SARITA KHURANA AND CHITRA GANESHDolley, 2006, video still, video: 4 min 18 sec. Courtesy Exit Art, New York.

Sultana’s Dream

Exit Art

Marking its 10th anniversary, New York’s South Asian Women’s Creative Collective organized “Sultana’s Dream” on the heels of such major exhibitions as the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s “Global Feminisms” and the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art’s “WACK.” “Sultana’s Dream” featured over 30 female artists from South, Central and West Asia, and was dominated by new-media works, all of which were collaborations among multiple artists. Although the exhibition press release invokes the celebratory mood embracing women’s art this year, and the exhibition title references a classic Bengali tale of feminist utopia, “Sultana’s Dream” functions more as a showcase of New York-based established and emerging Asian artists than an investigation into the feminine experience.

Among the works exploring gender politics, the C-prints that comprise Kuwaiti artists Fatima al-Qadiri and Monira al-Qadiri’s photo series, “Specter” (2006), comment on the rise of religious fundamentalism in Kuwait and the treatment of women there. A silhouette of a woman dressed in a traditional Muslim abaya—which leaves only the hands and face visible—is captured against the backdrop of a deserted television station damaged during the 1990 Iraqi invasion. These buildings, signs of decaying modernity, further shroud the figure’s image in their colossal shadows.

Mareena Waheeda Daredia and Sa’dia Rehman’s mixed-media work, Closer to Piety (2007), is an investigation into Muslim-American life. Here, three-dimensional re-creations of animal carcasses are installed in a butcher shop-like space and sound recordings made in New York butcher shops play throughout, drawing viewers into the macabre atmosphere. Quotes—referred to by the artists as “platitudes”—written on a wall within the installation stress the importance of observing Islamic dietary guidelines while living in the US. Though the work is visually shocking, its overall meaning is less intelligible. The emphasis appears to be on eliciting a visceral reaction from viewers rather than addressing the significance of these religious customs within a larger context. 

Collaboration (2007), by Pakistan-born artist Shahzia Sikander and Indian dancer Sharmilia Desai, also references the meeting of cultures, presenting footage of Desai performing an original interpretation of classical Indian dance and yoga atop a mat painted by Sikander. As Desai moves across the mat, she serves as an extension of Sikander’s vivid yet delicate images of dark, abstract lines merging kinetically into each other.

While the works included in the exhibition span a diverse spectrum of perspectives, a more cohesive curatorial vision would have benefited both artists and viewers. But in terms of simply providing audiences with a rare opportunity to view the work of an underrepresented demographic in contemporary art, “Sultana’s Dream” is certainly a success.