On Friday, Oct. 19, Shahzia Sikander’s latest work of art, The Perennial Gaze, was unveiled in the Bonnell Building at the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP). The mosaic mural is displayed near the entrance of the building where the glittering tiles might pique the interest of any student or visitor passing by.

The guests huddled around The Perennial Gaze on this particular afternoon are in luck: the unveiling was followed by a discussion with the artist, hosted by Asian Arts Initiative, a local organization that commissioned the piece as part of their 25th anniversary (ex)CHANGE collection. The Philly–based organization strives to connect Asian Americans and explore their unique experiences through art.

Photos courtesy of Louis Kang and Asian Arts Initiative.

With adidas Superstars on her feet and a Starbucks coffee in hand, Sikander might be mistaken for a student at first glance. The MacArthur Genius Fellow’s youthful appearance reflects her ability to explore identity in a creative way, which is evident in her artwork. “I’ve always thought that there’s so many categories that one has been placed in, whether it’s Asian, Asian American, Muslim American, Pakistani, Pakistani female artist, woman artist…all these categories are great and essential and they happen but it’s how can the work navigate all those categories over a long period of time? And I think understanding that in the process of making the work over a period of time…is almost like an epiphany.”

This isn’t the first time Sikander’s work has been installed in Philadelphia. The Fabric Workshop & Museum featured some of her earlier work in 2006. Moreover, her animation exhibit Disruption as Rapture is currently on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Philadelphia has been so supportive throughout my career…Over the years, Philly has become kind of a place for me to come create work, engage with the museums, look at the collections there, [and]
work with many people that have been [in] Philly or have passed through Philadelphia…so it seems [like a] second home.”

Sikander has had solo exhibitions in cities across the world, including Rome, Tokyo, Auckland, Dublin, Istanbul, and Bilbao. Aside from transcending geographical borders, her artwork transcends conceptual and creative borders as well. She doesn’t restrict herself to one specific medium: she’s created painted murals, animations, videos, photographs, mosaics and more. 

Moreover, she brings traditional elements of South Asian art into a modern context. In her talk, Sikander pointed out the barriers that exist between traditional and contemporary art today. “Within the institutions themselves, the contemporary department of a museum is very separate from the historical department.” Philadelphia seems to be the exception. “I think in that sense, the project at the PMA was exciting because it’s a contemporary voice within the historical Asian Art Gallery, but that’s not necessarily the norm.”

Sikander has received numerous prestigious awards, including the Inaugural Medal of Art by the US Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2012 and Tamgha–e–Imtiaz, the National Pride of Honor by the Pakistani Government. Unfortunately, these awards do not prevent fellow creatives from making generalizations about her based on her identity.

When describing one of her pieces, Shahzia says “I was questioning who’s veiled anyways, who’s unable to see through all these layers and it cannot just be reduced to being straightjacketed that ‘Yes, Shahzia is coming from a Muslim country so she must be…either the angry Muslim woman or subjugated.’ 20 years later we’re still dealing with the same stereotype.”

Photos courtesy of Louis Kang and Asian Arts Initiative.

The Perennial Gaze, like Sikander’s many other creations, is beautiful, but it’s far more than that. While beauty plays a role in her work, Sikander believes it’s important for her audience to see past the surface level of whether or not her art is beautiful, because the themes she’s trying to communicate are far from superficial. “Beauty becomes almost like a tool, a vehicle, but it’s not about making pretty paintings either, and that often gets associated [with] feminine practices.”

Shahzia encourages her audience to spend a little time with these pieces. “I want people to engage the work and then once they’re drawn in, read more, understand more, and then the work starts to unravel and in its unraveling…time is captured...not just over time of that one person’s experience, but in terms of their interface with culture and the society at large.”

The public can view The Perennial Gaze at CCP through October 2019. Disruption as Rapture is currently on display in Gallery 228, Asian Art, on the second floor of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 


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