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Market Makes the Mark

Author: Quddus Mirza      Publications: The News      Dated: 16 Oct 2005

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Imran Qureshi and Aisha Khalid are indeed the most significant miniature artists. Such is the popularity of contemporary miniature that numerous young artists have chosen this genre and now exhibit in the country and around the world. Imran and Aisha are the first among this league of painters who are engaged in revitalising our traditional art form.

Both the artists are known for their unusual approach towards the subject, technique and imagery. Imran has developed a distinct style, marked with a loose and informal treatment of the surface and politically charged visuals. Aisha has created a unique vocabulary based upon indigenous patterns and an optical play upon the object and its background. It has been hardly ten years since they graduated from the National College of Arts, but they have become so important that their influence is visible in several works produced after them.

Any artist, who has attained a certain level of success, has to deal with its effects also. On the one hand, it gives freedom to the artist – encouraging him to pursue new means and ways of art making. Yet on the other it poses certain problems which include a huge responsibility: the painter, who has become a role model for the younger generation of artists, has to keep inspiring them. This is possible only by staying different, original and imaginative. If that happens, the artist remains relevant to his peers and to the art world in general.

But success in the art world has another side too. lt requires the artist to continue producing a type of work, which has already been appreciated, admired and collected. Work that is easily identifiable as his/her trademark and guarantees future sales besides satisfying the gallery. In addition, the comfort of having perpetual buyers often restricts the artist in trying out something new.

Although, ideally, it should work towards liberating the artists from the constraints of a peculiar style – because if they are certain that their work would sell, they can experiment in whatever way they fancy. Yet this does not occur all the time. Instead the market directs, controls and shapes the production of art (even in our tiny and devel- oping art circle). Sometimes the presence or impact of market is not obvious; as it operates in an indirect manner. And usually the market pressure is felt or calculated by the artists, during or even before the process of art making.

The recent work by Imran Qureshi and Aisha Khalid (displayed from September 28 to October 6 at Chawkandi Art in Karachi) raises the question of how an artist can cope with the market pressure or collectors demands. Both the artists paint in Lahore, but almost all of their work was sold before it actually reached Karachi. Prior to the for- mal opening of the exhibition, eager buyers contacted the artists or the gallery in order to preserve their pieces. In most cases, without even seeing the art works. Mainly because they were familiar with their earlier works. The buyers desperation to own an Imran or an Aisha (or both) is a good sign for the two painters and the art world, but its a comment of sorts on how art is treated in our surroundings.

The urgent sales were a sign of growing interest in the local art – and its elevation to the status of an investment (compared to getting artworks from a dealer in London or a gallery in NewYork!). All of this showed a great deal of faith in the creative ability of the two artists, recognising their undisputed position in the contemporary miniature painting. Perhaps this kind of response was not a surprise for the artists. Yet, as said earlier, the enormous acceptance and incredible appeal of their artwork must have presented a problem for them – of how not to play for the market, and how not to disappoint the connoisseurs who were queuing up to possess their work.

There is a fine line between acceptance and total rejection of the market pressure, and one finds its variation reflected in the recent works of lmran and Aisha, which was not quite dissimilar to their previous works. Those works were indeed recognised for their innovative quality and unique formal solutions. Both the artists, working within the parameters and constraints of   miniature sensibility (and size), had managed to introduce unpredictable imagery and new ideas. Imran liberated the miniature format from the strict scheme of putting flat and pre-determined colours. His miniatures were full of painterly marks, expressive lines and objects, which are not associated with miniatures, such as missiles, scissors, thumb impressions and tailoring patterns. All these blended with traditional elements such as leaves from Rajput and Pehari miniatures.  Like him, but in a completely individual and independent way, Aisha devised a set of imagery that incorporated her themes of veiled women on a background of patterns. The designs on the floor suggested the female forms along with her position in the society. The subtleness in the choice of visual elements (like curtains and covers), and her intriguing use of the popular pictorial substance distinguished her from the rest of miniature artists.

It appears that the celebrated styles of the two painters have become a kind of liability. In the recent exhibition Aisha displayed works which reminded of her previous pieces, particularly in one painting that was a remake (Thank God, not a remix) of an earlier work, created in 2002. Although she tried to compose curtains in a different way to cut the page with a streak of red paint. But, generally, the works were a rehash of her own older paintings.

Similarly Imran Qureshis latest work is a continuation of concerns and imagery – of map-like constructions and loosely drawn outlines of objects on a sparse surface – as seen in his previous exhibitions. The new paintings do not reflect a real desire to investigate – formally and conceptually Rather, these are extensions of tried-out motifs and methods (with a re-take of his famous painting portraying his younger brother). Though one does see the artists natural ability of making interesting compositions and his flair for painterly mark making.

An exhibition is but one step in the long journey of an artists creativity. One cannot judge an artist on the basis of a single show Both Imran and Aisha have demonstrated their unmatched creative capabilities in many exhibitions in the past. One hopes that future will hold some surprises, both for the artists and for the viewers!