A Pleasing Dislocation in Providence

Sikander’s extraordinary achievements in Pakistan were largely unknown in the United States—including to the faculty and students at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)—when she arrived to pursue an MFA in 1993. In Providence, as Sikander grappled with assumptions about her identity as a Pakistani woman, she applied the sensitivity to materials learned in Lahore as she experimented with new media and techniques with swiftness and abandon. Using different pressures and a large brush, she painted abstractly with ink, gouache, and later, watercolor. Gestural marks began to suggest recognizable, often figurative, shapes.

This new type of work allowed ideas to percolate and spill out without judgment or overthinking. “Some of the images,” Sikander stated at the time, “came out of recent acquaintances and memories of traditions, cultures, and experiences, combined with syncretic sculpture; South and Central Asian schools of painting (such as Pahari, Safavid, and Mughal); Celtic art; and Kufic calligraphy. The knitting together of these references and mythologies, as well as more private inner encounters, dreams, and fantasies, gave birth to my explorations of feminine power.”

The Morgan Library & Museum. Artwork © Shahzia Sikander, Photography © Casey Kelbaugh