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Beyond Aesthetics

Author: Amra Ali      Publications: Dawn - Gallery (p.3)      Dated: 17 Dec 2005

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A point of view that emerges from within the context of the geographical, political, or the social, makes its impact as a powerful tool of artistic expression, In this regard, miniature today faces the multiple challenge of being able to absorb the baggage that comes packed with foreign limelight and recognition; to move beyond and seek the greater challenge of confronting the existing socio-political dynamics from a South Asian viewpoint. An even more complex issue is to see how far the structural confines of the West are to dictate this discourse.

Now beyond its early years of inception, the new miniature revival has manifested itself as a much sought after art form, having already developed a considerable “visibility” in the international market. If international exposure is considered a major criterion for success, as is apparently the ground reality seen in the urgency to take work out of the country without it being shown here, it hardly leaves us in a position to even consider aspects that may relate to the pertinent questions of authenticity and connectivity to the cultural environment from which an art form may be claiming to be produced. However, to paint the exotic so that the market abroad continues to be engaged as a buyer, could, hopefully, be just one aspect of the miniature, which can be over shadowed by those seeking the more innovative route.

Even though the supply and demand culture as related to the production of some art that may take place continues to flourish, the wave of new miniature painting brings with it complex questions which relate to viewpoint and confront the global order of socio-political and economic structures. A relatively new entrant to the field, Khadim Ali, who graduated as recently as 2003, from the NCA, showed recently at Chawkandi Art in Karachi. At his second showing in this city where art still manages to sell like hotcakes, the work produced brings forth many issues of relevance. The work is based on a book that the artist found in Afghanistan, in the training camps of the Taliban. Encoded with symbols and instructions to be followed, how to kill and keep the count, it becomes the source of reference for this series of works by Khadim Ali.

A highly charged and controversial subject, the artist approaches it with honesty that permeates through the imagery without having the blatancy that could easily become a trap when dealing with such an issue. On the one level, these are paintings first, with an aesthetics that combines the traditional wasli ground, pen and ink and use of text and calligraphic elements with the subtlety of washes; images and text that supplement one another in a shared space and framework, both literally and conceptually.

We understand slowly as we decipher the Persian which is a series of technical instructions for the Mujahedeen as they are groomed from childhood. The message is perhaps intentionally kept in the original language, so that the viewers initial encounter is with the elegant formation of the script, its placement and the Arabic numerals painted or drawn in red that become the visuals markings of space within the painting.

Images of destruction, such as of grenades ready to be blown up, sits comfortably next to that of foliage and feathers, in a kind of comfortable union. The artist intervenes to tell me that his parents are from Bamyan and that most of his family is still in those regions of Afghanistan which is in the stronghold of the Talibans. He tells me that there is a childrens Qaida (the Arabic alphabet from a to z, that is alif to yey), in which alif may be for Allah, bey for bandooq (rifle), and so on till the end.

Commenting on the reality there, Khadim says that his cousins back home tell him that if children were taught a for apple and b for ball, they would not stand any chance for survival. In that environment, which has been the experimental laboratory for guns and ammunition, there is no room for learning to read about apples and oranges.

Thus, documenting a people from their particular stand, the artist transcends the stereotypical and speaks with a voice that challenges and confronts. Miniature moves beyond decorativeness, and yet the decorative element plays an integral role in the discourse, on its own terms.