The Princeton University Art Museum’s collections and exhibitions extend beyond the building’s physical footprint. Unveiled on campus in spring were two site-specific installations by the artist Shahzia Sikander.
Soaring above the forum of the Julis Romo Rabinowitz Building — the new home of the Department of Economics that was formerly 20 Washington Road, the old Frick Chemistry building — is “Quintuplet Effect,” an intricately layered painting on glass. Nearby, as one climbs the stairs in the adjoining Louis A. Simpson International Building, a shimmering, 66-foot, glass, marble and ceramic scroll, titled “Ecstasy as Sublime, Heart as Vector,” takes visitors “on a journey from the mortal bonds of humanity to the realm of abstraction,” according to the Art Museum’s description. Sikander says it is about life and death, about imagination and lack of imagination, and represents her first foray into glass.
“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. Imagination is very much about taking ownership of the narrative; it is a fundamentally political stance.”
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 concerns of the contemporary world, using multi-channel animation to explore such topics as the colonial legacy of trade. Now, she says, she seeks to turn the cinematic space upside down.
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 “Quintuplet Effect” emerges from nine large-scale panels of stacked glass. Historical figures, spiritual events, and natural elements are intertwined. Looking at the original manuscript pages, Sikander felt a sense of infinity that she sought to re-create in glass.
Sikander weaves together iconography from South Asian, European, and American contexts. She is the recipient of numerous awards, grants, and fellowships, including the MacArthur Award in 2006. Born a Muslim in Lahore, Shahzia studied at a Catholic school and describes those times as a deeply conflicting experience. Religion limited women’s rights, while as a young artist she was questioning her calling. “It is a pleasure to be an artist, but the blessing also places a burden and a responsibility,” she told a gathering on campus last year. “Through my practice I learned to speak to and engage the world.”
Her grandfather and parents supported her career choice, with her mother urging her to study architecture because of its career potential. She comes from a family, including the women, who are lawyers, academics, scholars, and writers.
Sikander earned her BFA from the National College of Arts in Lahore in 1991. She underwent rigorous training under the master miniaturist Bashir Ahmed and was recognized both for her technical mastery of this practice, and for her radical transformation of the traditional aesthetics of miniature painting through experimentation with scale and subject matter. Subsequently, Sikander moved to the United States, where she completed her master’s of fine arts degree at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1995. The university completed extensive renovation of 20 Washington Road in December, 2016. The building brings the economics department, which has long been housed in separate buildings, under one roof. It also houses learning and research centers for several departments, as well as international programs.
Princeton University’s public art collection includes work by 48 artists such as Alexander Calder, Michele Oka Doner, Frank Gehry, Gaston Lachaise, Jacques Lipchitz, Henry Moore, Louise Nevelson, Isamu Noguchi, George Rickey, George Segal, Richard Serra, David Smith, and Tony Smith. A campus art initiative launched in 2008 to expand the university’s existing collection of historical campus art with commissions by living artists has brought works by Sol Lewitt, Odili Donald Odita, Kendall Buster, Jim Isermann, and Ursula von Rydingsvard.
For more information on campus collections and to download a map: artmuseum.princeton.edu/campus-art.