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It is a heroic undertaking in itself to grapple with a traditional and venerated art form like Islamic miniature and pull it into contemporary art. This is what the artists in the exhibition Minor Heroisms do by taking their cue from the art of Islamic miniatures and lending this centuries-old practice an urgent and timely interpretation. An impressive international roster of artists has produced new work that is neither small in ambition nor necessarily in size, and ranges from the intimate to the political. From life in the Mughal and Ottoman courts to Persian mythology, miniatures usually depicted the life of rulers, heroic battles, epic stories and magic worlds. Big stories, for big characters, told small. In Minor Heroisms both scale and the idea of the heroic are flipped and expanded. The works locate the heroic within small everyday struggles and instances of resistance that make up the larger socio-political fabric. This contemporary heroism is modest, often undetectable and does not always make the news headlines, for it goes against the grain of how our vision is conditioned and framed. Traditionally, framing plays an essential role in miniatures practice; it is a genre where the illumination is defined by the margins and borders of the page. It is therefore, as Virginia Whiles puts it in her excellent book on contemporary miniatures a "practice [that] needs to be read between the lines" . This is also the case with the works presented in this show.
Here, however, the artists move the focus of attention - stylistically and conceptually – to the margins or often out of the frame. This is not only true for the sculptural and installation-type works, where the relation to space already lifts the work out of its physical confines, and refocuses our field of vision. But also for paintings where the imagery seems to struggle to escape its material containment on the canvas in loud bursts of colour or in deceptive trompe-l'œils. The subject matter of the show too, hovers between the real and the sublime, creating its own – twisted – poetics that comments, at times softly, at times loudly, on a state of affairs in the world. This state of affairs comprises politics, history, memory, but also more personal issues such as physical and spiritual love, faith and devotion. The works in Minor Heroisms create their own imaginary where, more often than not, beauty, violence and struggle meet tradition and the present in a distorted reality that is compellingly seductive, as much as it is ominous and estranging.
This is well exemplified in the practice of Pakistani artists Imran Qureshi and Aisha Khalid, both alumni from Lahore’s National College of Arts’ Miniature Department, and prominent masters of the new miniature. Their work expands critically on traditional Mughal techniques and shapes it into a contemporary vocabulary. In his painting from the series Love Me Love Me Not (2015) Imran Qureshi explodes his signature take on Kangra Hills landscape patterns, rendered in his equally distinct Perylene Maroon red, onto the canvas, creating a medley of beauty and carnage. Love, here, is violent, wounded and fickle. The flower’s petals are spat onto the surface, rather than hesitantly picked one by one in the lover’s game of "Love Me, Love Me Not". The plant is left bleeding, in tatters, surrounded by its amputated petals and splatters of paint. Qureshi compares the movement of his – by now very personalised – lines to calligraphy, as if he were writing a narrative.  It takes incredible control to produce a work wherein everything – its subject matter, composition and medium – seems so out of control. Expertly undoing the containment of subject and form found in traditional miniatures, Qureshi has in fact exquisitely captured the energy, passion and destructive force of love. His oeuvre’s beauty is often a terrible one, forcibly echoed in his large-scale in-situ works such as Blessings Upon the Land of my Love for the 2011 Sharjah Biennial and his 2013 The Roof Garden Commission for the Metropolitian Museum of Art in New York. Both sites recall a scene of a bomb blast or massacre, stained with blood, yet upon closer inspection the residue of violence is made up of floral patterns and foliage. In Love Me Love Me Not, as in so many of his works, life and death, eternity and the ephemeral all come together hauntingly. This is also echoed in the very title of his other two new canvases for the exhibition, from a series started as early as 2010, This Leprous Brightness. Here Qureshi uses luxurious gold leaf, traditionally used on wasli, the prepared paper for miniatures, as the background onto which he veers into more abstract work. Unlike with traditional miniatures, where the field of action is at the centre of the page, Qureshi shifts the floral imagery to the borders of the canvas, hence opening it up . The preciousness of the gold leaf, which miniaturists believe is alive, and to which they even hold their breath when applying, clashes with the blood red foliage and splashes of colour with enormous poetic and visual impact. His canvases breathe out an air of infinitude, yet they resonate so clearly with the restive reality of our time, and more specifically the violent bloodshed that continues to disrupt Qureshi’s Pakistan.
In her earlier work Aisha Khalid explored topics of gender and domesticity specific to the Pakistani context, as well as the legacy of South-Asia’s colonial past and tensions between East and West. Her paintings, embroideries, artist books and site-specific installations often incorporate highly intricate Islamic geometric motifs. As in Qureshi’s, in her practice too, the insistence on aesthetics and beauty belies the critical subject matter. The spiritual has particularly for the past decade been highly present in her work. This has manifested itself recently in more abstract considerations and an investigation into three-dimensional objects. In her body of work You appear in me, I in you (2015), which derives its title from a Rumi  poem, Khalid shows three cube objects inside acrylic boxes, which protect and highlight their fragility, presented on individual pedestals. They are accompanied by a painting of yet another cube, rendered as a hexagon. Squares and hexagons are minutely repeated in bright green and black in the dazzling geometric patterns on each of the objects’ sides and the painting’s surface. For Khalid the cube is a perfect form and references that other perfect black cube, the Kaaba in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam. The small red ornamental folds operate as separating curtains, breaking the perfect repetition of form and pattern, "but" Khalid insists "not in a negative way" . Rather, they highlight human imperfection in the light of divinity and the beauty thereof. In this context, the colour black is not a dark force gobbling up light, but suggests that in spiritual devotion, as with any kind of love, some matters will always remain veiled and unknown. This is particularly striking in the cube diptych where the outer sides are covered in a black patterning and the inner sides reveal a splendid gold leaf covering. As much an occupation of space and time, these works are also testimony to Khalid’s meticulous meditative process of creation, in and by itself an homage to spiritual love. The repetition of the pattern instils a sense of comfort, peace and serenity in the artist during production, as well as in the viewer.
Another kind of love, that of the physical kind, is the topic of Dutch artist Femmy Otten’s 2011 piece New Myth for New Family. Influenced by the great 15th Century Italian painters Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca, as well as Persian miniatures, Otten recreates a dreamy love story that plays itself out on two perpendicular gallery walls. A woman’s bust grows out of the wall as a reluctant relief, her hands drawn somewhat misshapen, the line where wall and woman meet slightly messy. She wears her lover’s countenance on a medallion around her neck. His portrait is detailed, idealised contrary to her own face, elegant and angelic but scratched, unpolished, the torso surrounded by paint blotches as if Otten resists absolute beauty and perfection in art but attempts to embrace it in love. And yet, the work, ephemeral in its deliberate unfinished, fragmented state, where elements of the composition orbit each other in a fragile equilibrium, is perhaps the most powerful ode to erotic love. The winged mythological figures lend a fairy tale-like quality to the work that speaks of movement and freedom. Love here can, indeed, give you wings. They are connected to the main figure by a phallic arrow, which stresses the intimate bond between the two lovers. But who are the women in the two tiny portraits? They bear a striking resemblance to the main figure, but are these women all one and the same? Does an unconditional surrender to love alter who we are? Otten’s New Myth for New Family is not entirely naïve here. The other arrows painted on the wall are too big to be Cupid’s; in one portrait the woman’s face is surrounded by Indian fertility symbols, however, she has misshapen arms coming out of her throat, holding fish. Though not threatening, there is something off about the scene. If anything, it suggests that love always is incomplete, just like this artwork.
Also taking her inspiration from a Persian miniature, as well as Ottoman vases, Turkish artist Burçak Bingöl brings together a scene from a 17th Century Persian miniature with the recent political events in Gezi Park in her piece Unforeseen Resistance(2015). The original miniature, a tile panel in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, depicts a garden picnic. Vessels, vases and other crockery decorated with floral motifs are strewn across the grass, similar floral motifs appear on the figures’ dress. There is no real distinction between the opulent flora in the garden, its surrounding landscape and representations of nature used as decoration on crockery and garments. What is camouflaging or decorating what, and which came first: art or nature? All the visual elements of the tile dissolve into each other in one magnificent homogenised layer. In her project Bingöl reverses this process: her sculpture - modelled after a commonly used Ottoman vase - is growing out of its source material, a clump of clay. Is the object resisting the clay and breaking free from it, or is it subordinated by its own source material and imprisoned by it? It is hard to say, but the cracks of a struggle show visibly in the work. Gone is the flat surface of the miniature. Bingöl has bestowed volume and a sculptural presence onto her vase. Her decorative element is a controversial one: grass from Gezi Park. In May 2013 Gezi Park became the backdrop and symbol of nationwide unrest. Starting originally as a protest against plans to turn Gezi Park, one of the last green spaces around Istanbul’s Taksim area, into a shopping mall, protesters "occupied" the park in ways the gentry in the Persian miniature did. They sat on the grass, asserted their presence, held picnics…until the police violently broke it up. Soon the protest turned into broader demonstrations against the AKP government’s increasing encroachment on freedom of expression and other civic liberties, as well as on Turkey’s secularism. Fast forward to 2015 and the situation in Turkey has deteriorated on every front. The Gezi protests, like the grass motifs on the vase, left their indelible mark on Turkish society. The question of what this means in the long run is, like Bingöl’s object’s relationship to its material, an uneasy one.
Additional wry commentary on Turkey’s volatile political situation is further provided by Extrastruggle’s sardonic new work. Fusing humour and wit, pop art, graphic design and increasingly in the past few years oriental influences, Extrastruggle’s fight has since 1997 been with power and authority, more specifically with Turkey’s social and political agenda. For the exhibition, the artist has rendered a well-known foul-mouthed political comment, clandestinely recorded and gone viral on the Internet , in calligraphic script decorated by beautiful çintemani motifs. Found predominantly on textiles and tiles, this decorative Ottoman motif consists in Extrastruggle’s version of a globe paired with liplike wavy lines. Thought to have originated from Buddhism, çintemani represents power and is in essence a "wish-fulfilling jewel". This reinforces the artist’s double visualisation of the quote, once in its original Turkish and once in English translation, Bu milletin amına koyacağız/ We will fuck this nation over(2015) even more. Uttered by men in power, who wish to stay in power, the vileness of the words andthe delicate ornamentation collide, but also become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The profane is increasingly confused with the profound in Turkey’s current conservative political climate. The ocular motifs furthermore add a sense of being watched and scrutinised by the authorities.It is thus no coincidence thatExtrastruggle’s two sentences are presented in a style similar to Quranic wall plaques, often found as decorative elements in Turkish homes. It implies that everybody is affected on a personal level by the government’s power politics, but also that resistance and "minor heroisms" start with the self, individually and often at home.
Staying with Turkish influences, albeit from bygone times, Azade Köker has borrowed a detail from 16th Century Ottoman miniaturist Hafiz Efendi to portray the eternal tension between good and evil in her mixed media work Devil Tempted(2015). Using a distinct technique of applying a grid-like pattern of cut-outs against a photographic background, Köker creates a layered photographic image. In this work a detail of an Efendi miniature is blown out of proportion and taken out of its original narrative context in order to create a new one. The winged mythical creature, a woman with a griffin’s body, is presented in an oval shape, but cut off at the waist. This does not necessarily need to be interpreted as a violent act, though it is debatable whether the illuminating softness of Efendi’s seraphic drawing gains the upper hand over the darkness enveloping it. Indeed, upon closer inspection we can discern that the pattern of cut-outs consists of small skulls and that the abstract base landscape, too, is made up of larger skulls. In this respect, Köker does not only play with scale, but also distorts the viewer’s perception. Depending on where you stand - near or far – and from which angle you look, Devil Temptedwill disclose different visual information to the viewer.
The painting Hameeha Harameeha (2015) continues Hayv Kahraman’s research into the well-known 12th Century Iraqi illuminated manuscript, the Maqamat al Hariri. In the original manuscript the male protagonist is Abu Zayd, a trickster who wanders from city to city. He’s the vehicle through which fifty short stories on quotidian life of the urban upper middle classes in various Arab cities is told. Kahraman borrows formally (calligraphy, colour schemes and architectural references) as well as conceptually from this masterpiece and blends the adventures of Abu Zayd with her own experiences as an Iraqi refugee, who wandered with her parents from city to city before receiving asylum in Sweden. The artist has turned herself, or rather permutations of herself, into her paintings’ protagonists. Unlike Persian or Mughal miniatures, the Maqamat lack detailed backgrounds, a stylistic element that aptly expresses Kahraman’s deracinated sensibility of living in exile. Similar to the original manuscript, a literary tour-de-force, Kahraman’s version too plays with language. Hers, however, is the colloquial Iraqi dialect of a brief childhood spent in Baghdad, a language unlearned when at age 10, fleeing the First Gulf War (1990-1991), she had to switch to learning Swedish. There are similarities between the artist’s loss of home and language - due to violence - and the arrested development of the Maqamat’s particular type of miniature painting by the Mongol’s 13th Century invasion of Baghdad. As much an unveiling of the artist’s biography as it is of a linguistic and identitarian loss, Hameeha Harameeha draws on a widespread Arabic saying that translates roughly as "the protector is the thief". In essence a cautionary tale about trust, and about appearances being deceiving, this phrase was commonly used behind closed doors during the reign of Saddam Hussein (1979-2003). In the painting it is unclear which of the three women takes on the role of the protector or of the thief. Kahraman’s own heroism in this ambiguous painting is that she unveils a suppressed language and (personal) history without giving too much away. This is true for many of the works in Minor Heroisms that touch with modest but strong gestures on global issues without forsaking specificity, locality, and history. Perhaps most importantly, it eschews the anti-aesthetics of much political art, and reinstates beauty as a powerful narrator of the personal and the political.
2 September - 24 October 2015
Curator: Nat Muller