Success and After

Author: Quddus Mirza | Publication: The News - Encore (p.28) | Dated: 2 Oct 2003

The story of Waseem Ahmed is not detached from the large narrative of miniature art in Pakistan. Though the word narrative can be replaced with history here yet in the context of miniature in this country narrative seems more appropriate. Because the resurrection of miniature painting can be surveyed not according to the number of years spent in making this practice popular again, but the kind of tactics employed to turn this traditional genre into an acceptable, agreeable and ‘commercially viable’ part of today’s art.

Miniature is not just revived as a service to indigenous an and culture, but is in response to critique of historic art forms. A number of painters are engaged in ‘subverting’ the content, form and technique of old miniatures. But generally this type of critique or the examples of subversions are becoming clichés. And instead of any link to the history or tradition, it is concept – a ‘mission’ – of subverting the miniature that is dominant in many artists’ productions.

Hence a majority of new graduates from the miniature department of National College of Arts (under the tutelage of Bashir Ahmed) feel obliged in subvert the existing elements of miniature painting. The prevailing issues, themes or problems regarding identity, gender and ethnicity provide those means to create a new narrative.

Waseem Ahmed, who shows his work at Rohtas 2 in Lahore from October 11-22, is one such painter. Like others he also includes formal and conceptual changes in miniature painting. This is perfectly legitimate and should be appreciated as every creative person introduces innovations in age old art. But in the case of miniature painters it is the gallery that demands the painters to churn out new and subversive type of miniatures. And if the galleries do not request it, the market compels painters to make art more ‘challenging’. This practice of making innovations and subversive miniature has become a habit.

Waseem Ahmed was once celebrated for his meticulously rendered miniatures in which visuals from multiple sources or periods were composed in a subtle, light and occasionally funny scheme. The juxtaposition of diverse images in his paintings introduced a variety of ideas. For instance, the presence of Krishna, the blue God of Hindu mythology and the gorgeous figure of Marilyn Monroe in the same picture plane indicated a number of aspects of our present life: Of co-existence of East and West and old and new at the same time in this society. Similarly in some of his other paintings, displayed in his degree show at NCA in 2002 and in later exhibitions, the contradictory/separate elements were arranged in different settings. Such as the image of Mona Lisa was reproduced along with a pair of eyes taken from the truck paintings. In a few other works, Lord Krishna was engaged in an act of love and hunt (two activities probably not much different from each other) next to female figures in western clothes (like in a painting from the present show in which the Indian god is aiming a rifle towards a woman wearing a dress with a bull’s eye).

In addition to these compositions, nudes from well-known European paintings were redrawn veiled under a sheer white dress. All of which can be understood as an attempt to appropriate and legitimise, and own the foreign tradition and past works.

These paintings of Waseem Ahmad were highly admired. The artist has been participating in a number of important group exhibitions held in the country and abroad. He has developed a recognisable style due to its ironic tone, careful mixture of images and a high level of skill. He represents the generation of successful artists emerging after Imran Qureshi, Talha Rathore and a few others.

However, in the current exhibition he seems to be returning to his much accepted and acclaimed themes and methods. Thus in a number of works, female nude figures like his previous painting are inspired by western paintings clad in sheer fabric, fashioned as a transparent veil (burqa). This concept- and its set of images – had relevance and extraordinary visual substance, but its charm and meaning has been exhausted by its repetition. Still in order to be original, Waseem fills the background with layers of painted patches: a rare characteristic for both old and new miniature painting.

ln some of his other works, he opts for non-figurative visuals in place of customary representation of human figures. ln these, basic geometric shape are attached to each other with strings (like the way daur in prepared in Lahore during basant). According to the artist, this work defines the relationship between men and women. The graphic quality and minimal appearance of these pieces make them different from his earlier as well as the present collection.

This work, based on personal experience, is distinct on the surface, but not so from his usual art practice in terms of sensibility, technique and approach. One can detect the desire of the artist to evolve and move ahead from his previous pieces, but the sweet taste of glory forbids him to tread too far. ln fact this trait of sticking to his own past is connected to his teaching experience as well, which in an interesting way is not different from his tutor Bashir Ahmed at NCA, who could not apply his talent because of the absence of his contemporaries in the field, and his position of being a master.

Waseem faces an analogous fate. Being the sole instructor of miniature at Hunerkada, he hardly encounters any challenges regarding his work or ideas. That isolation has put him at ease, and the state is reflective in his work as well. The status of a master may be a matter of pride for him, but it does not help him in achieving a position he genuinely deserves.