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Miniature Makeover

Author: Alia Hasan Khan      Publications: The Herald - Fine Arts (p.126)      Dated: Nov 1999

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With contemporary artists taking the miniature format well beyond what is generally understood as its traditional ambit, the age-old discipline has witnessed something of a makeover. The work of National College of Arts graduates Aisha Khalid and Mohammed Imran Qureshi, exhibited last month at Karachis Chawkandi Art, presents a good opportunity to study the trend.

Far from applying the miniature technique to mimic old themes typically associated with the genre, the young artists use the art form to articulate personal, political and social concerns. Incorporating several elements from the miniaturist repertoire -in terms of scale, details, borders and the use of wasli or handmade paper – they evolve a language and imagery that pulls together several diverse artistic influences.

Aishas paintings deal with a variety of subject matter, ranging from figurative work to still life. Despite the inevitable visual seduction – how cans one dislike a miniature painting, after all – the artists figurative work lacks the requisite rigour and discipline. The imagery too stays “safely” away from disturbing themes.

In comparison, the paintings representing draped tables and curtains are far more engaging. Aisha gives a playful twist to the convention of miniature borders by bringing the pattern into the picture plane and using trompe-l oeil techniques to create an effect whereby the distinction between image and space is blurred. One particular series consists of geometrically patterned interior spaces with floating fruit-laden tables. Often mirrored within the same painting, the tables become camouflaged in the dominant pattern and are visible only through outline and shadow.

For her curtain series, Aisha uses floral patterns that cascade down the cloth into billowing shapes vaguely recalling burqu-clad women. The extremely “feminine” patterning, replete with fruit symbolism, reveals a prevailing interest in feminist issues. With titles such as Captive and Loss of Hope, the plight of women in our society seems to be an overarching personal concern for the artist. However, it is at times unclear whether the work is a celebration of femininity or a critique of the construction of “woman” in our society. The message itself seems to be lost in the exquisite formal rendition.

Imrans work, on the other hand, experiments with classical miniature formats within which he develops his own vocabulary. Using printed Urdu text, the artist also makes overt political statements in some of his paintings. The Work titled Missile Tau Missile Hota Hai, for instance, consists of reversed text with a line drawing of a missile. Another called Mem Ghar is a comment on the former prime ministers grandiloquent housing scheme, with the image of a lion – perhaps a reference to the election symbol of the Pakistan Muslim League – attached to an architectural element. lt is refreshing to see the use of specific political imagery in Imrans work, especially since most Pakistani artists appear largely unconcerned with what is happening around them. Indeed, if art is to be understood as part of our culture, one wonders if it could possibly be divorced from its social and political context.

Despite demonstrating a strong allegiance to the classical miniature in his choice of colours and representational techniques, lmrans work draws from an eclectic mix of imagery. In a painting titled Monologue II, the male figure is mirrored and shown holding two different puppets. Is this a representation of a split personality, a false reading of the self, or a metaphor for introspection? The “Love Story” series also deals with very personal subject matter while experimenting with visual conventions used in miniature painting and other schools of art.

Miniature painting is one of the few forms that we can safely identify as “ours”, untainted by what is generally seen here as the corrupting influence of the West. For generations, this skill has been learnt and used to faithfully reproduce old themes and imagery. What seems to have been forgotten in the process is that miniature painting evolved from several different schools and absorbed many diverse influences, resulting in dramatic stylistic changes over the centuries. Miniature art has traditionally depicted scenes that were contemporary and developed a system of visual representation based on highly complex, semiotic readings of colour, scale and division of the picture plane. So it has always been an extremely vital and changing art form which makes it difficult to speak of this tradition as something fixed or determined. It is in this same spirit of investigation that Aisha Khalid and Imran Qureshis work pushes boundaries and makes the miniature tradition come alive for contemporary viewers. Hopefully, they will continue to challenge themselves and not fall into the trap of reproducing a certain style for the market likes so many of our senior artists have done.