Artist Shahzia Sikander on the Painting That Launched Her Career
S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership. I think this sort of focus on something that is traditional so that then you can say, oh, you’re either breaking the tradition or you’re like a contemporize tradition. This popularity, I think, is something a tendency. And I kind of wanted to kind of diminish that.
S2: Welcome back to Working, I’m your host, Isaac Butler,
S3: and I’m your other host, Rumaan Alam
S2: Rumaan, who was that person we heard at the top of the episode?
S3: I am so excited this week because I spoke to the artist. Shahzia Sikander Shahzia is a visual artist, sort of an artist of all trades. You know, her work is in so many mediums, but I first knew of her paintings. Shahzia is the subject of a mid career retrospective that’s in New York now at the Morgan Library and Museum. It’s a show that looks back at her student work and a period before 9/11. Mostly Shahzia is a really fascinating American artist. And I think it’s probably safe to say one of the most prominent American artists of South Asian descent working today, even if that’s a reductive way of talking about her, which we’ll get to on our chat.
S2: Amazing. And I think we should probably maybe elaborate on something real quick, which is that quite a bit of this conversation is about a particular subgenre of painting called manuscript painting. Can you tell us a little bit about what it is and how it works?
S3: Oh, yes, with some trepidation for fear of, like, angry emails from any of the art historians who happen to be in our audience.
S2: But we’re we’re tap dancing about architecture.
S3: Exactly. I will take a stab at it. Right. I had to confront the difficulty in this conversation of speaking to a visual artist in an audio medium, this podcast. Right. It’s hard to talk about what something looks like, but the term that we use for the vernacular of Shahzia is early work. And it’s still evident and influential in the art that she makes today is manuscript painting. You know, this work, even if you don’t know this bit of language, think about smallish paintings on paper. They were usually meant to be bound, hence manuscript, even if now we see them mostly as isolated pages from behind glass. It’s a form that developed on the Indian subcontinent and in Persia, I think sort of simultaneously. I think that there you know, I can’t tease out all the connections there for you. I think of this work as being sort of highly detailed pictures. They have a kind of narrative to them. You see people in beautifully rendered dress, you see animals, you see the implication of a story, sometimes from myth, sometimes from court life, like sometimes there’s a ruler seated on a throne. You know what I’m talking about, right? I think
S2: I do. I do. And our listeners, I think hopefully do as well. You can also always Google it and look up an image if you need to. Our plus listeners get a little extra tidbit this week, right?
S3: Well, it couldn’t turn down the opportunity to talk to Shahzia about the particular lot of being a South Asian artist working in the West, of being an artist who’s a woman working in a time of feminist reclamation. How do those considerations interact? How can the West comprehend a reality in which art that didn’t develop in the West? Like how do we how are we supposed to look at it? You know, the story of art that we are told sometimes I think it ends with Picasso or whoever, but that’s not necessarily the full story.
S2: Well, that’s amazing. And I would not want to miss that. And luckily, I am a slate plus subscriber and so I do not have to miss that. Listeners, if you are not subscribing to Slate plus well, what are you waiting for? You’ll get this kind of members only content as well as zero ads on any Slate podcast bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Danny Liveries, new podcast, Big Mood, Little Mood. And of course, you will be supporting the work we do right here on working. It’s only one dollar for the first month. And to sign up, go to Slate Dotcom working plus. All right, let’s listen in on Roman’s conversation with Shahzia Sikander.
S3: Shahzia Sikander, welcome to working.
S1: Thank you, Rumaan.
S3: For many artists, the student years of exploration don’t really yield interesting work, right? Like they can be imperative for your development. But I know many artists and I’m not really an artist, but I’ll include myself in this who sort of cringe at their early work. But in your new show at the Morgan Library and Museum here in New York, it’s called Extraordinary Realities. There’s a selection of your student work, including your thesis project. And I want to talk specifically about that project with the painting called the Scroll. I wonder if you could do the annoying task of describing the scroll for us.
S1: Absolutely. I actually started that when I was 19, so the work was done over a period of two years. And so it is a example of like a very particular time and space and a different mentality, a dedication which I wish could only be possible because of that time, because of that being that young, with that I side with a different type of time where you could dedicate at times literally like 14 hours a day. It’s a take on the manuscript painting, which usually are a notebook page size or larger in some instances. But the nature of detail is very intense. And this work is about five feet in with an maybe like 13 inches in height. But the amount of detail that’s in there is is intense. So you have to really be in front of it and see it with a magnifying glass.
S3: So let’s talk about miniature painting for a minute. It’s a term that is not unproblematic as so many art historical terms can be. It describes a form of painting that would be, I think, recognizable to almost anyone who’s ever wandered in an art museum. We just may not know it by that particular language. It developed in the 16th century in on the Indian subcontinent. It depicts scenes from Mith, scenes from sacred text. What was this school of art? How was this viewed by you and your contemporaries when you were growing up as a college student in Pakistan?
S1: The nature of this medium is that because of a vast colonial legacy, so much of it was dispersed, dismembered, you know, and sort of the provenance are very complicated, how they often arrive at the stories of Western institutions. This is part of that legacy. And there is a kind of a level of violence behind all of it. And so when you say go at the Met, you might see some of it in the Islamic art department or in the Indian South Asian department. So you can definitely get a sense of what we’re talking about. But for me, as a visual artist growing up in Pakistan, I was just looking at Xerox’s black and white Xeroxes, often of like a handful of images. So it wasn’t something that was right around the corner in that one Lahore Art Museum.
S3: Right. Because that’s all in storage at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
S1: It lost. A lot of it is, of course, in storages at the at the British Library, at the British Museum, VirnetX, of course, in India also. So, you know, you can just like it was impossible to travel to India also growing up in Pakistan. So in that, you know, so that all these layers of access or lack of access. But at the same time, one emerges as sort of a spokesperson or a cultural representative of a language or vernacular that embodies like a very complex history.
S3: To go back to the scroll, which was your undergraduate thesis project. It is a manuscript painting. It is horizontal. I’m going to read a little bit of the review from the show, from the New York Review of Books by Molly Crabapple. She writes, The scroll is Mughal Inform existentialist and uneasy and content. Sikander doesn’t just copy the grades, but so internalized their grammar that she could use it to portray any. And it’s tchotchkes and all their particularities, tying the present to tradition, proving the tradition urgently alive. What she’s talking about is that this scroll, this painting depicts what seems to be your own childhood home. So we’re seeing a sort of contemporary domestic space. We’re seeing sort of furnishings from the 70s. We’re seeing suitcases and telephones rendered with the detail and specificity that painters at court in the Mughal empire would have used to paint a throne or a flower. It occurred to me this is something that Krabappel notes in her review. So it’s not my observation. The manuscript form is sort of like a comic book. You render the walls as cutaways sort of like imply domestic spaces, but don’t show the whole wall. You read the action from left to right, and so the same figure might recur on the same plane. But the viewer understands that it’s a single person moving through space and time that makes it sort of like timeless. In a strange way, it’s this old fashioned form, but the contemporary eye understands what to do with it.
S1: Yeah, I think that’s a great way of describing it. It is meant to be a day, a lifetime. The protagonist is almost like a ghost. It’s rendered in this sort of daphnis form where it becomes very transparent and then often opaque. But it’s it’s never situated in that same time and space as as the rest of the characters. So whether it’s the artist observing the environment or whether the protagonist is going back in history and moving forward in time like this, timelessness is also because I was really I was interested in in examining even like the painter Basad, that would be fourteen hundreds. And so I sort of started to bring that in conversation with contemporary architecture in Pakistan. So that’s what this unfolding of space is really about, is like really looking at the vernacular, which is already in conversation with other people, other artists, other like art and the interiority is informed by looking at nearly Dada, but also David Hockney. And so even if I was looking at Hockney, some photomontages, Polaroid ones and thinking of space, even Bonard, I was looking at cinema too. So whether I think at that time probably there’s a lot of Bollywood film, but within there are some devices of how, you know, negative, positive spaces unfold as a sort of as kind of a continuous device. Even Satyajit Ray’s work, I would imagine. I think Hitchcock at that time, you know,
S3: it’s so interesting because you’re talking about not just situating yourself with your own eye in the historical form, but dragging everyone else along with you, which is, I think part of why that work is so feels so gutsy, you know, and you don’t have to answer this question, but I will just say that it reads to me so much like you describe, there’s a sort of central protagonist figure. She’s in white. She’s got sort of a ghostly presence. I think her I think she’s always turned away from the viewers. So we’re always looking sort of over her shoulder at these spaces. If you follow the scroll from left to right, as I think my eye naturally does the story, the narrative concludes with this figure at the easel painting herself who is sitting for her. And it just feels to me like this is a work that is a portrait of the artist as a young woman and. The other thing that I think is so striking about it is that you’re using this form that we can date. I mean, you said some of the reference was really the 14th century, which is earlier still in the 16th century. But it doesn’t feel ironic. It doesn’t feel like a postmodern gag. I don’t feel I mean, I don’t feel any joke there.
S1: Yes, absolutely right. I think. This protagonist is a space that many can inhabit, and though, you know, for me at that time, it’s not necessarily just a self-portrait, but it is exploring this idea of the poltergeist or later I can think of it as like even, you know, amnesia or cultural amnesia or or or or erasure. Yeah. In the making of the paintings are the first processes that you create a large amount of this white color. You just you don’t just take it out of the wash tube. I don’t know the term, but I don’t know if, you know, Safad. That would be like I maybe it’s a bit of limestone, but it’s a very kind of a material that you make, which is white in color, but it’s very porous, very absorbent. So like when you add other pigments into it, it almost gives it translucency and gives the color a lot more punch. So I was thinking, what if I remove all the color? If I’ve removed all the color, then what’s left is just this body of this white pigment. And then how can I play with that idea? And that’s when I was like, oh, there is this caricature which is painted entirely in this reduced color, the pigment itself. But then it allows then for things to be projected onto it.
S3: Mm hmm. The audience.
S1: Yeah. And so I, I think maybe there is that. But of course there’s so much detail that you can like, literally spend, you know, hours and you can keep returning to the painting and keep discovering it.
S3: To me, the thing that happened when I was thinking about this painting most recently is that I was thinking about this visual form from a time so removed from our own time for centuries, at the very least, when I see those manuscript paintings at the Metropolitan Museum and I see them depict lovers embracing and, you know, they’re dressed in the manner that you can’t even really discern which what gender they’re meant to be. It’s that all of the cultural context is really lost to us. Now, you see people in throned, you see people holding flowers. It’s all beautiful and marvelous, but it’s hard to enter. Yeah, with the scroll does is it shows you exactly that same visual language, but it shows you how it’s relevant today. And so then it sort of reminds you that this depiction of amorous lovers from the 15th century or this depiction of a great battle or a tiger leaping onto its prey, it makes that stuff feel more alive because it reminds you that that was made by real people and that they felt, just as you felt as a girl in the nineteen eighties. You know, it’s kind of a remarkable trick.
S1: Yeah. Thank you for saying that. I think it does capture that time and moment and incredible detail. But at the same time, you know, I am drawing connections with this say that insular, sort of opaque world of these manuscripts. And I was thinking like that more I could peruse visually. And the more I immersed myself into that space, I was like, how can I get to to its essence, get to the details, get get to its spirit without basically just appropriating or copying. And I think that process is what we as artists can you know, we can speak to each other about that because that’s inherent in in how creativity functions. It’s so abstract. And then you give it shape and space and volume and words or color and it comes alive. And that is that act is also embedded in this work in the literally like working the rigor of working 14 hours a day. Yeah, yeah. You’re not just following, you know, fitting in color. You’re really devising ideas. It’s made from a lot of curiosity and questioning and a lot of, you know, change and shift that’s happening. Like, I, I didn’t plan the whole thing out and then went and spent like a year filling in the color. It was evolving. And I knew that, you know, for me, of course, at that time, the stakes were so high that was nobody really doing this. And I knew that I had to. Bring a lot of people on the other side.
S2: We’ll be back with more of Roman’s conversation with Shahzia Sikander after this. Hey, listeners, here, I’m working. We like to talk to interesting people about their jobs, but one of our goals for this show is to help our listeners. That’s you with their creative process. Ask us about anything. Where does inspiration come from? How do you get paid? How do you get better at whatever it is that you want to do? You can reach us at working at Slate Dotcom or leave us a message at three zero four nine three three w o r k oh. Also, if you’re enjoying this episode, please don’t forget to subscribe to working wherever you get your podcast. All right, now let’s get back to Roman’s conversation with Shahzia Sikander.
S3: I want to talk about the sort of the traditional form of the manuscript painting, which is very rigorous and involves the creation of pigment from organic materials. I wonder if that was part of the process of creating that particular work and whether those really traditional techniques of like I think I read somewhere that you like, you learn to paint with a brush made of squirrel’s hair, like, are those really, really traditional gestures still a part of your practice or what was what? When I look at the scroll, like, what am I actually looking at? What is that pigment made of?
S1: No, I think it’s important to demystify all of it. It’s watercolor. It’s dry pigment mixed in with some sort of native which could become Arabic. And, you know, this way you can control the transparency and the capacity. But it’s not like it’s not pigments I’m creating from scratch. So I think this sort of focus on the language or the technique or something that is traditional so that then you can say, oh, you’re either breaking the tradition or you’re like a contemporize tradition or you’re like embarking, you know, in a different. This polarity, I think, is something a tendency tends to happen in our contemporary space. And I kind of wanted to kind of diminish that. I also wanted to add that this idea of the of the squirrel had brush or or the singlehood brush. Right? Yeah. That also is so it’s impossible. You cannot paint with a single head brush. The pavement has to be enough. So what what it means is like it’s a brush which has a very thin tip. So the tapering of that tip almost comes down to at times one or two. Right. But the bulk of the ink has to sit in the brush. So it has to it. So it’s that things of that nature that I felt would come along, which almost sort of essentially is, you know, this idea of like, oh, you’re working in a particular way of working. And this this must be the exotic. Yeah. Is that what you know?
S3: I think you’re right. I think those details are so there’s so romantic. And they allow us to sort of imagine a kind of sacred labor, a kind of like something that so deeply other.
S3: Fortunately, as you’re saying, it just doesn’t square with reality because it’s too early. You and I were having this conversation in two thousand twenty one. And it’s a veneration of tradition for no particular reason other than we want to believe that maybe some cultures or some places are still. Locked into the past,
S1: that mentality, it persists from different spaces, like I’ve also seen, like, you know, it being exported from Pakistan outward if it seems like a sellable idea. So it’s not just necessarily about a fetishization that is happening from the West. I think we live in this time space when these things are kind of happening back and forth in many ways. And that idea is what fascinated me as as that 19 year old when I looked at the performance, like how tradition was performed and to whom it was being performed. And I saw like, oh, that is what I’m driven by, not necessarily. Or I have to sit and practice an art form that’s going to take me two years to make one painting. That that is ridiculous. My ideas would be flowing so much faster and it makes it would make no sense to. How do you how do you keep up with ideas? So at that time that was what needed to be done because the stakes were so different. Like I had to prove through that work that there was a possibility of of engaging and a discussion and that the youth was invested and then it wasn’t. So I think of it in a very, you know, kind of a no romanticization or nostalgia, but very in a very objective manner. And I think that’s how I always think of art, is that there’s application as well, that there is a kind of a learning of a language and that that is a very analytical way of like acquiring a language and understanding and doing research around it and then then just being subservient to this idea of you’re embedded in a tradition. And the only way you can step out of that tradition is by coming to the west.
S3: Right. That you’re you’re toiling away in some UN air-conditioned hovel. And then at last, you get to come to New York City and you discover that they’re painters sold in tubes for the first time or something like that, you know. So I want to talk about just your work more generally, because the paintings that you and I have been talking about, this is work that you did a couple of decades ago now. And at this point, you have a very different kind of career. I’m curious about what a career is like, just the logistics of it, whether you maintain a studio that’s outside of your own home, whether you ever create work at home, whether you work with assistants in your studio, whether those assistants have a kind of hands on relationship to the finished work that you’re producing.
S1: Drawing is what connects. Hold my work. So for me, drawing remains like a very thinking tool. And for that I can I can work from anywhere. I can work from my apartment, I can work from while I’m traveling. I can work from residency or from my studio. It is one of those facilities like, you know, like when you’re writing, you can write from anywhere in that sort of facility with like a thinking notational space where I can sketch and put things in in motion and whether I can elaborate them in different ways that can happen. The drawing can create the new mosaic. The drawing can create the new animation. It can create a new dialogue with you, with another sort of even like even the sculpture. So I wasn’t really making sculpture, but a sculpture I made recently. I pulled out the protagonists right out of a sketch I had done in twenty years ago. And in that sketch, the idea is literally like a three inch tiny little detailed sketch. And making a life scale sculpture in bronze of that moment had a complete different reception engagement. It has opened up a different kind of conversation around my work, but in a very cyclical manner, like almost like the sculpture allowed like a reentry and brought in a new. Oration brought in, like the art historians back into the equation, brought in my own sort of ability to claim that drawing can foster these relationships with other languages.
S3: Shahzia, you’re in your early 50s now, I wonder what it’s like for you to look at the product of the younger artists now. I wonder if you can look at that work with any distance or with any clarity. And I wonder if you gain anything from this kind of retrospective, whether this helps you understand what you’re going to do next.
S1: Yeah, it’s a very bittersweet experience of looking at so much of this work that actually I hadn’t seen in actuality some of the paintings after once I created them and they left my space, I didn’t even know what they were. I as a young artist, I wasn’t even keeping records, correct records of some of the works that we still couldn’t locate them because either sometimes you gave away the work or they were sometimes sold without a gallery or without one having a gallery at that time. So I had records, but then. You know, those phone numbers, there was no emails like we could locate many people. And and that was also really very rough to understand and to confront that, you know, one and one didn’t have that type of guidance to record every aspect of one’s life. Right. Which happens naturally now because everything is being documented on social media. You know, you can’t even imagine this. So I feel like I have had to live with that confrontation that so much of the 90s as well as the. I couldn’t access it. Yeah, so there’s that. And I think also I would like to sort of say is that what tends to happen for many artists especially, that don’t easily fit between the white and the black cultural space in the US and whether we are transnational or whatever, like I live in the US. I’ve been making all this work in the US, but oftentimes. I’m not necessarily part of the American canon, but, you know, I’ve been in the Whitney Biennial and I’ve been in collections and the museums, but I also think that there is a mentality of a token representation. And so, you know, if a museum has bought one work, fine then. And if they bought it in the 90s, they probably paid under a thousand dollars for it, even less so. So then they’re done. They don’t. They’ve checked the box. And I think that is an important thing to sort of for artist is to understand that. What does that mean? How how do you get a deeper engagement where you know, how you’re evolving as an artist is also of interest to the larger institutional community. And I think that’s a conversation that’s been unfolding within many diaspora communities, is that there needs to be more diverse situations and positions of power where people don’t necessarily have to constantly repeat the story again and again for every every generation. Right. So these are I think some of these things come into play when one is walking through this sort of a retrospective, because even when we were developing the wall labels, et cetera, the book that goes hand in hand with this exhibition, the perspective is both a much deeper, richer engagement with not just the work, but with the time that the work was being made in. And artists are talking about the work or we’re able to pull out anecdotes and, you know, things like who I was engaged with, other artists, American artists that I knew that we did projects together. And so much of the work was born from those communications and those proximities and and then it starts to weave a very different story than the work. How it was usually placed in the 90s was always through the biography and end and a very sort of limited lens on the identity. But on a completely separate note, when I walk through this show and I hope you’ll get a chance to see it is like I’m like, oh my God, I did that. How did I do that? And I don’t have but I do not have that patience or I’m like, I can’t even see it. So I definitely have that like and I was like, I wish I could get that work back.
S3: Yeah. I mean it must be that must be a great feeling. I don’t know if
S1: it is a great feeling, but also like, oh why does that person have it. How can I get
S3: the word back. Well the good thing, the good thing is that institutions so create these kinds of shows and we all get to have it for a little bit anyway. We all get to go and see Shahzia. It was such a joy to talk to you, to say thank you so much for joining us.
S1: Thank you, Ramon.
S2: Rumaan, this was such a great interview, I learned so much about her and her work, which I was not super familiar with to begin with, and it did drive home for me, as you noted at the beginning of the episode, how difficult it is to talk about visual art. I mean, you almost sounded regretful when you were asking her to describe her work. What do you think it is about visual art that’s particularly difficult to describe with language in a way that I don’t know, a movie isn’t a TV show or even a book.
S3: Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about this this week. You know, how you might go hear Mozart or something and then be irritated with yourself for the way that your mind wanders, like you’re supposed to be focused on the musicianship or the magic of the notes, but you’re just somewhere else altogether, mentally, totally. I think that visual art maybe should function the same way. You know, you can say what a painting looks like. It’s not difficult to describe a Jackson Pollock or a Cy Twombly. But that description doesn’t communicate the effect of looking at that painting. It’s sort of the point, but it’s also kind of beside the point.
S2: Yeah, yeah, totally. I get that. And I have to say, I think you did a great job of trying to solve this problem. I was particularly struck by her complicated relationship to the idea of tradition. You know, no matter what creative discipline you’re in, there is a tradition that surrounds it or hovers just over it. I mean, that’s even true in, you know, PowerPoint presentations or whatever. Yeah. What did you make of her particular approach to tradition?
S3: Yes, absolutely. I think it’s a thorny question. No matter what you’re doing, can you write a sonnet today and be doing so and embrace of tradition? Sure. Can you write a sonnet and do it with some ironic relationship to Shakespeare? Probably, you know, so irony and pastiche and play. They’re so emblematic of the contemporary moment. When you think of Kehinde Wiley toying with the 19th century vernacular to paint contemporary young black men in casual dress. Is that traditional or is it upending tradition? And I think that Shahzia is perspective, that her work is traditional rather than a postmodern gag on tradition is actually really brave. She’s not saying I am a contemporary trickster like Jeff Koons. She’s saying I’m the inheritor of a form that’s half a millennium old. That’s a really big assertion and it’s actually much more interesting than just being a prankster.
S2: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, tradition can mean a lot of things. There’s the aesthetic tradition or, you know, which she obviously is within. There’s also a tradition of materials and methods that I think artists of all media can get very precious about. Right. I enjoyed when she said, hey, it’s important to demystify things. I buy my watercolor pigment. Right. Or, you know, like I’m not using a brush. That’s a single hair that I, you know, got from the mountaintop or whatever. She’s not going to go by lapis lazuli on the Internet and grind it to make the perfect color blue any more than you and I or, I don’t know, witling our own pencils or whatever.
S3: You know, it’s so funny because I think I read somewhere those very traditional process details about her work, about organic pigment, about that sort of mythical brush with a single hair. And I think the implication of whatever I was reading was that they were a part of her process, at least in her early work. But that’s not the case. And it’s funny, actually, because as her answer clarifies, it’s really silly to romanticize the form that way. And actually to do so in Shahzia case is to sort of Zarifi her or to other her. Yeah, she made this painting in nineteen eighties Pakistan. You know, she she’s not a medieval painter, right?
S2: Totally. Totally. Well, are there any material parts of the writing process that you get precious about? Are you do you have a particular pen you like or, you know, a Moleskine of exactly the right dimensions. Yeah, I know one writer, for example, who started his career writing on a typewriter and he almost always drafts in courrier font as a result to try to like, connect with his younger self.
S3: I mean, I certainly have preferences. There’s one particular pen that I love. I can never remember what it’s called. I like hard leaded pencils and not those sort of soft leaded pencils. I like a certain kind of notebook. But generally speaking, I’m really opposed to getting to Htwe about the materials of my work. I think at a certain point, insisting on the purity of your own process becomes a little absurd and is often an excuse from doing your own work. I mean, I’ve written notes on a novel, on worksheets from my children’s school. You know, I often type myself emails in the middle of the night. I don’t think I have a kind of sanctimonious relationship to the stuff of my work. And I think that actually helps me be productive.
S2: Yeah, I have definitely done both of those things. You know, like sometimes when you have an idea, you just need to write it down immediately, no matter what you have on hand, because you might lose it otherwise. You know, we like to think, oh, well, if it’s really important, you’ll remember later. That is not always true at least once you’re our advanced age. But yeah, well, I always wanted to be the kind of writer who was like into that stuff. But then I realized it would actually my personality is such that would have the same effect as it does that you predicted, which is that actually like I wouldn’t write, I would just be like, oh my God, I don’t have my you twenty three stroke, six fountain pen. I can’t draft this morning
S3: or you know, whatever. Yeah. You know, the idea that you need a cup of camomile tea and a sunlit desk and all of that stuff, it just becomes a way of excusing yourself from. Getting to the office and usually what I say when I’m confronted with this is like, you know, if your job is delivering packages for UPS, you don’t say like, well, I didn’t have my tea this morning. The sun isn’t shining in quite the right way. I’m not in the mood. You know, the mood matters, but you can’t let all of these other considerations overwhelm the imperative to actually get to work.
S2: Yeah, right. Exactly. Exactly. You know, I really appreciated how down to earth Shahzia was throughout this interview. I mean, we all know the stereotype of the kind of extremely severe, very pretentious scarf wearing artist who’s, you know, quoting fury at you all the time to kind of intimidate you into liking the work. And and she is the exact opposite of that. She really understands her career. She understands her place in the ecosystem. She’s going to talk about money, you know, and in particular, she seems to want to resist what you both called the romanticisation of artistic labor. And. Well, I think that’s that’s absolutely a valuable thing, particularly how it intersects with the other thing that you were mentioning earlier. Sometimes I feel like that kind of romanticisation can have a little bit of a use. Like a lot of times we’re doing this on spec or for very little money. We don’t know you don’t know where it’s going to lead when you start a project. I mean, look, we’re not curing cancer, but sometimes having a somewhat romantic view of the work we’re doing can kind of help you keep going in those dark times. Right?
S3: That’s an interesting question. I mean, first, I would say that I’ve seen some of Shahzia public speaking, and when she’s speaking to audiences of art historians and curators, she is more than capable of pulling out. The very serious theory has the art talk. So she was very kind. To go easy on me is a sort of general interest person.
S2: She knows her audience. It’s another down to earth quality.
S3: She knew she she knew her audience, which is like a novelist who doesn’t really know much about what he’s talking about. So she was a very generous interlocutor in that regard. The danger in applying this veil of romance to this work that we perceive as other which Shahzia is work can so easily be because she is a woman, because she has a brown woman, it ends up feeling reductive. But yes, artistic labor is romantic because we venerate it. And that’s actually the one way in which we sort of prize. That’s right. It’s sublime. It’s apart from the base reality of capitalism, of daily life, but it’s still work like any other and it’s in some important way. But if you’re not careful, that becomes an excuse for immorality. You know, we sort of excuse the bad acts of geniuses by saying like they were geniuses. So it’s a kind of a complicated, slippery slope.
S2: Yeah, of course. And we should say there are plenty of geniuses who don’t abuse people. It’s actually you can actually be a genius and not be a jerk. And, you know, as we said, this interview did focus on manuscript painting quite a bit, in part because that’s the era of her work that’s focused on in the show. But I think it is important to underline that Shahzia works in a variety of forms up to and including animation. And I was really struck by this thing that she said that she sort of found this one thing that unifies all of her work on some basic level. It’s just drawing and drawing is something that she can do anywhere. And I thought that’s like there’s a really good piece of advice in there, no matter what your field is. But many of us, most of us, I bet, who are in do creative work have like eleven different kinds of things that we do. But if you can find that thing that unifies it and then find a way to do that, no matter where you are, you know, you can always be developing and growing as an artist.
S3: I am really struck by the way that Shahzia understands her work in all of its forms as fundamentally about her hand. She’s always got her hands with her, you know, and she’s always able to be engaged in her artistic practice. And in some ways I feel the same way. I can always scribble stuff down. Like I said to you just before, like we’re both, like, scribbling on our kids homework, right? Yeah. That’s fundamentally what our work is. It’s just me scribbling. And when you think of it in those terms, actually it becomes really hard to overromanticize it.
S2: Right? Right. Yeah. I mean, I feel like in the old days, like trade magazines would refer to writers as scribblers. Absolutely. Maybe we should
S3: bring my magazine would have said
S2: absolutely Scrabble Rumaan Alam today, you know. Well, anyway, we hope you’ve enjoyed the show. And if you have, please remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, then you will never miss an episode. And yes, I’m going to give you the slate plus pitch slate. Plus members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast, access to all the articles on Slate Dotcom without hitting a paywall bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Danny Liveries. New show, Big Mood, Little Mood. But I hope you would like to support the work that we scribblers do here on working. It’s only one dollar for the first month to learn more, go to Slate Dotcom slash working.
S3: Plus thanks to Shahzia Sikander for being our guest this week. Listeners who want to see more of her work, I highly recommend you visit her website, Shahzia Sikander Dotcom or visit the website of the Morgan Library and Museum. You’ll get a really good education in the artist’s work. Thanks as well to our producer, Cameron Trews. We’ll be back next week for June’s conversation with the science fiction author Charlie Sheen enters. Until then, get back to work. Hazlet plus listeners, as promised, here’s a little something extra for you this week. Earlier this year, you published an essay for The New York Times in which you wrote about your your graduate school years, you wrote, quote, Because my work engaged with traditions that did not sit at the center of Western art history, it would often be glossed over and interpreted very narrowly in terms of my biography. Now, I am really curious to hear you talk with some specificity about what you mean. Is it the case that you are working among other artists who simply had no idea that there was a contemporary vernacular existing in South Asia that, like every woman from Pakistan, would, of course, be doing this kind of historical work? Like, did they not understand the ways in which you were bending it to your own ends?
S1: They did understand. But I was they wanted me to make them understand, like they wanted me to tell the story. And I think that was always has been that burden where the onus was always on on oneself to provide wider references. So when you think of art history. The Western art history, though, it was, including more female artists, but south somewhere, it was always the Third World feminism and that and then it didn’t really expand further. There were some some names, but it wasn’t like, you know, an entire understanding of South Asia or feminist sort of movements there or even modernist movements in terms of artists and painters. And so you had to sort of bring that information to yourself, which is a very different sort of burden. Other people probably had the privilege of not doing that. Yeah, and that has goes on for many. It goes on in many ways. Even now, at times we are still often fighting around the lack of representation in a culture in a country which is very black and white.
S3: So Shahzia Alam, the painting form that really sort of changed your trajectory as an artist was really developed. In a 16th century, right, the 15th and 16th centuries, even though obviously that’s productive, but let’s just say we can fix it in time to that period. So at that time, the artists on the subcontinent who are working in the manuscript form were developing what the manuscript form would come to be and all of its different iterations. In Europe, Botticelli was barking and active, Titian was working, El Greco was working, we’re so accustomed to a narrative of the development of art that centered on Europe and that leads to kind of, you know, the contemporary moment. Is it possible, do you think, to undo a deeply entrenched way of categorizing what art is and that it would have began at a and did it acts cannot be done?
S1: I think there’s always interest, but I still feel like the silos are so deep. And, you know, somebody’s writing on Renaissance art is not going to suddenly start writing on in the Department of Islamic Art. They may be interested, but these categories within the academy often are just sort of places where people don’t cross over. And as visual artists, I think I I will take a lot more liberty and and, you know, and have discussions, even have discussions with scholars that may help me get a better sense of a particular time and moment where even say, you know, if I love El Greco work, for example. So if I if I was studying and I have looked at El Greco deeply, then I was like, oh, so much. That is, you know, I can draw links with a certain styles within the manuscript painting. And the weird aspect of that is that sometimes, you know, artists that may have are not known who painted those manuscripts or the folios that are available. So that has that there’s been an attribution, like a certain name that has existed. I’m we’re not sure whether that is the real artist or was that how that happens? So isn’t that for me that is such an important way of like this idea of of what is real, what is imagine what is mythic and how do we engage history? And I think I take that kind of a lot more liberty in imagining history as something closer in time and something that can be that should be seen from multiple perspectives. And in that process, I can loosen it up and I can imagine different events that would have occurred, even like taking El Greco and bringing El Greco to the subcontinent and imagining El Greco having a relationship with one of the manuscript painters. And because they both seem to the works were happening around the same time and it was 16, 16 or five or something. So that way of developing a contemporary project, I can actually knock back at these very siloed spaces and that that is something that interests me. But in terms of like locating scholarship and books, that where these conversations are happening in a you know, in the historical art history space, I think that’s pretty neat. That doesn’t work yet.
S3: That’s about it for us. Thanks again for your Slate plus membership.