Portraits and Sinxay

Shahzia Sikander was born in 1969 in Lahore, Pakistan; she lives in New York. She is best known for her miniature paintings, watercolors, murals, and digital animations that draw from mythology, history, fantasy, memory, and her study of traditional Indian and Persian miniature painting.

Sikander first visited Luang Prabang in November 2005. During this visit, she observed the town’s everyday life and visual culture. As she has noted, she became particularly interested in “the important presence of the monks and novices; the labor of rituals and ceremonies, such as the making of flower and food offerings; the wall murals, stencils, and sculptural elements of the temples; and the great epics of Lao literature.”

Sikander returned to Luang Prabang in August 2006 for an extended visit, in October 2006, and in February–March 2008. During these visits, she produced two main bodies of work, Portraits and Sinxay, inspired by the above-mentioned elements. During her August 2006 visit, she was assisted by two local art students, Chan Pheng Pithavong and Sidavong Vatsadakone, who worked under her guidance.

Portraits is a group of about 50 graphite-on-paper portraits of monks and novices from Vat Pak Khane and Vat Xieng Thong. Seamlessly integrated into the life of the town, the monks and novices of Luang Prabang are visible not only in the monasteries, but on the street, in Internet cafés, and in other public places. Sikander noted, however, that the tourists who visit the town “often only see them collectively as ‘the longest line of monks in the world making the morning almsround.’” Some seem to regard the almsround more as a photo-spectacle than a ritual and the monks more as anonymous photo-subjects than as individuals.

Deciding to address this dynamic, Sikander approached Phra Acharn Onekeo Sitthivong, now the abbot of Vat Pak Khane, Vat Xieng Thong, and Vat Pha O, with whom The Quiet in the Land had been working since 2004. Having drawn on portraiture in the past as a means of initiating dialogues with others, she asked him if she could make portraits of monks and novices from these monasteries. He assented. Over the course of her visits to Luang Prabang, she became acquainted with these individuals. As they came to know one another, she took several photographs, and in some cases high-definition video portraits, of each to capture the multidimensionality of their personalities. Using inexpensive graphite pencils of varying hardnesses, she then made drawings of their heads from the photographs. In contrast to sketching directly from life, this method permitted her to engage with her subjects slowly, deliberately, and with intense concentration in solitude—a process akin to meditation practice. Delicately rendered through modulations of light and dark, the heads express a subtle tension between materiality and ethereality, as if they have emerged inchoate from the white void of the paper. Each reveals a subtle exaggeration of a physical or psychological trait that she perceived—a birthmark or a strong jaw, an expression that conveys the awkwardness of adolescence or a maturity beyond years. Refusing the lens of stereotype and cliché, Sikander humanized each individual.

In connection with the Portraits, Sikander taught drawing to a group of novices. She showed them how to prepare pencils and to apply the sharpened points to paper to develop layers of light and dark to capture one another’s likenesses. Through this experience, she was able to forge stronger bonds with the community. She deepened these bonds by offering a dhamma gift to the Sangha, a tangible expression of her appreciation for their generosity in offering their time and energy to the project, which helped make possible the construction of a meditation center at Vat Pha O.

Sinxay consists of several paintings on paper inspired by the epic poem Sang Sinxay, including eight small works and two large ones. Based on the Pannasa jātaka, of Indian origin, Sang Sinxay is believed to have been composed by the poet Prince Pangkam during the reign of King Surinyavongsa (r. 1638–95), a period of cultural florescence during which many of the greatest Lao literary works were created. These works were intended to be recited on special occasions, such as religious festivals, to instill virtues esteemed by the culture.

Sang Sinxay is an epic in the tradition of the Odyssey, the Ramayana, and other classics of world literature. Reflecting its Buddhist origins, it demonstrates how desire breeds suffering. King Koumphan, ruler of a race of human-eating ogres known as the Nyaks, abducted Soumantha, sister of King Koutsaraj. The distraught Koutsaraj became a monk, left his possessions to his queen, and embarked on a journey to find Soumantha. One day, he spied the seven daughters of the wealthy merchant Sethi. Enchanted by their beauty, he left the monkhood, returned to his kingdom, and married all seven. The eight queens gave birth to children on the same day. Six bore sons, but the eldest bore an elephant with golden tusks, named Siho, and the youngest bore twins—a golden snail, named Sangthong, and a handsome boy clutching a bow and arrow, named Sinxay (Victorious Merit). Sinxay was blessed with supernatural powers. Angry that the eldest and youngest queens had bore monsters, Koutsaraj exiled them and their children. But they soon came under the protection of the garuda and flourished. One day, Koutsaraj ordered his sons to resume the search for Soumantha. They tricked Sinxay into joining them, and the group then embarked on a series of adventures. During their quest, Sinxay encountered a variety of creatures, ranging from the kinari (a flock of gorgeous bird women renowned for their dancing and singing, with whom he consorted), the naga (serpent-like creatures, who protected him), and the Nyak Khoumphan, who grew 49 heads that terrorized Sinxay. Ultimately, Sinxay located Soumantha, who by then had become happily married to her husband, and slayed Koumphan.

Sikander was introduced to Sang Sinxay through an English summary in Somsanouk Mixay’s book Treasures of Lao Literature. Experiencing the poem through abridgment and translation gave her the opportunity to imagine, rather than to illustrate, it. The poem became a permeable text that absorbed the perspectives that she brought to it. She perceived universal themes that transcended the specific contexts in which the poem was originally produced and received. She observed parallels to the Ramayana, the jātaka tales, and the magic realism of Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, and Gabriel García-Marquez. And she saw in the poem’s evocative images visual links to the iconography of the Hindu painting that she had studied. The images that comprise Sinxay flood forth as allusive fragments that poetically convey the contingencies of Sikander’s encounter with the text.

500 Kinaree, for example, is inspired by the episode in which Sinxay enjoys the “sweet company” of 500 kinari. A rectangular frame encloses a dreamlike realm populated by kinari. While the miniature ones that swarm forth in the composition’s center are loosely rendered, the two at the top, who float in dance-like poses, and the one at the bottom, who plays a musical instrument, suggest kinari from the mural paintings of Luang Prabang, such as those at Vat Had Seio, as well as from stencil decorations. Sikander renders these figures and their environment with a sensuous fluidity—a formal strategy that expresses her fluid interpretation of the text, which she was charmed to subjectively reimagine. By not including Sinxay himself in the image, she encourages the viewer to experience the pleasure, as well as the anxiety, of this process of seduction: the viewer can step into Sinxay’s role and imagine him- or herself as the hero who is entranced by the kinari, whose facelessness is a blank screen on which we can project our own fantasies; and by extension, as the artist who is entranced by the text. Becoming this persona, we are seduced by the beauty of the kinari, but awed by their power, as the two at the top ever so gently break the frame of the image, one with the sharp rear talon of her right foot, the other with the saber-like point of her crown, as if they are prepared to penetrate our space, just as we have pretended to penetrate theirs.