Image of Clockwise from top left: Giacomo Prideaux, Zoe Turoff, Zarina (2018 Pilar Corrias Gallery), inside West Court, Milly Duckworth

The Making of Unbound

History of Art students Giacomo Prideaux, Zoe Turoff and Milly Duckworth, assistant curators of Shahzia Sikander: Unbound lift the lid on the final stages of planning and installing an international exhibition. 

After months of planning, Shahzia Sikander: Unbound is shifting into its ultimate phase: installation in Jesus College’s West Court Gallery. The artworks, flown in from all over the world, are at last being unified together in one space, ready for public viewing on Saturday 16 October.

The final layout of the exhibition space is the result of careful decision-making. Working within the constraints of the room, we imagined how visitors would move through the space, and how we could harness this movement to create a visual narrative, guiding the viewer through various aspects of Sikander’s practice. The works themselves informed these choices; their size or medium might determine where they are placed in order to enable optimal lighting, and their format might suggest modes of display; for example, drawings are displayed in pairs to mimic the Indo-Persian book format from which Sikander’s practice emerges.

Sikander’s work challenges traditional modes of representation and redaction in traditional historical and artistic narratives. Her work is intersectional, and therefore resists categorisation, complicating the role of the curator. In the artist’s own words: "The curator has power as the gatekeeper…the hardest aspect of being a visual artist is that the value of work and frameworks of inclusion are often determined by others." We, therefore, wanted to emphasise a narrative that gave insight into the fluidity of Sikander’s vision, whilst encouraging the work to speak for itself: a challenging task, yet rewarding, not least because we were lucky enough to have the artist’s input in the curatorial process.

Focusing on presenting a whole body of work, rather than fragments of Sikander’s expansive practice, the display of the work opposes partitions of subject matter and medium, instead emphasising key aspects of Sikander’s practice – transnational feminism, a grounding in traditional Indo-Persian techniques and decolonial love – through conscientious pairings. The centrepiece of the exhibition, Promiscuous Intimacies (2020) is also Sikander’s first work in sculpture and will remain as part of Jesus’ permanent sculpture collection.

The process of label writing was supported by a breadth of scholarship recommended by Dr Vivek Gupta, including Much Maligned Monsters by Partha Mitter, The Intelligence of Tradition in Rajput Court Painting by Molly Aitken and The Persian Album, 1400-1600 by David Roxburgh. Grounded upon research and peer collaboration, the writing process involved a challenging synthesis of artistic and historical data.

The collaborative process of writing ensured conceptual unity between the assistant curators’ writing and presented an opportunity for the exchange of perspectives.

Shahzia Sikander: Unbound is open from Saturday 16 October - 18 February 2022, 10am-6pm. The exhibition will temporarily close from 23 December 2021 – 3 January 2022 inclusive.