on her Madison Square Park project, Sikander wrote, “How we experience art, how we respond to it and how we interpret it is an open-ended premise. As an artist, it is my intent to create something wonderous and with many possible associations—something that can generate thought and produce difference.” Sikander has achieved this in spades.