Nilima Sheikh’s painterly oeuvre embraces multiple universes, composed in a unique visual language that drifts between human journeys, landforms, and states of belonging. Her story lines conflate ancient mythology with modern history, using time phases as one element of a symbolic dramaturgy. Born in Delhi in 1945, Sheikh trained in Baroda, becoming connected to an artistic circle exploring narrative painting. Over the decades, her practice has maintained its feminist commitment to representing the many facets of womanhood: in the realms of the sacred and biographical, and as a laboring social subject.
The suite of double-sided canvas scrolls entitled Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams (2003–10) presents a composite structure, allowing the audience to move around a metanarrative form. Sheikh draws upon figurative styles including miniature manuscript painting, Pichwai cloth scrolls, the hand-stenciled patterning of landscape, folktales, colonial-era illustrated manuals, the writings of Kashmiri poets and historians, and the voices of Sufi mystics traversing a troubled land. This series plots the cartography of pain, grief, and violence which maintains a hold over the Kashmir valley and its people—caught in the struggle between calls for communal freedom and the hegemonic forces of nationalism.
The artist has described her methodology as additive, with layers of meaning interlacing visual and textual elements. She uses handmade papers and brushes that are painstakingly prepared, and has evolved acts of making that sustain threads of collaboration—for instance, with a family of traditional paper stencil (Sanjhi) artists in Mathura, northern India, over nearly two decades.
In her new work Terrain: Carrying Across, Leaving Behind (2016), the artist composes a sixteen-panel tempera painting that encloses an octagonal space. Its spatial poetics relate to shamiana, traditional South Asian tented pavilions where people assemble for ceremonies, theater, memorial events, and political gatherings. This fragile paper architecture brings to mind the temporary shelters that offer rest to pilgrims. The work’s pictorial realm posits multiple languages of movement and distance: migration, exile, transient geographies, and shared historiographies crossing Asia and Europe. Sheikh includes song and poetry as a performative mode of public address as well as polyphonic speech memory—as when echoing the fourteenth-century female mystic Lal Dĕd of Kashmir (translated by Ranjit Hoskote).
I’m towing my boat across the ocean with a thread.
Will He hear me and help me across?
Or am I seeping away like water from a half-baked cup?
Wander, my poor soul, you’re not going home anytime soon.