Epic Miniatures: Contemporary Pakistani Miniaturist Techniques

October 15th, 2011  |  Published in October 2011

Saira Wasim, We Love to See You Smile, 2010

The Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art is on a roll.  Coming off the success of their Keith Haring exhibition, Realms of Intimacy:  Miniaturist Practice from Pakistan, is yet another visually compelling and conceptually astute exhibition.  Close reading of the title no doubt echoes curator Justine Ludwig’s major point:  the traditional practice of miniature creation is applied to contemporary non-miniature works.  And as demonstrated by artists like Ambreen Butt in Realms of Intimacy, the effect can be equal parts begging for close inspection and stepping back for the gestalt.

Place is an influence on all five artists and, although the miniaturist practice is associated with the city, the location in question here isn’t always Pakistan.  Each artist—the aforementioned Butt who is based in Massachusetts, Faiza Butt (London), Imran Qureshi (the only of the five who remains in Pakistan), Nusra Qureshi (Australia), and Saira Wasim (Chicago)—addresses the “political, social and cultural realities of their new homes” using the language of the traditional miniature.  A bit of background on the miniature practice and the college all of the aforementioned artists attended, are worth mentioning.

Miniature painting in Pakistan began during the Mughal Empire, which reigned over much of the Indian continent as well as Central Asia for several centuries.  Remaining wary of History’s rose-colored glasses, prior to the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 an Indo-Muslim fusion of languages, art, and culture allowed for hybridization.  Because of the transient nature of the nomadic Mughals, the practice of miniatures was necessarily a blended endeavor—in material use, iconography, and language—yet it remained small in scale. The National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan (NCA) is the only college in the world to offer a bachelor’s degree in the techniques and history of miniature painting[1] and owing much to the work of artists from NCA who are pushing the boundaries of miniature creation, the artistic practice is currently enjoying a renaissance.

Realms of Intimacy is on the fourth and fifth floor of the CAC, and whether you come up the stairs or take the elevator, chances are you’ll notice immediately that this is not a “miniature” show.  The strongest work is on this first level, but each artist employs the visual language of the miniature (whether in use of materials like gouache & gold leaf, or techniques like par dokht) in captivating ways.  On the northernmost wall, Ambreen Butt’s installation of feather-light scarlet cast resin digits radiate in fourteen full and semi-circles.  Just the tips and sides of fingers and toes are arranged in a kind of fireworks motif—radiating from the middle and resembling a fuzzy explosion of bright color on the white walls. Visitors to Realms will find themselves doing the “art shuffle”:  approach the wall for close inspection, back up to get the broader picture, [repeat as needed.

The same can be said for Ambreen Butt’s I am the rejection of you (2011), and her work is perhaps the strongest in the exhibition.  Her tea stained paper collage of typeface in concentric circles is staggering.  The patience and careful attention to detail required to create such a large piece is impressive and no doubt owes much to her miniaturist training.  Words are chopped up mid-point and few are legible.  The phrases that do remain intact are “P.P.S.  Please don’t be discouraged!” and “30 years!” which are the only words not in black typeface but reproductions of handwritten text in pink typeface.  One might assume that in their dissimilarity the artist underscores the words’ meaning, and Butt’s works throughout Realms includes text that is both visible and otherwise.

Imran Qureshi’s diptych, Blessings upon the land of my love (2010) is emblematic of the artist’s status as one of Pakistan’s foremost contemporary artists.  The sole male in the show and an instructor at NCA, his current work reflects his recent experience witnessing a suicide bombing in a marketplace in Lahore.  Each of Imran Qureshi’s pieces alludes to the factionist state of contemporary society in his home, and there is a tangible feeling of a battle being waged within.  In Blessings, Qureshi’s diptych is a double-decker opaque watercolor on wasli (handmade rag paper—a common medium for many of these miniaturists,) that resembles Morse or computer code in light grey on top, with bright red splotches of what looks to be blood on the bottom half.  Upon closer scrutiny, the drips are revealed as delicately detailed buta (or the repeated tear-drop pattern associated with Persian paisley) painted in red and white on top, and they almost resemble ripe strawberries.  The effect is unnerving, as one searches for some meaning in the grotesque beauty.

Many of Imran Qureshi’s pieces reference this battle between life and death.  Another diptych, this time arranged horizontally, is a gouache on paper piece entitled The opening word of this new scripture (2010).   The work is set on the floor under Plexiglas cases, and it looks like a colorful water stain/Rorschach test in red on one side and blue on the other (a motif the artist often uses in his work—perhaps to signify opposing factions,) and the same tonal & white meticulously detailed buta throughout. The opening word… is supposedly best viewed from above—although this wasn’t clear to me when I visited—and Qureshi is known for his installation work (something atypical of miniaturist practice.)  It would have been exciting to see a site-specific installation from the artist at the CAC, but given the current state of Pakistani political affairs, travel restrictions are a likely culprit for keeping the artist from leaving his home.

Faiza Butt’s works are also a reflection of the political realities of her home, and images of the three Pakistani bombers from the 2005 London bombing are the subject of Is this the Man (4, 5, & 6), (2011).  Her ink and acrylic on polyester film lightboxes are a study in contrasts.   The artist employs par dokht technique (a kind of pointillism used in miniaturist works) with oversized contemporary materials, and the mug shots of the three bombers are swathed in a bright fuchsia on fuchsia polka dotted background.  It is this kind of disparity of image and meaning that is so compelling about Butt’s works.

Zaveer Zangeer (the Ornate Shackles) (2011) is another overtly political lightbox (listed as such, but not lit when I visited) by Faiza Butt.  Butt writes the words of Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poem (the same as the piece’s title) in Urdu on one side and in English on the other, with such unexpected objects as crumbled fast food wrappers, bones, cigarette butts, and weapons of torture.  Again, the viewer is obliged to look closely at every letter to see what composes each, as well as read the text remotely.  Faiz’s poem “perhaps a tearful eye is not enough. Nor even a tortured soul.  Perhaps it is not enough secretly to bear the accusation of loving.  Then let us walk the streets today with fettered feet…” is a powerful implication of the viewer, and the images of garbage and weapons used to create the text is likewise politically charged.

Nusra Qureshi’s How Did Things Get to This Point? (2011) is just one of five mixed-media on illustration board diptychs by the artist—some of the smallest works in the entire exhibition—and hers are the most traditionally “miniaturist” within Realms.  Based in Australia, her wall text states that “these pieces often address the role of women and the physical demands placed on them—to bear children, to be a temptress, to be a sage,” so (as an avowed Feminist,) I had high expectations.   Qureshi’s diversion from miniature tradition is a minimal color palette and use of outline instead of the typically rich detail of the epic miniature, but I’m not sure her work succeeds in addressing such lofty goals.  While the women outlined in her work consist of overlapping multiples (perhaps an insinuation of the complexity of gender,) it remains unclear how the artist might be calling into question the role of women.

Saira Wasim’s paintings have been compared to political cartoons, and her use of Western imagery reflects her current home base in Chicago.  Precious in detail (no doubt a reflection of her miniaturist training) Wasim’s use of gouache and gold leaf on wasli are visually stunning and politically loaded.  Ronald McDonald is depicted in three of the paintings and they are too big to be considered miniature but not nearly as oversized as some of the other pieces within Realms.

We love to see you smile (2010) is just one example of her critique of Western culture.  In it, Wasim depicts the famous clown standing on the backs of a Japanese Geisha, (French?) mime, and a man wearing shackles and the traditional red and white Palestinian shemagh headscarf—an obvious indictment of the fast food chain’s encroachment in non-Western lands.  Ronald releases doves on the right side, and playfully fires shots from his fingers on the left, while seemingly oblivious to those under his feet.  Wasim’s use of miniature materials and attention to fine detail contrasts with the subject matter—imbuing her work with the kind of hybridization that made Mughal miniaturist practice so appealing to artists and collectors for centuries.

Realms of Intimacy is a sprawling exhibition; one that takes a good deal of time to fully absorb, and I found myself going back several times to reconsider works.  Although artists might not always search for creating meaning via their art, the beauty of Realms is that so many of the pieces succeed in being both conceptually and visually compelling—appealing to both the senses as well as the mind.  Limitations of location and use of materials create paradigms within which these artists are forced to create and many transcend the boundaries of their miniaturist practice.  Let’s hope & encourage the CAC to continue to showcase such topically relevant artists who do not set limits on their own artistic praxis.

Realms of Intimacy:  Miniaturist Practice from Pakistan runs at the Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art until January 22, 2012.

– Maria Seda-Reeder 

[1] “Gilded Demons” Jemima Montagu, May 1, 2009

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