A prominent Pakistani-American artist has created a new public mural at the Community College of Philadelphia. Shahzia Sikander designed a tile mosaic for one of the college’s largest facilities, the Bonnell Building.
The mural is one of the city’s few pieces of public art related to South Asia.
Sikander was born in Pakistan and comes out of a traditional art practice. She studied miniature paintings, a style that goes back about 1,500 years in South Asia. A resident of the United States for at about 25 years now, she described her art as contemporary and not necessarily Pakistani.
“To have that narrative — that one is from another culture, so one is supposed to represent that culture or be a spokesperson for that culture — that is unfair,” she said.
“It’s great to be a female artist and to articulate your work yourself,” she said. “But oftentimes, once your work enters public space, there’s a whole discourse that happens outside your control that determines what the work is about.”
Sikander’s “The Perennial Gaze” is a glass tile mosaic installed where the Bonnell Building connects with the old Mint Building. It features a traditional Pakistani woman peering out at viewers; that is overlaid with an abstract form resembling a headless and armless sculpture.
The work was commissioned by Philadelphia’s Asian Arts Initiative as part of its 25th anniversary celebration. Curator Alexander Chang says Sikander’s work is more related to modern feminism than traditional Islam.
“Women are seen as empty vessels, which – in history – are filled with someone else’s voice,” said Chang. “What she is trying to do is insert these narratives, new narratives that have never been heard before.”
The work was deliberately put into the Bonnell Building, where the most diverse range of people on campus come to access student services. It is accessible by the public, and will be up for one year.