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Shahzia Sikander in Painting the Persianate World: Portable Images on Paper, Cloth, and Clay

Despite the mountain range that divides them, Greater Iran and the Indian subcontinent have long been in contact through trade and migration. Painting the Persianate World explores the circuitous histories of painted portable images from these regions across three media: paper, cloth, and clay. Showcasing manuscript illustrations, dye-painted textiles, and decorated ceramics, the exhibition draws primarily from the Smith College Museum of Art’s collection and also includes select key works from other local institutions, and is the first comprehensive project at SCMA to examine the Persianate world from a trans-media perspective. 

The movement of people from the areas today identified as Iran and Afghanistan to present-day Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh–and with them the Persian language– intensified between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries, forming what has come to be known as the Persianate world. The communities that arose in these places were not only literate in Persian, but also versed in the customs, literature, and art associated with the Persian-speaking lands.

Painted books, wall hangings, and ceramic tiles played an important part in binding these regions together. These easily moveable and highly functional objects conveyed depictions of heroes, dragons, and cypress trees over long distances. They forged a shared visual sphere that exceeded geographical and political boundaries, and transported manners of comporting, dressing, eating, story-telling, as well as image-making. Painting the Persianate World sheds light on the meanings that painting once carried and traces the afterlives of painted objects as they entered new collections during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.