Nestled above the glittering, modernist skyscrapers of downtown Hong Kong is an isolated remnant of the city’s fading colonial past. In the mid-19th century, at the height of its imperial power, the British army built the Old Victoria Barracks to produce explosives and ammunition for the empire’s eastern wing. For a city that rose to power as the axis of the Opium Wars between the British Empire and China, Hong Kong has always been a symbol of cultural collision and transformation.
Today, that colonial-era ammunitions factory is home to the Asia Society Hong Kong Center, one of the region’s leading international museums. It is a fitting and provocative setting for a landmark new exhibition by the Pakistani-American artist Shahzia Sikander, aptly titled The Apparatus of Power.
Sikander is a MacArthur Genius grant-winning visual artist whose 25-year career has spanned accolades and exhibitions across the world. She broke through in the 1990s for disrupting and reinventing a form of Islamic Art that thrived in the medieval courts of India’s Mughal Empire—the traditional Indo-Persian miniature. What were once gilded pages of manuscripts for royal perusal, became Sikander’s multimedia canvas for exploring feminism, history and Muslim identity in the 21st century.
Reflecting on Asia’s financial capital as the backdrop for this latest show, Sikander says: “Hong Kong encapsulates an erupting and evolving notion of identity and autonomy through the complex push and pull between its English history and relationship with mainland China.” As the cosmopolitan city wrestles with transition from British to Chinese rule, Sikander says it forces us to consider: “What is independence and authority exactly?”
That question has been the driving force behind Sikander’s own work, ever since she began her practice at Lahore’s National College of Art. Through her exhibitions she has challenged both the design orthodoxy of traditional Islamic miniatures and the politicized colonial gaze. After completing her graduate studies at the Rhode Island School of Design, Sikander moved to New York City and began fusing her miniatures with abstract, conceptual forms. From making brushes with squirrel hair to preparing the handmade paper as was the custom in the medieval Mughal ateliers, Sikander’s distinctive visual vocabulary earned her unprecedented critical and commercial acclaim.
Although she’s been living and working in the U.S. for almost two decades, she has refused to bluntly engage the debates over Islam and the West that have dominated American discourse since September 11. Instead, she’s focused on pushing the rigid boundaries of miniature painting itself, projecting her forms onto Times Square’s billboards, experimenting with new mediums and global collaborations.
That creative openness is why curator Claire Brandon says Sikander’s images of dislocation and cultural fusion make so much sense in postcolonial Hong Kong. “The confluences between the exhibition and the city go beyond the ‘Asia Society’ site and extend to Hong Kong’s position in the maritime trade,” Brandon says. “For this reason we installed the show across two venues: The Asia Society and the Hong Kong Maritime Museum. The Maritime Museum is a former ferry terminal. The building literally extends onto Victoria Harbor.”
At the center of both exhibitions are two of Sikander’s works about the legacy of Western expansion in the East. The Last Post is an animated film composed of a series of highly detailed illustrations. “The work addresses the opium trade and the exploitative means by which demand for the commodity was established,” she explains.
“The protagonist, an East India Company man, appears in various guises throughout the piece, often as a lurking threat in the imperial rooms of the Mughal Empire, which once ruled much of South Asia.” As the illustrations begin to move along the evocative orchestral score, that faceless British soldier’s figure is hurled out of the throne room onto shifting landscapes, colliding with natural forms and oceans, eventually shattering into thousands of tiny pieces.
Sikander’s second large-scale video installation is entitled Parallax, a piece inspired by a road trip she took across the United Arab Emirates. Again, in a series of choreographed illustrations projected in cinematic scale, Sikander invites us into a hypnotic visual tapestry of desert landscapes, oil rigs, and waterways. “Parallax addresses the Strait of Hormuz, particularly the fraught history of imperial control. It explores the colonial legacy of trade and corporate enterprise,” she says.
At the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, The Last Post and Parallax are displayed next to models of colonial schooners, naval battle ships, and modern shipping crates. As you leave the exhibition galleries, you directly face the glimmering waters of Hong Kong’s bustling Victoria Harbor. For Brandon, that association is essential to understanding the global themes driving Sikander’s work. “The Strait of Hormuz and Hong Kong are similar in that they were both entrepôts and centers for maritime activity of the British East India Company at pivotal points in its history. So, this work’s installation at the Maritime Museum, surrounded by water, offers a new vantage point from which to consider Sikander’s work.”
As I was leaving the Maritime Museum galleries after my own visit, I stopped to thank the young woman collecting tickets at the front desk. Her name is Crystal Tong and she leapt to tell me just how many times she’d returned to the galleries in her free time to watch Sikander’s projections. She says her generation of young people in Hong Kong feels deeply anxious about the tightening grip of China’s rule. Many are leaving the city and feeling disoriented by the tangible cultural shifts.
Although she had never heard of Sikander before the exhibition, Tong says her work is both comforting and inspiring. “As a student of history, I feel very thankful. “The Last Post makes me think about the day Hong Kong was returned to China. I know that eventually every strong country will end their rule and stop being the strongest country. Times change—and we can’t avoid change.”
Sikander creates worlds of evocative and disorienting images that remain open to reflection and interpretation. “The work validates what is essential to me. The ability to imagine the future. The ability to leap, to not conform, but to channel possibilities,” she tells Newsweek Middle East. In pushing the contours of what it means to be both a contemporary and a Muslim artist, Sikander also wants to question who tells a story and why they are granted that narrative power. In constantly pushing her own frame of references beyond the Islamic miniature, Hong Kong becomes a new participant in her creative journey.
“Energy sparked by creativity is full of potential. It forges forward, implements new bonds, breathes life and can be a catalyst for new directions,” she says. “An artist often has the burden to reimagine. In reimagining lies the ability to break molds and re-examine the norms. Contemporaneity is about remaining relevant by challenging the status quo, not about holding on to positions of power.”
Shahzia Sikander: The Apparatus of Power is on display at the Asia Society Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Maritime Museum until July 6.