… after Shahzia Sikander — Nemesis

In her interview at the beginning of her companion book to the show, Nemesis, Shahzia Sikander explains that one of her goals was to challenge what is beautiful. I’m not so ambitious. I think, where I am as an artist, is learning what is beautiful, and if I were to challenge this, it would have to be later when I had a better grasp of what I’m challenging.

With some irony, what draws me to Shahzia Sikander’s work is that I find it beautiful. I think only when you look more closely, after maybe first noticing formal elements, like borders, visual rhythm and bright color schemes, you notice that the story told by the smaller details can work against the mood the formal elements convey.

In Pleasure Pillars (2001), the pillars of beauty are being matched with the word pleasure. Being only 17” x 12,” the work is almost overwhelmed by all its details. You can easily miss the circle of fighter jets that resemble a group of birds dancing somehow in synchronized formation, wings overlapping and noses pointed toward a shared center. You might miss the lion tearing at a deer’s throat in the opposite corner. Images of the West challenge the images of the east. Venus de Milo with her head and arm missing is slightly left of center, separated from a eastern formal dress by two connected hearts displaced from a body. There is, at the heart of the work, a woman’s head with large and impressive ram horns.

The colors are beautiful. The polka dots, elements seen in many of Sikander’s works, create layers and dimension. There are multiple frames, which help a viewer focus on specific figures. I am drawn first to these formal elements and am made to look at figures, objects and acts of violence side by side and to interpret something that is beyond the formal elements.

For my own work…

I want to offer a view into a world that has a sort of mood, manifested out of the symbols and interactions of those symbols found in that world.

Symbols in a visual work of art can be more literal than words in a work of literature. Words representing an object can carry a variety meanings given a person’s unique set of experiences and the context in which they employ those words. For example, what bees might mean in a poem by Sylvia Plath. When you use pictures of objects with symbolic meaning, you begin with the meaning given to the object by a people and their culture and history, and it might not be how you feel about the objects, intuitively or personally.

So for an audience who might not be aware of what certain objects can symbolize, I want to offer at least something that is pretty; while for those who respond to those symbols, not just as a bystander looking in but somebody who responds emotionally to them, I want to make the story I’m telling cohesive and meaningful in some way.

Elephants (2021) 9″ x 12″ watercolor and gouache

For the above image, I’m borrowing the idea of elephants as symbols of wisdom. I don’t see this personally, but I like how they can be animated. I can use the image of an animal to convey an act or interaction, which can then be a metaphor for how wisdom can look while in action, despite it being abstract and difficult to define in words.

There’s an oak tree (also a symbol of wisdom) that a string of elephants are walking toward. They are coming from the horizon and the sun is setting. These are all within a red frame, while a baby elephant has its trunk outside the frame, the trunk being slightly transparent.

I don’t want to psychoanalyze myself, but I might be fearing ignorance or not knowing enough.

My mother used to tease me as a child and say that I have no common sense. I’m older now… and I’m hoping a little more wisdom can make up for this.

Materials: Tea

Lately, I’ve been working on developing some basic skills, which when done well, can go unnoticed when looking at a work of art; but if not done well, can be a distraction. I’ve also been trying my hand at using household items.

Specifically, I’ve been practicing the art of preparing paper and using a ballpoint pen as the primary medium, as well as tea as a wash. I’ll start with the tea.

I’ve learned that not all tea is created equally. Below is a picture of  Lipton Tea (left)  and Best Tea, a Taiwan brand that is made from dried whole leaves.

Gaa Wai, tea washes (1)

Lipton Tea photographs very well, because it’s more saturated in color. It would certainly be a great “dupe,” if you like using tea as a wash (I know, so niche) but are on a tight budget.

However, when applying either one, the Best Tea — like the skills of a practiced hand — was not distracting, while Lipton tea was. First, looking at the tea again, we can see that Lipton is opaque, while Best Tea has some transparency.

Gaa Wai, tea washes (2)

Also, because Lipton is darker, it’s easier to leave streaks while applying it as a wash, while Best Tea goes on smooth, whether or not you are skilled at applying washes.

I admit, I need a little more practice, as I initially just slathered on the wash with multiple brushstrokes before moving further on down the paper, as opposed to applying one brushstroke and adding more wash, so that there was always a bit of liquid at the edge of the wash.

There’s a video of Shahzia Sikander applying a tea wash in this way in “Spirituality” on Art 21‘s website. I did this for the Best Tea (bottom right). Again, it’s very subtle, between washes, but you have a lot of more control.

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Lipton Tea (top, applied 2-4 times), Best Tea (middle left, applied 5-6 times), Best Tea (bottom right, applied 2 times) and a sheet of printing paper (bottom left). There are ranges of 2-4 and 5-6, because when I used multiple brushstrokes, it was like I was applying multiple washes… ?

It doesn’t show up on camera, but when in person, you can see subtle bands of discoloration on the paper with Lipton Tea. Below is another side-by-side comparison but in different lighting. Best Tea is on the left and Lipton is on the right. Both were given the same number of washes, and Lipton of course takes fewer washes to show a difference.

Gaa Wai, tea washes on watercolor paper.JPG

I guess if you want to save time and money and aren’t adamant about having a uniformly applied wash, you should choose Lipton. But I like how subtle Best Tea can be. You have to apply it a few more times, but you have more control over the final outcome.

Next: Materials: Ballpoint Pen