Artists ,

Shahzia Sikander Responds

The following is a response to Maura Reilly’s article “Taking the Measure of Sexism: Facts, Figures, and Fixes” about the current statistics of Women in the Art World. Our coverage begins with our Editor’s Letter.

Shahzia Sikander, Untitled, 1993. COURTESY SIKANDER STUDIO

Shahzia Sikander, Untitled, 1993.


Born in Pakistan in 1969, lives in New York City

Women’s personal lives are often overemphasized in documentation and critical writing surrounding their work. My art has often been read as being by the “other” as a result of representing South Asian artistic practice in New York City.

The introduction of my work to the New York scene in the 1990s spurred curiosity and met with a great reception. My exhibition at the Drawing Center and inclusion in the Whitney Biennial, both in 1997, were among the first exhibitions of contemporary miniature painting in New York. Even though people were connecting with my work in miniature painting, they were unable to fully understand and contextualize artistic production from the region. The reviews from the time bordered on being ethnographic.

For example, New York Times art critic Holland Cotter wrote a review of several shows of South Asian art in 1997 saying, “If you like New York City, chances are you’ll like India. Midtown Manhattan at lunchtime and an Indian village on market day are surprisingly alike. Cars and bikes charge by; personal space is at a premium; the noise level is high; the sheer variety of people exhausting.” He goes on to discuss the “Out of India” show at the Queens Museum, in which I participated. About its reception, Cotter wrote, “That audience is still, it is true, relatively small, but it will grow. At the moment Ms. Sikander must bear the unenviable burden of being a breakthrough figure, with work dynamic enough to capture the attention of viewers who have little direct knowledge of her sources. But there are other artists waiting in the wings to join her in an art world that is now global.”

As Cotter accurately expresses, the lens shifts from the work to the individual: it became very tied to me, since there were so few South Asian artists in New York—it was as though the artist had to stand in for lack of visibility of related work. As a woman, I’ve often felt that readings of my work overemphasized my ethnicity. Furthermore, the complexity of my status as a transnational artist is often lost in the Pakistani-American bond that art institutions often impose. In many of the interviews that I have been asked to participate in, interlocutors ask me more about my personal identity and relationship to Pakistan than about my artistic practice.

A version of this story originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 57.

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