New commission by Shahzia Sikander to go on show at the Princeton University Art Museum
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New commission by Shahzia Sikander to go on show at the Princeton University Art Museum
Shahzia Sikander (American, born in Pakistan, 1969), Quintuplet Effect, 2016. Paint on glass, steel, 654.7 × 152.4 cm. Princeton University. © Shahzia Sikander / photo: Ricardo Barros.

PRINCETON, NJ.- This spring, the Princeton University Art Museum announces two spectacular site-specific works by the internationally acclaimed artist Shahzia Sikander. Commissioned for the Julis Romo Rabinowitz Building and the Louis A. Simpson International Building (formerly 20 Washington Road) at Princeton University, an intricately layered painting on glass and a 66-foot-tall mosaic scroll are the first major public art commissions for Sikander. Trained in the traditions of Indo-Persian miniature painting at the famed National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan, Sikander has transformed that practice into a visual language infused with the concerns of our contemporary world.

Soaring above the forum of the Julis Romo Rabinowitz Building – the new home to the Department of Economics – layered images of flight, descent, material economies and spiritual transcendence invite contemplation and conversation. Inspired in part by Princeton University Library’s late 16th-century manuscript known as the Peck Shahnama, an archetype of the 10th-century epic poem, Sikander’s painted composition emerges from nine large-scale panels of stacked glass. Historical figures, spiritual events and natural elements are intertwined to represent global exchange networks for both material and cultural economies. The painting on glass, entitled Quintuplet Effect, was created in a new medium for Sikander: hand painted ceramic colors within glass that were painstakingly built up in several thin layers for a luminous visual experience.

Nearby, as one climbs the stairs in the Louis A. Simpson International Building, a shimmering, 66-foot-high glass and ceramic scroll takes visitors on a journey from the mortal bonds of humanity to the realm of the mind, where natural forms dissolve in space and the imagery invites the active engagement of viewers’ imaginations and faith. Made of glass, ceramic and marble, Sikander’s scrolling mosaic, entitled Ecstasy as Sublime, Heart as Vector, can be viewed in three sections, each with multiple interpretations and manifold references to history, religion and literature.

“Given the nature of the teaching and research to take place in these beautiful new facilities, we felt it was an ideal opportunity to engage an international artist drawing on diverse traditions,” noted Museum director James Steward. “We are thrilled by the captivating beauty and multilayered meanings of the results.”

"When I think of the idea of the postcolonial, the rhetoric of imagination seems so much more buoyant, so full of visual possibilities, specifically as a foil to the notion of the exile,” said Sikander of the commissions. “I think of imagination as a soaring and empowering space that is free from constraints. And if you’re thinking in terms of inter-connectivity, imagination is what ties all of us together. The pursuit of truth is so fleeting when it is held hostage to authenticity. Our recent histories are all about redactions, and so everything starts to emerge in a space that is in flux. Imagination is very much about taking ownership of the narrative; it is a fundamentally political stance."

Born in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1969, Shahzia Sikander received her BFA in 1991 from the National College of Arts in Lahore, where she underwent rigorous training under the master miniaturist Bashir Ahmed. Sikander was recognized both for her technical mastery of this practice, ascending to a teaching post at the College, and for her radical transformation of the traditional aesthetics of miniature painting – through her experimentation with scale and subject matter, as well as the recombination of compositional elements. Subsequently, Sikander moved to the United States, where she completed her MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1995. Informed by her international training and speaking to the global exchange of capital and culture, both historically and in the present, Sikander deftly weaves together iconography from South Asian, European and American contexts. She has been the subject of major solo exhibitions throughout the world and is the recipient of numerous awards, grants and fellowships, including most notably the MacArthur Award in 2006.

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