Modern Miniatures

DATED: 11 AUG 2007

In Amna Hashmis miniature paintings, details of fragile flowers, water droplets, wings of elves and fairies shimmer gently, bewitchingly, with delicate, pastel pigments going from light to dark in three out of her six paintings (gouache on wasli). The seventh miniature (tagged as number one) was missing from the recent show, apparently sold and gone before it had even reached the gallery. Some probable and mostly fantastical figures boogie from one painting to the next, proving the artists love for myths and legends. She is storytelling, elucidating on the magic and fear evoked by The Moon – the title for her show – and has the following to say:

“…the moon has always been there, ordinary yet beautiful, a thing of wonder to whomever beholds it. And with time, many ideas have become attached to it. These paintings seek to capture the various stories that always crop up in ones head, of ghosts and djinns, assassins crawling through the darkness, and minstrels singing songs, fairies playing in the gardens.”

Hashmi- a Bachelors degree holder from National College of Arts (NCA), Lahore (class of 2005), was showing her works at Chawkandi Art, Karachi, from July 23 for a week, together with two other colleagues: Abdul Rahim and Amjad Ali Talpur, also graduates of the same college.

Compositions from The Moon series in the three dark (Prussian blue) works. The Wolfs Howl, Ambush – The ghosts, and Ambush – Assassins have strong compositions but fewer elements. The lighter coloured, minutely detailed works, Ambush – The Kings Men (priced at a staggering Rs. 85,000) and Fairies Hour, have all the trappings of exquisite childrens book illustrations similar to illustrators like Arthur Rackham, Anne Yvonne Gilbert, Mabel Lucie Attwell, etc. of the Lewis Carrolls classic Alices Adventures in Wonderland or Hans Christian Andersens The Tinder Box, The Mid Swans, etc. or the Grimms Fairy Tales, including Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel and many more. As we know, all these wonderful tales were produced in the second half of the nineteenth century – the golden age of childrens literature in England and the United States. First-rate writers teamed with first-rate illustrators to produce these books. The industrial revolution led to advances in printing and books became colourful and affordable.

However, the obvious influence of earlier as well as contemporary foreign illustrators on Hashmi, including perhaps Iranian as well as Japanese illustrators, (Japans massive output of Manga comics, which accounts for an over-whelming forty percent of everything published each year in that country has become a global phenomenon), one is left wondering why she has chosen these themes that are alien and has not utilised her exceptional and excellent skills in developing a body of work using characters and elements from our part of the world. Portraying, say the Tilism-e-Hoshruba, the grand epic consisting of seven volumes (with one chronicle of the Dastan of the legendary hero Amir Hamza, which itself runs into forty-six daftars) Hashmi could find a wealth of themes for her miniatures. Those stories are also replete with fearless princes, who, with the help of ayyars – tricksters – fought evil kings; encountered and vanquished fiends, magicians and djinns and also courted beautiful princesses, miraculous enchantresses or parizads. The Hazar Aur Eik Ratein too, with its wealth of narratives including Aladdin, Ali Baba, Sindbad, etc. told by the witty Scheherazade, could engage the artist, challenging her to come up with innovative and contemporary interpretations of those stories for her miniatures. The other, more pertinent question is whether she is a painter or a childrens book illustrator?

Similar to Hashmi, who has participated in group shows since last year, Amjad Ali Talpur has also shown his works in group- exhibitions in Karachi and Islamabad. ln the exhibition at Chawkandi, he showed thirteen miniatures, each one priced at Rs. 25,000. He has a restrained colour palette, and each work is approximately 4” x 5” in size – almost all portraits in profile – that are made up with one inch by one inch tiles that have a somewhat raised body of their own. Some of the tiles are placed slightly askew like in a board puzzle. No wonder then that the title of this series is Game is over, providing a pun on the turbaned (in the style of the Moghul kings costumes) and helmeted (armoured, military costume) men in history who belong to this region, and whose time has been up a long time ago. But is it?

Talpurs miniatures, in the style of the badshahnama, are quite well executed but nevertheless repetitive and lacklustre. A series like this one could perhaps challenge the ingenuity of the artist if, while retaining the emphasis on portraiture, an evolving account could also be manifested. Neem Rang – the title for the works of the third artist, Abdul Rahim, who hails from Gilgit, personifies worship and pain in the form of man, angel, yogis, a starving Gautama Buddha – seeking divinity by negating ones self.

Rahim has done a variety of jobs and freelance works, such as working as an illustrator for an NGO for mountain womens development, or as assistant set designer for a fivestar hotel in Islamabad, as painter and sculptor working with army aviation, as armour and costume designer for Anarkali – a music video directed by Shoaib Mansoor, and a props designer for yet another music video, Na re na, directed by Saqib Malik. Since the last one year, he is teaching at the Central Institute of Arts and Crafts (CIAC), Karachi.

Rahims compositions are separated strictly into sections – mostly two planes, with a vertical or horizontal division: one being the celestial; the extraterrestrial space which man aims to go to for eternity, in which a large sphere depicting either the sun or the moon dominates the space. The other is the earth; the ground, the soil, the dirt from which man emerges and in which he has to return before embarking on the next journey. The artists vocabulary is limited to a brooding, reflective man in most of the miniatures, with grids, cubes, clouds, water lilies and other plants sharing these spaces. In Untitled and Pain his skilful rendering of the male nude is evident. Works such as Transformation, in which a yogi is shown sitting on the edge of a cliff, with lilies floating in a linear pattern in the background and some of the pink-coloured petals are airborne, connecting the meditative man with a tiny sphere up there, somewhere, interesting stories are building up. In the absence of the artists statement, I can only conclude that Rahim practices yoga himself, and transcending the inner self, harmonising ones being with what is around, are personal experiences that he is attempting to express through his works. On the whole, while his works are appealing at a conceptual level, the execution in some of the paintings is want of more attention to detail to hold a viewers interest as well as fascination for the theme, which her is just beginning to explore.