It is a testament to the transformation of the local art scene in the last three decades that our eyes now take a picture like Shahzia Sikander’s The Scroll for granted. With the National College of Arts churning out a steady stream of undergraduates from its near-exhausted Miniature Department, this breed of image-making is deeply familiar to us, a cliché. Almost every successful artist from Pakistan who has been able to garner international success has had something to do with this solidly homegrown art form. Rashid Rana’s microcosms-generating-macrocosms are a rumination on scale, which is inherent in the name ‘miniature’. The influential NCA teacher Zahoor ul Akhlaq painted meditations on frame-within-frame, the structural heart of miniature painting. The young Irfan Hassan is pushing the frontiers of its illustrative beauty while Imran Qureshi has turned its disembodied motifs into bloody dribbles on the rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
None of these approaches existed, however, when Sikander made The Scroll. It appeared first as an experimental thesis, while she was at the National College of Arts, Lahore, in 1989-90. And it caused something of a local sensation. In her own words: ‘The sheer recognition I received in the press on my thesis exhibition impacted the miniature painting department at NCA directly, and resulted in an influx of students opting to specialise in it.’
In The Scroll, Sikander is shown strolling through the house while servants roll carpets, pick up suitcases, and mop the wooden floor
The Scroll is some five feet wide. At the time miniatures were painted as if for a folio of A4-sized paper. The picture shows people, architecture and movement within a family home. There is a dainty frame-within-a frame, that old manuscript tradition of endearing an image that wasn’t meant to have a physical frame or hang on a wall. In Sikander’s own words: ‘The Scroll was a game-changer at the time. It was the first time anyone in the miniature genre at the National College of Arts, Lahore, had attempted to create a five-foot miniature. I was looking at architectural devices and narrative structures in film and cinema…’
The setting opens up like a doll’s house with a stacked-up perspective, greedy to show everything at once. This way of looking or storytelling can be seen in princely historical pictures, for instance showing a celebration in the women’s quarters in a palatial setting stacked atop a lower story of male courtiers resting on top of a collection of liveried servants outside in the garden. The view shifts, as it suits the storyteller, between a sidelong glance and an aerial shot. Similarly, in The Scroll, a young girl, Sikander herself, in a white kurta-shalwar strolls through the house while servants roll carpets, pick up suitcases, and mop the wooden floor. There is a gathering, a birthday, in the dining room. A father has a chat with his daughter in the patio. The blurry ghost of a young Sikander moves through this domestic labyrinth in transparent doubles and triples, creating what was at the time two radical things to this historical craft: contemporary genre scenes were made worthy of it, the picture was liberated from a precious scale, and a static, decorative tradition began to hint at animation, movement, as seen in a double exposure in a photograph. In it, the figure of a resourceful young woman and artist finds a corner drawing, painting, looking in a mirror, going through a closet. The image plays with the very idea of animation, not unlike how Marcel Duchamp once introduced it to the tight conventions of the oil painting with Nude Descending a Staircase.
Like a panorama taken with an iPhone and tweaked in Photoshop, this endearing and painstakingly painted image augurs the arrival of colossally ambitious projects like Parallax, also a scroll format. Over fifteen meters long and almost thirty years later, it is far from the trembling sweetness and the deeply personal nature of The Scroll. It is like a mighty, impenetrable corporation, encompassing huge slices of still controversial history – the kind Pankaj Mishra would find appetising – the servitude of migrant workers in the UAE, the greed for fossil fuels, the all-important function of an unassuming little strait in the Persian Gulf which has played an unforgettable role in the history of Imperialism.
In 2011, Sikander drove her car to the strait of Hormuz on the coastline of the Emirates, a historic spot from which one fifth of the world’s oil is shipped. She thought of this drive as a ‘drawing’. I suppose if one took the aerial view of a satellite or a drone, that is what it would appear as. And it resulted in the animation called Parallax.
What is being seen depends on who is looking
What is parallax? It sounds like a cross between ‘paranoid’ and ‘climax’. Actually, it refers to how things appear different or apparently displaced to people or cameras or viewfinders that are in different positions. What is being seen depends on who is looking; ideas, an event, or history are subjective and relative, Sikander seems to say. The vast confusion of this animation may point to many such viewfinders looking at this uncertain confluence of histories at once.
Hundreds of Sikander’s miniature drawings and gouaches are transformed into living animations, isolating and copying her own images, until they become formidably detailed and overwhelming, sometimes above comprehension or a critical look. Sikander’s paintings are magnified to resemble cartographies, aerial views of the strategic strait of Hormuz. To a discerning eye, this view harks back to a way of storytelling in miniature painting (through aerial views of plains full of gazelles or tigers being hunted by princes on horseback), it is also the coldblooded view of a drone on a mission, or a satellite watching over tectonic heavings of the Earth from space.
Unlike The Scroll, which is a rare personal piece from Sikander, Parallax is noble at best. It may come across as a curation of the highest expectations from a top-tier international contemporary artist. It is an audio-visual experience, it is vast and immaterial, and it is about international conflicts and suffering of migrant laborers. Parallax is not a song of the soul but the mesmerizing result of breathtaking research, which Sikander seems to enjoy and is good at. This is what artists mean when they say ‘process-based work’; the end result or experience is only a part of the work. And Parallax gives the impression of the resurrection of truly buried, marginalized histories. This narrow but awesome strait was not part of my imagination, but Sikander’s work has permanently lodged it in the minds of urban people around the world. Parallax is worthy of a lobby and a speech at the headquarters of the UN. But Sikander has already been there, done that.
Sikander’s strait of Hormuz is an area that makes superpowers, wannabe nuclear powers and oil dealers complicit in a coldblooded game for regional supremacy. Migrant laborers caught in the middle seem like unscrewed cogs and bobs stuck or in a cruel, relentless machine that spews out black oil and tribes of humanity from its bowels as flocks of starlings itinerant, exposed, and vulnerable. To show this, Sikander has used the majesty of nature, of tectonic events seen over hundreds of years, to sublime effect.
Parallax gives the impression of the resurrection of truly buried, marginalised histories
To tackle Parallax with a critical eye is formidable; the soundtrack, sometimes live/performed, sometimes pre-recorded, is produced by Sikander’s Chinese collaborator, the composer, Du Yun. As part of her research Sikander drove along a coastline of the Emirates, pouring over the regional history of conflict for past decades in the area, recording locals reciting historical and contemporary poetry in Arabic about the strait and its colonial history (the East India Company officials passed through this strait to arrive in India), and the story of an actual construction worker from Pakistan, living in an abandoned cinema and on the verge of deportation. The American academic and art intelligentsia appreciate this. For the boards and nominators who award grants and prizes, Sikander has become something of an ambassador for South Asia and its connections to the Middle East and Europe and the United States. Critics abroad cannot roll their eyes at the evolution of a historical tradition that is novel and based in a well-known foreign tradition; its imagery is remarkable, it is original, it is outside their tradition and their complete grasp.
Parallax is projected on a curved screen fifteen meters wide. To the images of swirling forms and changing horizons, I hear snatches of what sounds like gunfire, sirens playing with my expectations, my numbness to headlines, breaking news on local media in Pakistan. A computer-generated seascape, a vast panorama of active particles like white noise. What are they? The press release will tell you that they are disembodied hair from figures of ‘gopis’ in miniature manuscripts, the young attractive cow-herding devotees of Krishna in Hindu mythology, a motif Sikander has used over and over again perhaps to create a fruitful subversion between Hindu and Muslim cultures of South Asia. The Gopi-birds, as I call them, keep morphing, now gathering to create shadows, now occupying Sikander’s watercolor skyscape or airspace in droves, like a swarm of migrating birds. The scale of the screen is echoed in the ambient operatic vocal by Du Yun. They cover several spherical surfaces like thousands of little moths on a giant light bulb or human populations on a distant planet, one of which seems to go past some unknown threshold and explodes like a metaphor of a ubiquitous terror in today’s world, taking over the entire three-channeled screen. The gopi-birds flutter in a circular shockwave, like smithereens and debris. Then they become vagrant again, like an itinerant tribe.
The gopi-birds flutter like smithereens and debris. Then they become vagrant again, like an itinerant tribe
There are silhouettes of gushing oil springs and fountains, multivalve oil wells resembling Christmas trees, moving wheels made of monster-ish legs, and forearms falling from the sky, all happening in a mystical terrain created with moving details of Sikander’s gouaches. An echo-chamber of scale is at work here. The hugeness of these images reminds me of how small the original scale of the depicted pictures really is. Twisting themes of magnification and miniaturisation are making magic here. A similar principle is at work in The Scroll, wherein the small folio-sized frame of the traditional miniature painting is widened to the entire length of the vasli paper. Both works hover around the idea of layering multiple viewpoints of an object or idea, and varying the scale. Both works are about time and change as well. The passage of time illustrated in The Scroll is emotional in nature, hinting at times of day, of habits, desires, a personal life. The Scroll is an illustration of movement in space. As the artist’s sphere of influence has grown, illustrating the passage of time has become a vicissitude of political landscapes and culminated in the work that is Parallax. Both panoramic works are transformative; The Scroll changed a static tradition in a radical way, in Parallax nothing is as it seems, and nothing is still. Like Sikander herself, everything is on the move and what you think of this artist’s creations depends on who you are.