Artist Interpretations in Gifts of the Sultan, Part III: Q&A with Shahzia Sikander

August 10, 2011

On view through September 5, Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courtsexplores Islamic art through the universal tradition of gift giving. The exhibition features more than 200 works of art from three different continents and spanning the eighth through nineteenth centuries. The exhibition also features the work of three contemporary artists, all with roots in the Islamic world—Sadegh Tirafkan, Ahmed Mater, and Shahzia Sikander—commissioned to interpret the art of gift-giving in Islam. Exclusively on Unframed this week, arts writer and founder of Art Middle East Nazy Nazhand interviews each of these artists about their contributions to the exhibition. Read previous interviews with Sadegh Tirafkan and Ahmed Mater.

Shahzia Sikander, Faiz’s Gift, 2011, courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

Part III: Shahzia Sikander

Shahzia Sikander trained in the traditional art of Indo-Persian miniature painting at the National College of Arts, Lahore, Pakistan, and went on to receive an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. Representing a fusion of East and West, this piece evokes the art of miniature painting but in an entirely original manner. For example, Sikander plays with scale applying color and text to a large panel to suggest the facing pages of a book. The text inscribed in gold quotes from the opening lines of a verse by the renowned Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz: “Why talk about the day when the heart will splinter into a thousand pieces, and all sorrows will be ended, when everything we achieved will be lost, when everything we were denied will be granted?” Here, following tradition, the poem is the gift, one both personal and partisan.

How does your work relate to the Islamic artistic tradition represented in Gifts of the Sultan? How has traditional art influenced your practice?

From the very beginning of my artistic practice, my intension was to create a dialogue as well as to explore the viability of an interaction with a traditional genre, and many aspects of my work are the outcome of examining the traditional Indo-Persian miniature paintings. 

In 1986, as a student at the National College of Arts in Lahore, I realized that there was an open opportunity in the Miniature Painting Department in that no one was exploring these paintings as a vehicle for contemporary expression, and thus my choice of examining the tradition of book illustration within the context of Indo-Persian miniatures. Because many students were not interested in pursuing this, it became possible for me to explore a new path. Working with the inherent complexities of  “traditional art” was a paradox of choice, allowing me to create an intellectual debate and a new way of asking questions.

What are your thoughts on museum exhibitions like Gifts of the Sultan that juxtapose historical and contemporary artworks?

I would like to see an exhibition where such juxtapositions are the main crux of the show. 

Where are you currently based? One of the major themes in Gifts of the Sultan is that of cross-cultural interaction and exchange; what are your thoughts on this theme and how does the geographical location of where you work influence your perspective?

I am based in New York. I also spend several months each year outside of the US working from many other locations. In the recent 4–5 years I have worked in Germany, Italy, Laos, and Pakistan. 

The theme of the show is a great parallel to the mobility that many contemporary artists enjoy as well as seek for production of their work.

For me the location from where I work is not necessarily a place of influence. It can be of course, but at times it need not be. The idea explored in the work is what casts the influence or direction.

Describe your creative process; what are you currently inspired by? What are you currently working on?

My recent work is an animation titled The Last Post and a related video titled Gossamer. It was inspired by my ongoing interest in the colonial history of the sub-continent as well as by an opportunity to collaborate with the musician and composer, DuYun, who is also a performance artist.

Nazy Nazhand is the founder of Art Middle East, a series of programs and cultural events during Armory Arts Week in New York City and Art Platfom – Los Angeles. She’s a contributing writer covering art from the Middle East. She has written for Artnet, Modern Painters, Artinfo, Whitewall, and T Magazine. Follow her: http://blogs.artinfo.com/vanguardism/ and http://twitter.com/#!/NazyNazhand. Additional reporting by Kimia Shahi.


Artist Interpretations in Gifts of the Sultan, Part II: Q&A with Ahmed Mater

August 9, 2011

On view through September 5, Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts explores Islamic art through the universal tradition of gift giving. The exhibition features more than 200 works of art from three different continents and spanning the eighth through nineteenth centuries. The exhibition also features the work of three contemporary artists, all with roots in the Islamic world—Sadegh Tirafkan, Ahmed Mater, and Shahzia Sikander—commissioned to interpret the art of gift-giving in Islam. Exclusively on Unframed this week, arts writer and founder of Art Middle East Nazy Nazhand interviews each of these artists about their contributions to the exhibition. Read yesterday’s interview with Sadegh Tirafkan here.

Ahmed Mater, Illumination Diptych (Ottoman Waqf), 2010, gift of the artist and Edge of Arabia

Part II: Ahmed Mater 

Ahmed Mater, from Abha, Saudi Arabia, is both an artist and a practicing physician. In his Illumination series, to which this beautiful diptych belongs, Mater draws inspiration from the Islamic arts of the book, in particular manuscripts of the Qur’an, whose pages were decorated with illuminated borders, headings, and verse markers. At the top and bottom of each panel, he inscribes the word waqf, a notation often found in manuscripts of the Qur’an, which designates a charitable donation. Mater radically magnifies his illuminated page, generally a small scale and intimate art form, creating instead a new sense of intimacy by using his pages to frame human X-rays.

How does your work relate to the Islamic artistic tradition represented in Gifts of the Sultan? How has traditional art influenced your practice?

I am from Saudi Arabia, the country that is the custodian of the two holy cities in Islam, Makkah and Medinah, and so I have grown up amongst very strong faith and spirituality. One of my earliest and well-known bodies of work was the Illuminations series where I combined my modern life as a doctor with a strong sense of objectivity, and my spiritual and subjective atmosphere, resulting in what appears to be traditional Islamic manuscripts with X-Rays in the middle. The way I have treated the paper and the decorative illuminated borders and calligraphy are part of a traditional Islamic art practice which has always influenced my work. 

What are your thoughts on museum exhibitions like Gifts of the Sultan that juxtapose historical and contemporary artworks?

I think it is brilliant. I love that historical works can relate to contemporary ideas. It shows how much we can learn and develop from our cultural heritage and apply that in a cutting-edge and contemporary way that is accessible to an international world. 

Where are you currently based? One of the major themes in Gifts of the Sultan is that of cross-cultural interaction and exchange; what are your thoughts on this theme and how does the geographical location of where you work influence your perspective?

I am based in Abha, the capital of Aseer. I have lived in Saudi all my life. Most of my ideas are rooted in my cultural influences and living in Saudi has such a big effect on my work. I am much more connected to what I am producing being based here. However, I want my work to be accessible for an international audience and have them learn something new about a culture that they probably know very little about. I capture art from the story of my life, I don’t know any other way.  

Describe your creative process; what are you currently inspired by? What are you currently working on?

I do not have one set creative process. I am often thinking about an idea, a story or several at the same time. I will think about them for a long time, sometimes years before they materialize into a work of art I will present. I have thought for years about the Cowboy Code, which is one of my most recent bodies of work that I exhibited during this year’s Venice Biennale.

The cowboy was a symbol of freedom and adventure to me as a child, an ideology from the West. I challenge anyone who reads the code not to be impressed. It speaks a universal truth. But in recent times we have forgotten the code in favor of the brand of the ideology. The cowboy code is a set of values, the actual content like a religion. The cowboy of my childhood has been abused, also like a religion, ten commandments or the sharia or the five pillars.

Like my generation, I took a lot from the Western side—our food, our clothes, and our language. And so I wanted to present this code as a way to almost steal it back. It’s a strong side and I want to reclaim it from the politics, or the films, or the media… to give it back to the people. This is what I am currently working on. 

Nazy Nazhand is the founder of Art Middle East, a series of programs and cultural events during Armory Arts Week in New York City and Art Platfom – Los Angeles. She’s a contributing writer covering art from the Middle East. She has written for Artnet, Modern Painters, Artinfo, Whitewall, and T Magazine. Follow her: http://blogs.artinfo.com/vanguardism/ and http://twitter.com/#!/NazyNazhand. Additional reporting by Kimia Shahi.


Artist Interpretations in Gifts of the Sultan: Q&A with Sadegh Tirafkan

August 8, 2011

On view through September 5, Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts explores Islamic art through the universal tradition of gift giving. The exhibition features more than 200 works of art from three different continents and spanning the eighth through nineteenth centuries. The exhibition also features the work of three contemporary artists, all with roots in the Islamic world—Sadegh Tirafkan, Ahmed Mater, and Shahzia Sikander—commissioned to interpret the art of gift-giving in Islam. Exclusively on Unframed this week, arts writer and founder of Art Middle East Nazy Nazhand interviews each of these artists about their contributions to the exhibition.

Sadegh Tirafkan, Always in Our Thoughts, 2011, courtesy of the artist and Assar Gallery, Tehran

Part I: Sadegh Tirafkan

Deported from Iraq to Iran at the age of six and a member of the youth militia in the Iran-Iraq war as a teenager, Sadegh Tirafkan experienced loss at an early age. In this remarkable piece, he remembers those lost to him by referencing the hijla, an Iranian tradition of erecting temporary shrines to commemorate the dead. Tirafkan characterizes it as a gift from the living to the deceased. The commemorative structure is suggested here by, among other things, the use of colorful strips of cloth, which allude to bits of fabric tied by visitors to the hijla in remembrance of the loved one.

How does your work relate to the Islamic artistic tradition represented in “Gifts of the Sultan?” How has traditional art influenced your practice?

For me, Islamic art is too broad a label. I’m more influenced by Iranian traditions and history, and the Iranian interpretation of Islamic artistic traditions. But more specifically, with the idea of gift-giving, I wanted to approach it from a spiritual point of view, the idea of people donating something without wanting anything in return. Having no expectations. To be able to live in this world is a gift.

With Hijla, I wanted to present a gift from the living to the deceased in their honor, but to also celebrate life. The word actually means marriage, and traditionally it’s an image of a deceased man, but I wanted to break the taboos and use pictures of living people and also women and include mirrors, so that the viewer can share in the celebration.

What are your thoughts on museum exhibitions like Gifts of the Sultan that juxtapose historical and contemporary artworks?

It should continue to be done this way and I hope more museums do it. Contemporary art gives new perspective to historical works and vice versa, transferring between past influences and present references.

Sadegh Tirafkan, Always in Our Thoughts, 2011, courtesy of the artist and Assar Gallery, Tehran

Where are you currently based? One of the major themes in Gifts of the Sultan is that of cross-cultural interaction and exchange; what are your thoughts on this theme and how does the geographical location of where you work influence your perspective?

I’m Iranian and my art is influenced by Iranian history and culture. But I never want to be categorized by a singular place or category. Names like Orientalism, I don’t understand. My work is about roots and identity. As artists, we should do our job first and not worry about the clichés.

So much has been changed with globalization and the amount of information available to us. Now when you go to galleries in cosmopolitan cities, you see art from all over the world, not just Western art. People want to see something different and to learn about these cultures and the idea of Western and Eastern cultures inspiring each other. I’m based in Tehran and come to North America once a year and travel to Europe and rest of the Middle East throughout the year. For me the constant travel allows for a broader perspective and to absorb the similarities and differences in people and cultures.

Describe your creative process; what are you currently inspired by? What are you currently working on?

I started working as an artist in Iran about twenty years ago and I had my first New York exhibit about ten years ago. In the years since, I’ve worked both inside and outside Iran and I want to continue to do that. I have a desire to be part of the world.

My work has always been organized in three parts; self-portraits, masculinity in Iran, and how my society, my culture and people around me relate to their culture and their heritage. I try to address this step by step—first myself, then my gender, and then people in general. Because if you want to talk about other people, you have to know yourself. I’m not satisfied with just photography any more. I want to explore these themes through a new concept and continue to experiment in multimedia.

Nazy Nazhand is the founder of Art Middle East, a series of programs and cultural events during Armory Arts Week in New York City and Art Platfom – Los Angeles. She’s a contributing writer covering art from the Middle East. She has written for Artnet, Modern Painters, Artinfo, Whitewall, and T Magazine. Follow her: http://blogs.artinfo.com/vanguardism/ and http://twitter.com/#!/NazyNazhand. Additional reporting by Kimia Shahi.


Chess and Backgammon Explored through Dance

June 22, 2011

A few months ago, the Jamal Dance Art Theater was approached by LACMA to conceptualize a performance in conjunction with Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts. Jamal, the artistic director of the company, explored the exhibition and decided to focus on the exchange of chess and backgammon between India and Persia. He decided to use Bharatanatyam (a classical Indian dance style) as the dance to represent India, and he asked me to choreograph a section for the performance. Since I am both a member of the company and an employee at LACMA, I’m especially excited for the performance to take place at LACMA this Saturday and Sunday.  

Chessboard, Egypt, 14th or 15th century, Benaki Museum, Athens, photo courtesy Benaki Museum, by Tsonis

The performance itself is structured to show the arrival of Indian emissaries, who are welcomed to the Persian court with gifts and a court dance. The emissaries then perform a Bharatanatyam dance for their hosts, the portion which I choreographed. I used the original game of chess and its evolution to the modern version of the game as my inspiration.

Shatrang va Takhta-i Nard, Jamal Dance Art Theater, Shahla Sepehr Bebe / Bebe Image Studio

The original game is believed to only have had four pieces: infantry, cavalry, elephants, and charioteers. These four pieces evolved into modern chess’s pawns, knights, bishops, and rooks. With a few abstract Bharatanatyam sections thrown in, the Indian dancers show the Persian court the basic movements of the various chess pieces.

After another brief discourse between the Persian hosts and their Indian guests, and a fantastic solo performed by Karen Ochoa, the game of chess is instructed and then a live chess game is played. In my opinion, this is the climax of the performance, and where Jamal’s brilliance as a director comes through.

Shatrang va Takhta-i Nard, Jamal Dance Art Theater, Shahla Sepehr Bebe / Bebe Image Studio

Given the wide range of styles and ethnicities of his dancers, Jamal decided that each of us should take our own forte and use that to inform our movement as the various pieces we represent on the stage. Collectively, we have ballet, modern, jazz, b-boying, West African, Ballet Folklorico, Flamenco, Persian folk, Armenian folk, Kuchipudi, and Bharatnatyam dance styles represented. It’s a very exciting section to perform as a dancer, and is sure to be a crowd-pleaser.

Arun Mathai, Financial Analyst


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