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Beyond Traditional Borders

Author: Quddus Mirza      Publications: Art review      Dated: NULL

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With change in circumstances, persistence of painters and market pressure, the revival of miniature painting has become the hottest issue in todays art world.

The much-acclaimed and hyped resurrection of miniature began in the early 1990s, with Shahzia Sikander being its leading exponent in the international arena. Following her glorious example, the ateliers of Lahore produced a whole new class of artists who are recognized both in Pakistan (and perhaps) abroad. This includes Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid, Talha Rathore, Nusra Latif, Saira Waseem and Wasim Ahmed. All of them have participated in numerous important exhibitions of miniature paintings, mainly held away from Pakistan. They are often described as the adherents of new school, with each demonstrating his/her individual style and method of approaching a historical genre – and making it a contemporary form of expression.

These features become all the more visible when their paintings are compared with that of younger artists. Their work is more conventional than that of their juniors in terms of subject, technique and material.

On a separate plane (and scale), the relationship between these two generations – older and younger – can be analogous to the practitioners of another art form, the contemporary Latin American fiction. Writers such as Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortazar and Manuel Puig shaped a literary movement which is now described as the boom of Latin American fiction. But after these authors introduced novels and stories of new kind, which became bestselling works in many parts of the world, the next generation had to carve even newer format for their literary pieces. In this endeavour, the second generation, conscious of the success of their predecessors, always becomes engaged in using literary devices, convoluted diction and complex styles.

The group of painters, coming after the boom of miniature painting, faces almost the same situation: how to respond or react to the incredible success of their predecessors. The work of this second generation will be displayed at Canvas Gallery, Karachi from September 4 to September 14. Curated by Imran Qureshi, the exhibition titled New Voices comprises paintings of 10 artists. They are: Aqeela Shirazi, Asma Khan, Ayesha Durrani, Fariha Rehman, Fatima Ghufran, Hasnat Mehmood, Khadim Ali, Maryam Khursheed, Sabina Zafar and Shehar Bano. Except Shehar Bano, the rest are either graduates or students of NCA.

The most noteworthy quality of these paintings is the spirit of experimentation. A viewer comes across fabric, xerox prints, photographs and glitter weaved into surfaces – mostly handmade paper in hues of brown or layers of white sheet daubed in brown. Many participants have rendered human figures and other recognizable objects in a highly stylised scheme that is much different from what their predecessors had created. This group of painters, introduced as new voices, seems to be reacting not to the traditional form of miniature but to the works of their seniors.

Thus the works in this collection offer a range of formal solutions and conceptual concerns – not fully resolved yet quite distinct. A couple of painters have employed a specific symbolic language in their art. For example, Fatima picks the halo from the historical miniatures, and instead of placing it behind a profile of an emperor, she puts it over a group of courtiers drawn as hollow shapes amid vegetations. Similarly Fariha makes use of white areas as well. She portrays historical figures of the Mughal kings and princes as empty spaces.

This may be a formal device for them. However, the act of deleting the historical figures reveals their attitude of negation towards tradition. Contemporary miniaturists – that is, their seniors – did not discard tradition, they only invented new elements. Their miniatures remind us of boundaries, size, medium and technique of old works. On the other hand, the matter of prolonging the traditional aspects does not seem to hold much significance for the new breed of artists displaying work in the current show This is reflected in the works of Aqeela Shirazi and Maryam Khursheed as they incorporate photocopies, threads and cloth in their paintings.

A popular theme for some of these painters is the amalgamation of Indian and western visuals or old and modern images. Two artists, Asma Khan and Khadim Ali, deal with this subject in their miniatures. In Asmas paintings, made in the form of a grid, various characters operate on a picture plane that is divided into small squares. Titled as Digital Politics, this series of work alludes to the computer imagery as well as traditional cross-stitch embroidery She juxtaposes figures from miniatures and old manuscripts with modern soldiers. The usage of pixels in her paintings helps in binding images from diverse backgrounds and period.

Khadim combines portions of famous European paintings and visuals from the art of subcontinent. A sense of unevenness can be felt in his formal solutions, as in the painting depicting Mona Lisa and some oriental warriors. However, contrasting visuals are blended in a sophisticated manner. This is especially so when compared to his other two paintings in which the drawings of Buddha and Persian nobles are superimposed on the Study of Human Proportions by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelos God and Man from the Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel.

A similar kind of treatment is evident in the painting of Sabina Zafar. Six works, painted on both sides of the paper are based on her fathers illness and death. A very personal and touchy topic is handled by employing a formula to concocta genuine contemporary   miniature. Like many other artists, Sabina also works on brown handmade paper. The selection of this surface is a sign of making a work that, although executed in recent times, resembles ancient parchments due to its shade and texture. On top of these seemingly eroded surfaces various marks are placed such as lines, dots and blobs of paints. In one of the works, she glues the dairy of her deceased father, and in another pastes an old family photograph in the middle. All these ingredients are of personal nature, but their application makes a precious and authentic work appear a rehashed formula – both as a historic object as well as a contemporary piece. This seems to work for a majority of miniatures produced these days.

The presence of tried out methods or recipes is so much evident in the works of the new miniature painters that most of them – including a few in the current show – are putting borders around their works without realizing that imagery inside the rectangle and design of the border do not coordinate with each other. Yet they are forced to do so, because this element can serve as a means to turn their works on paper into miniatures.