Miniature Marvels


It was refreshing to see the husband and wife pair of Aisha Khalid and Imran Qureshi exhibiting their work together at Corvi-Mora Gallery in London from July 10 to August 4. There was a harmony and complimentary aspect to the work. Readings were both outward and inward looking.

Both artists managed to transform the miniature by catapulting it into a contemporary world. Or perhaps it was that the contemporary world and all its issues: women`s freedom, nuclear arms, love (freedom, love and war), fitted into the vision of Pakistani painters, devising new forms of representation and redefining readings of the tradition of miniature painting.

The tradition of Mughal miniature painting was prevalent in 16th to 19th century India, where it was largely seen as an elaborate tool for historic and social documentation of the splendours of the age. lts development was made possible through the continued patronage of the ruling emperors of the Mughal court.

The Rajasthani style of painting flourished simultaneously, and its subject matter was often based on Hindu mythology, legend and religion – the life of Krishna. Often more secular subject matter, such as that of sport, hunting, and dance, were represented by this style.

Having seen the work by Aisha Khalid and Imran Qureshi and The Fresh Art Fair of Contemporary European Work in the same week, it became hard to compare it to the current art scene in London, where idea-led concepts often lead to seemingly far less involved and painstaking work. Walking into Corvi-Mora, a small but pristine white-walled cube, there were total of eight pieces. Both Imran Qureshi and Ayesha Khalid have been trained and have taught at the National College of Art in Lahore, and with a host of exhibitions worldwide, it was a pleasure that London got a look in.

Leafing through the delicately detailed pages of Aisha Khalids Birth of Venus, a bound volume of wasli (the arduously hand-made paper upon which miniatures have traditionally been painted), one got the feeling we were being let onto a secret. Aisha presented us with a world of veils; curtains, domestic interiors and flowers. For the London audience, these served as symbols of a culture of a faraway mysterious world, yet their everydayness was timeless. Her choice of intense, bright colour and the flatness of the work emphasised the pattern and ornament, It was almost as if the elaborate borders of the Mughal miniatures had been subverted and turned inwards on themselves to become the piece; in a sort of anti-decoration. On first viewing the highly patterned and meticulously executed surfaces; the western audience will often make connections with the formal decorative arts of Islam. Yet, these works were more like theatrical stage sets, again, the curtain veiling some kind of drama; a subtle, quiet domestic drama: that spoke of the role of women in the home. A solitary flower with a clump of earth was placed, in a somewhat forlorn manner, in the centre of a room. lt seemed to dance as if animated.

There was something childlike in these highly designed works. An innocence exuded from the strength of the geometry of these pieces, and with it an atmosphere of wistful romance.

The miniatures of Imran Qureshi showed the most remarkable technical assurance. His skill in combining elements of nature with politics yet playfulness in the work on show at Corvi-Mora had been nurtured for years through the discipline of mastering the technique of miniature painting.

One of the most striking features of Qureshis work was how wonderfully tactile the painstakingly prepared surfaces on which he painted were. Newsprint constitutes the calligraphic borders to some of these pieces, and the central painting surface to others. The over painting of the common calligraphy of newsprint being a far cry away from the revered status of the Islamic art of calligraphy during the time of General Ziaul Haq. The layers upon the wasli each added something rich to his work. Even the masking tape served as a surface for expression. Oddly these subtle, tiny works were reminiscent of the bold and equally remarkable work of Howard Hodgkin, a British painter/colourist, who is himself influenced strongly by miniature painting. They were linked in their powerful tactility and the ambiguity of the moments which they presented. Qureshis Missiles in series were presented in boxes. Handling these precious objects was an awe-inspiring experience first in the technique, and then in deciphering the meanings. These drawings of nuclear missiles in various forms, intertwined with the natural forms of highly decorative bushes and flowers alluded to sensitive political events, yet they were handled sensitively He built up a loose narrative composed of subtle symbols and signs from many ages, culminating in a feel to the work of his own environment and world.

Overall, there was a tender treatment of all the imagery in Qureshis work; all prepared with love, and this was what one of the underlying themes of this exhibition seemed to be. It will be interesting to follow the development of these artists in the face of rapid shifts in their immediate environment.

There was a distinct division of masculine and feminine, an interesting insight into the mindsets of the husband and wife pair, who seems to have become something of a team and force to be reckoned with in the art world. Indoors versus outdoors, nature versus domesticity and the man made. Gender, Love and war. All big themes for a tiny exhibition.

There was a distinct division of masculine and feminine, an interesting insight into the mindsets of the husband and wife pair, who seems to have become something of a team and force to be reckoned with. Indoors versus outdoors, nature versus domesticity and the man-made. Gender Love and war.