Art Radar looks into the origins, history and development of miniature art in South Asia, and how the art form is reinvented, reimagined and reinterpreted in contemporary times.
This article forms part of a series about the definition, evolution and impact of art movements, and why those movements are important from an art historical perspective. In this article, we discuss South Asian miniature art and its development and innovation in contemporary art.
What is miniature art? The origins
The origins of South Asian miniature art can be traced back to eleventh and twelfth century India. The earliest examples of miniature painting are the illustrated Buddhist manuscripts of the Palas from eastern India and the Jainist texts from western India. During the fifteenth century, influences from Persian painting started to appear in western Indian manuscripts, such as the use of ultramarine blue and gold colours.
Why is The Mughal School so important?
The Mughal School of Painting is considered to be a landmark in the history of South Asian miniature art and is the source of inspiration for the form’s contemporary interpretations. The school originated in the sixteenth century during the reign of Emperor Akbar, the first great Mughal patron of the arts, who institutionalised the first court studios. The works produced by the resident artists were compiled into albums depicting historical events, legendary and romantic tales, and fables from both Indian and Persian sources.
The Mughal style was a synthesis of the Indian style and the Safavid school of Persian miniature painting, marked by delicate draughtsmanship and supple naturalism based on close observation of nature. The style also absorbed western techniques such as shading and perspective. The paintings were traditionally executed with gouache and precious metal leaves on tea stained wasli paper.
Did the West influence Asia’s miniaturists?
From the seventeenth century, under British colonial rule, court patronage started to gradually decline and the art of Mughal miniature painting gave way to the emerging Company Painting. This new miniature style was dictated by the desires of the employees of European trading companies – especially the British East India Company – to record images of a foreign country, compiled in catalogues of exotic illustrations of flora, fauna and people floating in empty space.
What is contemporary miniature art?
Iftikhar Dadi, Associate Professor of History of Art at Cornell University, identified Abdur Rahman Chughtai (1897-1975) as the first to revive Mughal miniature art in modern times. Mughal miniature painting was only formally revived in the 1980s, when the Department of Miniature Painting was institutionalised at the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore, under the guidance of pioneering artist Zahoor Ul Akhlaq (1941-1999).
Zahoor Ul Akhlaq was a painter, sculptor and printmaker whose practice sat between tradition and contemporaneity. He researched into the many visual traditions that criss-cross the political and geographical boundaries of Pakistan. It is at the NCA that the majority of today’s influential contemporary miniature artists have been trained in the traditional miniature art style and have gone on to teach there or in other schools around the country. These artists have gone on to re-develop, re-interpret and innovate the traditional form of miniature art.
Where can I see miniature art?
South Asian miniature art rose to international attention less than a decade ago, when exhibitions in international institutions were set up to introduce miniature art to a worldwide public.
Seminal exhibitions include:
- “Contemporary Asian Artist III: Contemporary Miniature Paintings from Pakistan“, 2004, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum presented nineteen emerging and mid-career Pakistani miniature artists. Curated by Virginia Whiles.
- “Karkhana: A Contemporary Collaboration”, 2005, Aldrich Art Museum, Connecticut, United States presented individual and collaborative works of six neo-miniaturists from Pakistan, commenting on contemporary issues. Curated by Hammad Nasar, Anna Sloan, Jessica Hough.
- “Beyond the Page: Contemporary Art from Pakistan”, 2006, Manchester Art Gallery (MAG) and Asia House London featured site-specific works by eight influential contemporary miniature artists. Curated by Hammad Nasar.
- “Beyond the page: The Miniature as Attitude in Contemporary Art from Pakistan”, 2010, Pacific Asian Museum, Pasadena, United States featured fifty works by thirteen artists focusing on the innovative approach to miniature art, which went ‘beyond the page’ to a re-elaboration of the traditional craft in other media, including installation, photography and multimedia. Curated by Hammad Nasar.
- “Contemporary Miniatures”, 2011, Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery Modern Art (QAGOMA), Brisbane, Australia presented the work of twelve contemporary miniature painters re-inventing the medium to comment on contemporary subject matter. Curated by Melissa Kavenagh.
Many other solo or group exhibitions of miniature art have taken place around the world, and a growing number of artists are being invited to biennales and institutional events. There also are more internationally based galleries that represent miniature artists, such as Green Cardamom, Corvi Mora, Rossi and Rossi, Gowen Contemporary, Emerge Gallery, Sutton Gallery and Aicon Gallery.
Where can I find out more about miniature art?
The most internationally recognised figure in the scholarship of miniature art is Hammad Nasar, Founder and Director of Green Cardamom and Head of Research and Programmes at Asia Art Archive. Himself from Pakistan, Nasar has extensively researched and written about miniature art in contemporary times. In the exhibition catalogue for “Kharkana”, Nasar commented that
Pakistan’s young avant-garde artists are embracing traditional mediums. Rather than embracing the colonial attitude of linear progress, they are using tradition as a means towards innovation.
Art critic, artist and curator Salima Hashmi, previously professor and head of NCA Lahore, identified the re-birth of miniature art as coinciding with “a yearning (in Pakistan) for a narrative, a linking with tradition of some kind,” as quoted by Sara Wajid in an article in Nafas Art Magazine.
In an essay titled “The ‘Expanded Field’ of Contemporary Miniature” (Nafas Art Magazine, 2010), Nasar identifies the leading figures in contemporary miniature art as Imran Qureshi, Shahzia Sikander, Nusra Latif Qureshi and Aisha Khalid, all graduates of the Miniature Painting Department of NCA. Nasar says it is thanks to these artists, who circulate in international biennales, museums and other institutions worldwide that miniature art has become an “ism” for the new generation.
In an interview with the Telegraph India, Nasar says that “these artists have taken the South Asian tradition of miniature to new heights, and then moved beyond the page to invent a new visual language, rooted in tradition but of the here and now.”
Art critic and curator Dr Virginia Whiles, Associate Lecturer at Chelsea College of Art, University of the Arts, London, and author of a seminal book about miniature art from Pakistan, said that “the very tradition of miniature painting, particularly the Mughal style which is promoted as Pakistan’s cultural heritage, has become the inspiration for some of the most radical contemporary art work in Pakistan today.”
Click here to browse a short bibliography of publications about miniature art.
Who are the contemporary neo-miniaturists?
Among the most famous and influential contemporary miniature artists are:
- Rashid Rana (b. 1968, Lahore; lives and works in Lahore)
- Shahzia Sikander (b. 1969, Lahore; lives and works in New York)
- Muhammad Imran Qureshi (b. 1972, Hyderabad, Pakistan; lives and works in Lahore)
- Aisha Khalid (b. 1972, Faisalabad, Pakistan; lives and works in Lahore)
- Nusra Latif Qureshi (b. 1973, Lahore; lives and works in Melbourne)
- Faiza Butt (b. 1973, Lahore; lives and works in London)
- Saira Wasim (b. 1975, Lahore; lives and works in Illinois)
- Hamra Abbas (b. 1976; lives and works in Rawalpindi, Pakistan and Boston)
- Hasnat Mehmood (b. 1978, Jhelum, Pakistan; lives and works in Jhelum)
- Ali Kazim (b. 1979, Pattok, Pakistan; lives and works in Lahore)
- Muhammad Zeeshan (b. 1980, Mirpurkhas, Pakistan; lives and works in Lahore)
- Imran Mudassar (b. 1981, Gujranwala, Pakistan: lives and works in Lahore)
- Noor Ali Chagani (b. 1982, Karachi, Pakistan; lives and works in Lahore)
- Rehana Mangi (b. 1986, Larkana, Pakistan; lives and works in Lahore)
The miniature tradition in other regions
Miniature art historically developed independent traditions, also deriving from Persian miniatures, in the neighbouring regions of South Asia, such as Central Asia and the Middle East. In contemporary art, inspiration from miniature art is visible in the artistic practices of artists working in various media. Azeri artist Rashad Alakbarov creates installations out of scrap metal and a projector that creates a shadow image on the wall in the style of traditional miniatures. In Iran (Persia in ancient times), there are numerous artists re-interpreting the style of miniature art, such as Babak Kazemi who uses photography and mixed media. Saudi Arabian artist Dana Awartani creates finely detailed work in a traditional miniature style, incorporating Islamic motifs and symbols.
These are only a few examples of artists that are inspired by miniature art. The actual scope of its influence is far reaching, and countless artists are coming up with new interpretations of the style, a growing number of them standing out as innovative and conceptually contemporary.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
- What is Superflat art? Art Radar explains – October 2013 – Art Radar gives an introduction and overview on what Superflat art is
- Tradition and Regeneration: Imran Qureshi at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York – picture feast – June 2013 – Qureshi’s rooftop installation at the MET blends traditional Islamic motifs and techniques with contemporary conceptual art
- Revolutionising tradition: Seven Hong Kong artists rethink contemporary ink – picture feast – June 2013 – seven Hong Kong-based artists provide a distinct approach to the theme of classical made contemporary with Chinese shan shui painting
- Pakistani American artist Shahzia Sikander impresses judges of SCMP|ART FUTURES at ART HK 10 – June 2010 – neo-miniaturist Shahzia Sikander wins SCMP|ART FUTURES at ART HK 10
- Pakistani contemporary miniature art – overview on video – June 2009 – a video gives an introduction on contemporary miniature art from Pakistan
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