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From Venice to Cleveland

Shahzia Sikander: Collective Behavior at the Biennale
Emily Liebert, Curator of Contemporary Art
February 15, 2024
Women infront of digital screen

Shahzia Sikander in front of her animation Reckoning, as part of Times Square’s Midnight Moment, September 2023. Photo: Vincent Tullo

This spring, the Cleveland Museum of Art will participate for the first time in the 60th International Art Exhibition–La Biennale di Venezia, the foremost international contemporary art festival. The CMA is co-organizing, in collaboration with the Cincinnati Art Museum, a survey of Pakistani American artist Shahzia Sikander (b. 1969) at Palazzo Soranzo Van Axel near Venice’s Piazza San Marco. An official Collateral Event of the Biennale, Shahzia Sikander: Collective Behavior is the most comprehensive presentation of the artist’s work to date. It will bring together more than 30 pieces made over the past three and a half decades, including new site-specific drawings and glass works created for this exhibition. 

Since the late 1980s, Sikander has been animating South Asian visual histories through a contemporary feminist perspective. She works in a range of mediums—painting, drawing, print, digital animation, mosaic, sculpture, and glass—to reframe the past for our present moment. Born in Lahore, Sikander emigrated from Pakistan to the United States early in her career. Her art is shaped by her transnational perspective, through which she explores diasporic experience, gender, histories of colonialism, and Western relations with the Global South and the wider Islamic world. Sikander’s ongoing explorations resonate with the theme of this year’s Biennale, Foreigners Everywhere

Old building in Venice by the water on sunny day
Palazzo Soranzo Van Axel, Venice © Van Axel _ Daniele Vicentini

Collective Behavior follows the evolution of Sikander’s practice over the course of her career, beginning with her acclaimed breakthrough work The Scroll (1989–90), created at Lahore’s National College of Arts. The exhibition progresses from that foundational work to the present day, debuting new works that respond to the architecture and history of Palazzo Soranzo Van Axel and the city of Venice beyond the exhibition walls. 

The CMA’s role in organizing Collective Behavior in Venice is made possible by the generous support of Rebecca and Irad Carmi and Lauren Rich Fine. “We are fascinated by Shahzia’s breadth and depth as an artist who draws on many mediums to explore her Pakistani roots and traditions,” say the Carmis, “as well as by her impact on the international contemporary art scene.” Lauren Rich Fine was compelled by “the opportunity to support a female contemporary artist who is honoring historical South Asian art—a particular strength of the CMA—and helping the museum gain visibility in Venice.”

painting of man wearing crown next to abstract blob
Empire Follows Art: States of Agitation 11, 2020.Shahzia Sikander (Pakistani American, b. 1969). Color digital printing, watercolor, and gouache on prepared wove paper; sheet: 40.6 x 30.5 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Norman O. Stone and Ella A. Stone Memorial Fund, 2021.103. © Shahzia Sikander

Collective Behavior will be on view in Venice from April 20 to October 20, 2024. Following this presentation, complementary iterations of the exhibition will come home to Ohio. The CMA will present Sikander’s art in relation to South Asian objects from the museum’s collection that have inspired her. This exhibition, on view in the Julia and Larry Pollock Focus Gallery from February 14 to June 8, 2025, will offer a narrative that the CMA is uniquely suited to share: it will carry forward in time the rich histories that are encompassed in the museum’s esteemed South Asian collection. Simultaneously, it will situate contemporary artistic practice in relation to the global history that preceded it. The Cincinnati Art Museum will concurrently offer a comprehensive presentation of the artist’s career to date. 

Unfolding across continents, these three exhibitions—in Venice, Cleveland, and Cincinnati—offer multiple vantages for engaging with Sikander’s remarkable career. Shahzia Sikander: Collective Behavior will be accompanied by a vividly illustrated catalogue featuring scholarly and poetic responses to the artist’s work.