Crystal Yip writes about the artist monograph Trace Retrace that explores Nilima Sheikh’s artworks as alternative forms of storytelling and narration
Trace Retrace presents a selection of Nilima Sheikh’s works from 1969 to 2010, along with essays by Kumkum Sangari, Ananya Jahanara Kabir, and Kaushik Bhaumik—scholars who write about history, critical theory, and gender. With reference to Sheikh’s wide-ranging influences from art history and literature, as well as her dedication to rethink traditions, these essays illustrate how her artistic practice explores possibilities of storytelling across Asia, with each contributor emphasising the need for alternative narratives for Kashmir—a topic that Sheikh has been focusing on in the last two decades.
In the news, Kashmir is often presented in relation to political conflicts along the border between India and Pakistan, limited to narratives that collapse into well-rehearsed ideological positions. Sheikh, on the other hand, invites viewers to create their own stories. Her palimpsests allow multiple layers of narratives to co-exist—deploying myths, stories, and traditional images from the Silk Road, as well as poems and literature from different periods.
In Sangari’s essay, she highlights the spatial arrangement in Sheikh’s paintings and compares it to Dunhuang murals—a major influence on the artist’s visual language. “Like the heterochrony of Dunhuang murals that produced more than one perspective and time by reinscribing the palimpsests that travelled to them, [Sheikh’s paintings] conjure other emanating worlds that play in wide swathes of time.”1 She also states that “both landscape and story tend toward a horizontal, meandering space that tethers them to each other. The painted narratives were to be read in different ways—from left to right, right to left, top to bottom, or all at once.”2 Without a singular perspective, the authority of a primary narration dissolves. Instead, entrances and exits of stories scatter across the paintings, inviting a flitting and looping gaze, in the process opening new palimpsestic possibilities of narration.
These arrangements are often created with stencils of text and images. Sheikh explains: “[T]he stencil is engaged (importantly because of its own cultural saturation) in part or whole, to allow that interplay between precision and metaphor, the fragmentary and repetitive, yet not assigning one or the other role to my hand or the stencil. I use it to extract interconnections, renewable in each changed context: as palimpsest.”3 The stencils complicate the temporalities of the texts, the images, and the stencils themselves, and blur the centrality of text versus image in storytelling.
In Kabir’s essay, she focuses on this interplay within Sheikh’s Kashmir series. She writes, “Nilima Sheikh invites sustained contemplation of such multiple involvements of word and image as competition and entanglement.... [M]eaning flows between the image on one side and the words on the other.”4 Rather than an explanatory note to the paintings, the texts within the frame invite voices from poems and literature to multiply interpretative possibilities, with different forms of narration lying juxaposed, and in tension.
Though her references are extensive, Sheikh’s layered paintings are not simply collages of traditional and modern citations. She does not leave her sources as they are, but lets them sink in—translating and making them her own. For instance, her Rozgar series draws from a nineteenth-century manuscript depicting professions in Kashmir. Sheikh copies the figures of labourers and tools, by hand, on trace paper.5 She describes the process: “[A]s I translate, the practice of my hand intervenes, and something is lost. The energetic gait of the local Kashmir kalam is perhaps out of the reach of my ambivalent hand. But believing that ambivalence may have its merits, I must build on it.”6 The artist interprets her sources, which become organic parts of her, layer by layer, once again in a palimpsestic way.
Sheikh’s works are never self-contained. They often exist as part of series, with themes she revisits over years. Her works on Kashmir began in 2002,7 and grew as she experimented with various scales, orientations, colour tones, and spatial arrangements.8 As Kabir suggests, “The paintings increasingly appear better appreciated not as a linear series but as interrupting their own would-be teleology with multidirectional hermeneutical possibilities.”9 By retelling stories around the same theme, Sheikh piles multiple layers of narration and interweaves them into an evolving narrative, which offers the possibility for reimagining Kashmir out of the contemporary political frame.
Perhaps this explains the title Trace Retrace. Sheikh creates and builds on traces and retraces; and she extends an invitation to viewers to offer retracings of their own, favouring works that don’t reveal themselves instantly. “I would like my viewers to see the works up close, and then from a distance, read some text, and see the imagery,” the artist says, “I provide them with several options […] You find your own route.”10 This approach encourages the viewer to be an active visitor, to travel across and into the palimpsests, creating stories along their unique journey. Again and again, trace, retrace— she, with her hands, and we, with our eyes — unfolding stories.
Crystal Yip is a Hong Kong–based teacher, arts project coordinator, and writer.
1. Kumkum Sangari, “Rupture, Junctions, Returns: (Un)Lived Histories, Feminist Propositions and Nilima Sheikh” in Trace Retrace, ed. Kumkum Sangari (New Delhi: Tulika Books in association with Gallery Espace and Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, 2013), 133.
2. Ibid, 131, 133.
3. Ananya Jahanara Kabir , “A Counter-archive of Pain and Loss: Nilima Sheikh’s Evolving Kashmir Series” in Trace Retrace, ed. Kumkum Sangari (New Delhi: Tulika Books in association with Gallery Espace and Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, 2013), 285.
4. Ibid, 277.
5. The sketches on trace paper are now on display in Nilima Sheikh’s exhibition at AAA Library.
6. Kumkum Sangari, ed., Trace Retrace (New Delhi: Tulika Books in association with Gallery Espace and Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, 2013), 378.
7. Ananya Jahanara Kabir, “A Counter-archive of Pain and Loss: Nilima Sheikh’s Evolving Kashmir Series” in Trace Retrace, ed. Kumkum Sangari (New Delhi: Tulika Books in association with Gallery Espace and Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, 2013), 274.
8. Ibid, 274–75.
9. Ibid, 275.
10. Rahul Kumar, “Anonymity of Loss,” India: Live Mint, 25 November 2017, http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/z7EBg7yuDo7UIMUSwxvnWN/Anonymity-of-loss.html