‘Shahzia Sikander: Unbound’ : An exhibition that Cambridge should learn from

The Tab spoke to the show’s curators about Sikander’s work, decolonisation and curation

Running from 16 October – 22 December 2021 and 4 January – 18 February 2022 in Jesus College’s West Court Gallery, Pakistani-American artist Shahzia Sikander’s exhibition connects media, cultures, geographies and centuries. As the title suggests, it is art history unbound. Furthermore, placed at the heart of a University which prides itself on history, it offers a fresh, alternative way of understanding decolonisation and South Asian art heritages. 

The exhibition was curated by Dr Vivek Gupta, post-doctoral Associate in Islamic Art at the University of Cambridge, alongside Art History students Zoe Turoff, Giacomo Prideaux and Milly Duckworth. As well as visiting the exhibition, The Tab spoke to Zoe and Milly about the boundaries that Sikander’s art traverses.

The exhibition

Upon entering the Jesus West Court Gallery, you will enter a large indoor exhibition space. To the right are two large manuscript folios and gouache pieces, while to the left are aquatint prints and a glass mosaic.

The open manuscript piece to the right

The space is interspersed with glass exhibition cases, featuring her ‘Shadow’ series and a ‘Questionnaire on Decolonization’ by Steven Nelson, Dean of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. 

After walking through this space, visitors can see Shazia’s first-ever sculpture: ‘Promiscuous Intimacies’ outside. When standing inside facing the right-hand wall, visitors can see both a drawing of the sculpture as well as its realised form through the window.

Art and decolonisation

Defining decolonisation- as shown by the presence of Steven Nelson’s words- is a main theme of the exhibition. Its website asks: ‘can decolonisation entail forms of intimacy?’ For curators Milly and Zoe, the answer is yes. They described how they appreciate Sikander’s creation of “intimate interplay between disparate visual cultures.”

 For example, in ‘Promiscuous Initmacies,’ Sikander combines figures from the European artistic tradition of a nude, representing the Greco-Roman goddess Venus and the Hindu figure of a Devata (god or goddess). We are very aware of the presence of European and Hindu art forms, but as the figures intertwine, the boundaries between coloniser and colonized become fragmented and removed. 

Promiscuous Intimacies by Sikander

For Sikander, her work resides in “conversation with” “British Collections.” This dialogue forces us to confront the colonial legacies of these artworks but also provides a new narrative where intimacy and culture are at the forefront of human experience. As curators Zoe and Milly note, this decolonisation offers an alternative to the “toppling of monuments.”

Breaking down boundaries

Sikander functions as an artist both permanently outside of and yet somehow within Islamic, feminist and South Asian art traditions – her work lies in the liminal spaces of these boundaries. 

Her Khilvat series, for example, is in direct response to a 17th-century album of erotic Indian artwork displayed at the Fitzwilliam Museum. In a discussion with curator Dr Gupta, she outlined how her work embodies privacy (or the more literal translation of Khilwat, secrecy) while still drawing elements such as illumination and colour from the album. 

She also makes use of her artistic heritage to “abstract the feminine.” In doing so, she “takes Muslim women out of the bounds of the stereotypes in which they are often placed” while still using elements of her South Asian and Islamic art lineage, such as manuscript painting and Persian calligraphy. 

Series of Transformation 5 by Sikander, featuring Arabic and Hebrew calligraphy

She draws attention to these histories through the signages around the exhibition, some of which explain historic techniques such as pardakht (using multiple brushstrokes to ‘bring to perfection’), others which outline traditional perceptions of Devatas (goddesses) in their identities as women. Curators Milly and Zoe noted, “we wanted to tease out the interconnections between each theme, feeding into one another.”

It is therefore impossible to label ‘Unbound’ as an exhibition of one art genre or another. It is instead a freeing of concepts that are bound tightly together through their presentation by the artist. 

A Cambridge College Exhibition

We cannot discuss the idea of decolonisation in Sikander’s work without recognising the exhibition’s position in Jesus College. As Milly and Zoe pointed out, the college has recently acknowledged its own colonial legacy by returning the Benin Bronze Cockerel in Michaelmas term. Jesus College has also removed and revised monuments celebrating Tobias Rustat, a former benefactor who had significant involvement in the seventeenth-century slave trade.

 This exhibition is a lesson in the many problems that Cambridge colleges face. Standing in a city of colleges- most of which are filled with halls depicting old white men- Shazia’s work breathes a refreshing light into the Cambridge art scene.

It teaches us that history should not be bound to one story, and proposes that we embrace and show different perspectives. It leads us to question why art that provides these alternative narratives is not introduced into college spaces (especially halls) more frequently. Instead of viewing a past filled with rigid tradition, why not present the possibility of a future with no boundaries?

No Parking Anytime by Sikander, a blend of Muslim and Hindu iconographies

Planning your visit

As mentioned above, the exhibition is open from 16 October – 22 December 2021 and 4 January – 18 February 2022 at Jesus College’s West Court Gallery. It is accompanied by a scholarly symposium at Jesus College, which will be open to the public from 11-12 February 2022. 

The college asks that all visitors bring a face covering with them and follow local signage explaining where to wear it. They also require visitors to take a Lateral Flow Test prior to their visit. More details on Covid-19 safety and exhibition rules can be found here

All Image Credits: Vedika Mandapati

Cambridge University was contacted for comment.

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