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Indo-Persian Painting Finds a Digital Life in 'Parallax'

Prolific Pakistani artist Shahzia Sikander’s incredible video animation is a dazzling reflection on the echoes of postcolonialism in the Persian Gulf.

A chaotic collision of ancient Indo-Persian painting tradition and 21st century digital technology has given birth to Parallax, a 15 minute-long wide-screen animation by the prolific Pakistani-born, New York-based visual artist, Shahzia Sikander. Currently showing at The Tufts University Art Gallery in Medford, Massachusetts until the beginning of December, this is Parallax’s first museum debut in the U.S., having been previously shown at influential art institutions including the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and as a part of the Sharjah Biennial.

Sikander’s solo show contains scattered drawings, paintings and photographs, but the main feature is undoubtedly the aforementioned video animation, displayed on a larger-than-life horizontal screen nearly as wide as the entire exhibition room wall. The enveloping video consists of hundreds of digitally animated paintings and drawings made by Sikander in traditional Indo-Persian style, resulting in a symbiosis between modern technology and the traditions of an ancient culture.

Shahzia Sikander, Parallax. 2013. 3-channel HD digital animation, 5.1 surround sound. Music, sound by Du Yun. Photo courtesy of Tony Luong 

Parallax’s visuals are perhaps best described as overwhelmingly mystic: oddly grey trees extend across the screen until they are suddenly shattered as if made of glass, transforming into blue and red watercolor abstractions in a slow and almost apocalyptic fashion. While large portions of Parallax’s visuals are difficult to discern, recurring forms like the aforementioned trees, clenched fists, and spouting oil appear, bringing us from intriguing abstraction back to a more familiar reality.

Performer and composer Du Yun created Parallax’s soundtrack, perhaps the most unforgettable part of the piece. Intoned singing, found sounds ranging from marketplaces chatter to breaking glass, and six original poems recited in Arabic mesh together in an eerily off-putting but nevertheless fascinating manner. Combined with the exotic visuals, the viewer is taken on a 15-minute journey of captivating, unpredictable stimulation.

Shahzia Sikander, Christmas Tree. From 'The Cypress Despite Its Freedom Is Held Captive To The Garden' series, 2012-2013. Digital C-Print. Courtesy of the artist 

Although complex to navigate without guidance, Sikander intended for the piece to be a meditation on “the dissonance and disruption [from the] power tensions that have characterized [the Persian Gulf’s] modern history as a British protectorate and the U.A.E’s establishment as a nation state in 1971.” The complicated nature of Postcolonialism is perhaps reflected in the way Parallax pulls its viewers in so many overwhelming directions at once, a possible mimicry of the U.A.E.'s recent history.

Parallax will be on display at The Tufts University Art Gallery until December 6th of this year. As a counter to the tendencies of digital culture, Sikander has disallowed the digital sharing of her video (beyond fragmented clips), meaning that the only way to see the incredible animation is to take a trip up to Medford, Massachusetts. Visit Shahzia Sikander’s website for more of her works (and a picture of her with presidential candidate Hillary Clinton).

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