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The Scroll and The Empty Room

Sadia Abbas and Shahzia Sikander

Digital Guest Editor Madeeha Maqbool's second pick from our archives is an excerpt from a conversation between celebrated Pakistani-American visual artist Shahzia Sikandar and author Sadia Abbas. This dialogue was the cover story of our fourth volume (2020).

Sadia Abbas: There’s also that image at the other end of the scroll, where she’s painting a self-portrait, and there’s this triangular relationship with herself. I think of it as a sort of Las Meninas moment. In The Empty Room, Tahira is looking at Zubeida Agha’s self-portrait. And it doesn’t say initially in the book whose self-portrait she’s looking at. It just says self-portrait, and so this play of what a woman’s self is, given that sort of spatial constraint. And, of course, there’s this spectral figure throughout your scroll. Which is, of course, brilliant precisely because it’s both playing with the inaccessibility of the interior space of the miniature, right, and deconstructing the boundary. Is that fair?

Shahzia Sikander: Yes, so the woman painting the self-portrait in The Scroll where neither she nor the viewer can see her face or the self-portrait being painted is very much about depicting past, present, future all in one space. I think the women in our work are struggling to create a rupture from the present towards the future, moving away from the prevalent layers of patriarchy. I’m painting this work in 1987, ’88, ’89…

The Scroll by Shahzia Sikander, 1989-1990

SA: Right, it’s at the apogee of the Zia years, and we were both formed in that moment.

SS: Right.

SA: And, of course, I chose not to write about it. I chose to end the novel at the cusp of that period, because I also wanted to study how some of those tendencies were always there. Tahira is not forced to be in the house. She’s married off and, of course, that becomes her realm and she’s constrained in it because of her class. She technically has the option, but not within the psychic constraints imposed by her marriage.

But I’m sure my sense of space is entirely shaped by the ’80s too. I remember my aunts talking about taking the bus to go to university. But for a middle class family in the late ’80s, that was not permitted for girls.

SS: As a female, how one experienced space—it was all about restriction.

Pleasure Pillars by Shahzia Sikander, 2000-01. Collection of Amita and Purnendu Chatterjee, New York

SA: That’s right. Also, in my case it had as much to do with my mother and father, that they just couldn’t handle an adolescent girl. Neither can society. A girl that hits puberty has to be taught to move differently and that’s very confusing because we’re given relative freedom as children to run around and then there’s this complete 180 degree turn. So, part of the bodily constraints Tahira feels comes from my interest in that disciplining of the body.

SS: The Scroll depicts various stages of youth, there are children relatively free, playing around and the young adult female defies bodily restrictions by becoming an elastic, transparent, moving, morphing form, almost like a ghost. This claiming of the freedom of the body is the defining emotion in the work.

There is another movement in time in the work. In drawing a bridge to the historical miniature, like the Safavid tradition, I was examining the stake in miniature painting, as an outsider to the prevalent western cannon of painting in the present-day construction of art history. Going beyond miniature painting’s fraught Euro-centric discourse, often presented as a derivative art form, and thus I explored Indian, Persian, Turkish, Chinese painting traditions to counter the emphasis on Renaissance art.

The process to learn such expansive history was slow. This slowing down of pace to acquire knowledge was equally important in developing depth, by tapping into the interiority of the miniature language, a wondrous and imaginative zone. This going around the colonial space was like going further backward…

SA: …in time…

SS: In historical time. I was not interested in shortcuts of contemporizing the miniature by inserting photographic perspective or photographic references, but in expanding the link with the historical, prior to the modern and the colonial period’s deliberation on the genre. The multiplicity of the language—its form, its syncretic nature, its socio-political formations—are myriad; there is no one way to define it. In that respect, the term ‘miniature painting’ itself is limiting.

SA: So, I want to ask you more about The Scroll. I’m intrigued by it, I love the way it kind of almost unfolds domestic life and it makes it available in a way that is fundamentally linked to its scale. There’s another image that’s always struck me: of you suddenly deciding against the grain of that historical artistic moment, that you wanted to learn from Bashir Ahmed this incredibly laborious and rigorous art and then just hunching over it and doing it for hours. You wanted to work or push yourself and then you were going to do it right. So, talk to me about the question of the miniature and scale, and the domestic in The Scroll. Why take the miniature and turn it into a scroll?

SS: I was burdened in an inspiring way to create something fresh, something that neither Bashir Ahmed nor Zahoor ul Akhlaq had done with their experiments with miniature painting. The desire to depart into a new territory while keeping the conversation with the historical tradition alive was a fully immersive, fantastical reality. I was living, breathing, digesting and regurgitating my obsession with Safavid painting to find a moment of epiphany. I had so many ideas, but not enough time to make hundreds of paintings, so I thought why not create one epic painting as my epic poem. There was also a certain playfulness in choosing the format of a scroll, as it naturally lends itself to depicting a narrative about time, an unfolding of an event, a story, a day, a lifetime, from left to right or right to left, depending on however the viewer wants to enter the space.

The fact that no one had yet created a large-scale miniature painting in the department was also exciting, as the long horizontal format also challenged the tired existing thesis template of theme-based and notebook-sized ‘series’ of miniatures. I am proud that The Scroll also launched a movement of ‘large-scaled’ thesis paintings in the miniature painting department at the National College of Arts in 1991.


Sadia Abbas grew up in Karachi and Singapore, lives in New York and spends a lot of time in Lesbos, Greece. She is associate professor of postcolonial studies at Rutgers University, Newark, USA, where she also directs the multidisciplinary multimedia series, ‘Postcolonial Questions and Performances.’ She specialises in postcolonial literature and theory, the culture and politics of Islam in modernity, early modern English literature, and the history of twentieth century criticism. She is the author of At Freedom’s Limit: Islam and the Postcolonial Predicament (Fordham, 2014), winner of the MLA Prize for a First Book, and the novel The Empty Room (Zubaan Books, 2018), shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, which tells the story of a woman painter in ’70s Pakistan.

She has written numerous essays on subjects including Jesuit poetics and Catholic martyrdom in Early Modern English poetry, neoliberalism and the Greek debt crisis, Pakistani art, the Reformation and contemporary Muslim thought, Jewish converts to Islam and the treatment of subjectivity in contemporary theorizations of Muslim female agency. She is currently completing a coedited volume (with Jan Howard of the Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum of Art) on Shahzia Sikander’s art, working on her next novel and an academic book, Space in Another Time: An Essay on Ruins, Monuments and the Management of Modern Life.

Photo Credit: Daniel Targownik

Shahzia Sikander earned a BFA in 1991 from the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore, where she took up the traditional practice of miniature painting at a time when the medium was deeply unpopular among young artists. She became the first woman to teach at the Miniature Painting Department at NCA in 1992, alongside the master teacher, Bashir Ahmad, and was the first student-artist from the department to challenge traditional technical and aesthetic framework of the genre. Sikander’s breakthrough work received critical national acclaim in Pakistan, winning the prestigious Shakir Ali Award, the NCA’s highest merit award, and the Haji Sharif Award for Excellence in Miniature Painting, subsequently launching ‘neo-miniature’ to the forefront of NCA’s programme, which brought international recognition to this form amongst contemporary art practices.

The artist went on to receive an MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1995. A recipient of Tamgha e Imtiaz and the MacArthur Fellowship (‘Genius Grant’), Shahzia has been the subject of many international exhibitions. She was the first Pakistani to win the US Medal of Art in 2012 and to be inducted into the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Sikander serves on the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art and Monuments in New York City and on the boards of Art21 and The Rhode Island School of Design.


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