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Nowhere has the increased popularity of art from Pakistan been more visible than in contemporary miniature. Centered on the output of the miniature department of the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore, its leading figures include Shahzia Sikander, Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid and Nusra Latif Qureshi . These artists circulate within the international art world of kunsthalles, biennials and art fairs, and have been instrumental in staking a claim for contemporary miniature as an 'ism' for the prodigious talent that has followed. A claim buttressed by a number of significant exhibitions in museums across the world, often accompanied by authoritative scholarly publications .
This increased interest is not uncontested. Back at home, the popularity of the miniature department at the NCA is tainted by its commercial success. The attractiveness for students, it is alleged, is nothing more than new generations wanting to benefit from the platform created by the past efforts and present standing of some of the artists mentioned above. In short, it is pronounced (in certain quarters) that the 'miniature' has become a tag of easily exportable exotica for an international market looking to consume something that looks Pakistani.
Before I attempt a critical evaluation, let me give full disclosure here. As the curator and co-curator of several exhibitions and the writer of various texts on the subject, and co-founder of Green Cardamom – an arts organization that works with several artists associated with the miniature in one form or another – I am not a neutral bystander. But that does not make me an uncritical cheerleader. On the converse, I would argue that my close association with it over the last decade, has dulled the immediate thrill of seeing gifted draughtsmanship on tea stained wasli paper (a given for most of the NCA's miniature graduates), and has pushed me to distinguish between contemporary artists who use the seductive aesthetic or formal tropes of the miniature as a strategy for critically astute practice, and those whose practice does not extend beyond the displays of skill for retinal pleasure (dismissively referred to in local parlance as 'writing the Quran on a grain of rice' – great if you can do it, but what's the point?).
With that as backdrop, I would like to frame a few points on the contemporary miniature through the lens of an ongoing exhibition, titled Beyond the Page: The Miniature as Attitude in Contemporary Art From Pakistan, at Pasadena's Pacific Asia Museum . The exhibition explores the continued significance of miniature painting in contemporary art from Pakistan, and traces its radical transformation in the work of thirteen innovative artists (born between 1928 to 1986).
Like much contemporary art, the works in Beyond the Page operate at least in part on a conceptual level. Yet, for these artists, the work of the mind is never far from that of the hand, and conceptual concerns are entwined in the practice of making: the grid, for instance, is simultaneously a working tool, an aesthetic archetype, a modernist ideal, and a symbolic reference to the NCA's specialised training . Thus, the miniature can be seen as an approach to art making that marries craft and concept.
This significance of craft skills makes contemporary miniature stand out from the general flow of contemporary Euro-American art practice. The contemporary miniature is distinctive also in that it goes against the Euro-American conception of an avant-garde. Its practitioners innovate not by rejecting what went before them but through mastering traditional skills and then moving beyond them .
A third point to note is that while the artists of Beyond the Page have responded directly to the rich history of miniature painting in South Asia, only seven out thirteen trained as miniature painters. This proclivity of artists mining the miniature is not new, for Indo-Persian miniature was, and to some extent still is, a significant artistic frame of reference for artists from South Asia: a position not dissimilar to art of the European Renaissance in Euro-America . But artists such as Hamra Abbas, Faiza Butt, Ali Kazim and Rashid Rana to name a few, deploy technical and structural features of the miniature as part of their varied practices - from sculpture to photography – in a transformative manner. The intimacy of encounter that they all set up is an echo of the illuminated manuscript being passed around from courtier to courtier to admire: the form the miniature was seen and admired in its heyday.
The laborious work of the miniaturist is also manifested in artists' attention to the physical qualities of the art object. And can be seen in their intricate, laborious, virtuoso, and, at times, near-obsessive processes. Noor Ali Chagani, for example, constructs little walls and other sculptural forms from minute replicas of sun-dried bricks; Hamra Abbas makes pop-up houses out of painstakingly collaged printed paper strips; and Rashid Rana forms wall-sized digital images from myriad tiny photographs, each of which bears a different photographic image. In these three different mediums the artists mirror miniature painting's par dokht technique (akin to European pointillism) where the painted surface is created by individually rendered dots.
The exhibition demonstrates that artists no longer accept the strictures of binary choices: between the traditional and modern, between craft and concept, between local and international, between content and form. In this sense, Beyond the Page helps frame the idea that the attitude of the miniature has injected itself into much wider artistic practices. Or to borrow Rosalind Krauss's phrase, it has become the 'expanded field' of miniature . And miniature in this expanded field, in combination with other influences and concerns, has produced something quite potent and distinctive in contemporary art from Pakistan. Given all this it seems simplistic, or at the very least lazy, to enter into a generic discussion over the notion of miniature 'selling out' or becoming commodified. The miniature in its expanded field is too pervasive in contemporary art from Pakistan to speak of in this overarching fashion.
This is not to argue that all art being produced by those trained in or referencing miniature is terrific. There are plenty of Qurans being written on grains of rice. In fact, as the cottage industry in producing more and more miniaturists mushrooms, the skill levels are also becoming more variable. But in the works of youngest three artists in the exhibition – Muhammad Zeeshan's dramatic drawings created through mutual annihilation of materials (vigorously rubbing pencil on sandpaper), Noor Ali Chagani's terracotta mini-brick sculptures and Rehana Mangi's obsessive embroidered patterns using her own hair – there is enough evidence to suggest that the only limitations of the miniature are of the artistic imagination.
Curator, writer and co-founder of the London-based arts organisation Green Cardamom.
Beyond the Page - The Miniature as Attitude in Contemporary Art from Pakistan
18 Feb. - 27 June 2010
Pacific Asia Museum
46 North Los Robles Ave.
Zahoor ul Akhlaq
Noor Ali Chagani
Nusra Latif Qureshi
Anwar Jalal Shemza
Curated by Hammad Nasar, with Bridget Bray and Anna Sloan
Co-organised by Green Cardamom and Pacific Asia Museum