Between East and West

Gentile Bellini
Gentile Bellini Wikimedia Commons

With East and West clashing today, it's easy to forget that global confrontations aren't fated to end in muddles. Traditionally, artists have played the role of inquisitive intermediaries, wandering over borders imposed by less enlightened politicos. In one famous instance, Gentile Bellini, the famed Venetian Early Renaissance painter, went to Turkey as a cultural ambassador and returned with jewel-like depictions of Islamic culture, cherished to this day.

At present, some artists are assuming an ambassadorial role worthy of Bellini. Born in Pakistan, the New York-based artist Shahzia Sikander has been named a "Young Global Leader" by the World Economic Forum, part of a select group of individuals from the world over whose collective vision may yet positively inform the future. 

Sikander exemplifies how two cultures can ceremoniously marry and intertwine. An emissary of traditional South Asian miniaturist art, Sikander transcends this conservative art form with a passion at once playful and progressive. Trained in a Pakistani art school, Sikander paints with a miniaturist's delicacy, using fine brushes and vegetable dyes on treated paper—a technique imported into South Asia hundreds of years ago by Persians. Miniature paintings feature rarefied motifs of plants, animals and architecture, and often show a stately symmetry in composition.

In Rajasthan, northern India, such centuries-old miniatures often sing with intense colorism and cross into Hindu religious iconography. Take the wooing of beautiful Radha by the Hindu god Krishna—Radha, curvaceous as a peacock; Krishna, skin so blue he's darker than nightfall. Though otherworldly and hypnotic in their original context, such paintings have now become the stuff of South Asian kitsch. In many of Sikander's miniatures, varied and personal flourishes of paint breathe a restless, modern life into imagery deadened by profligate commercialism and constraining religion.

Every day, the news portrays black-and-white dualities between the East and West. It seems clear why Shahzia Sikander has ascended from miniaturist to ambassador for the future: she creates a new world on humble paper, adopting images familiar to her culture but made strange through a free, idiosyncratic touch. Suddenly, an insular, even predictable medium transforms into a playful netherworld between East and West—a realm of newfound possibility.

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