Pakistani artists explore the notion of cultural identity and national history through the style of miniature painting, attempting to revive this tradition.
Two Vienna-based commercial spaces Hinterland Galerie and Porgy&Bess host the group exhibition of contemporary Pakistani art “Personal / Universal” running from 6 April to 7 May 2016.
Curated by artist, curator and art educationist Aisha Khalid, the group exhibition “Personal / Universal” explores how techniques identified with the traditional style of miniature painting have been adapted and explored by individual artists who may or may not have been trained in this particular art form.
Khalid, who herself is trained in miniature painting, is part of a movement of artists in Pakistan that work for the revival of this tradition. The exhibition features seven Pakistani contemporary artists:
- Noor Ali Chagani
- Syed Hammadullah Shah Gillani
- Rubaba Haider
- Aisha Abid Hussain
- Ali Kazim
- Rehana Mangi
- Adeel uz Zafar
Khalid, who was invited to curate the exhibition as part of a cultural exchange between Pakistan and Austria, says that the inspiration for the exhibition came from the current residence of one of the largest collection of miniature painting manuscript pages. The Hamzanama, which was an important miniature painting manuscript commissioned and produced during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Akbar (1556-1605), is housed in the Museum of Applied Art in Vienna.
Talking to Art Radar, Khalid adds:
When I heard about Vienna, the first thing that came to my mind was the Hamzanama paintings which are in the collection of the Museum of Applied Art in Vienna. It is a very important miniature painting collection undertaken during Akbar’s time.
Khalid started thinking about relating that collection with the contemporary miniature movement in Pakistan and how the traditional technique has evolved over time. Khalid notes that with these selected artists she
wanted to show the extremes of experimentation and diversity within the medium – to break the Western idea that anything with a background in tradition is narrow and within an exotic boundary.
She hopes that with this exhibition she can present an alternative view of Pakistani contemporary art and the evolution of the traditional technique of miniature painting.
Playing on the word ‘miniature’, Noor Ali Chagani uses tiny terracotta bricks to create his work. The artist says he first encountered the red bricks when he moved from Karachi to Lahore to study art at the National College of Arts (NCA). From the grey concrete blocks of his Karachi he was hurled into the orbit of Lahore’s red terracotta everywhere, which has captivated him since. The work With One Another evokes his memory of the concrete apartment buildings of Karachi, Pakistan’s metropolitan and commercial centre, and represents the living style of a large percentage of Karachites who live in small apartment blocks adjacent to each other.
The colourful miniature wall titled It’s Not Enough depicts a common sight around Pakistan: a boundary wall covered in slogans and advertisements. However, through this work Chagani comments on a matter that rocked the nation in December 2014 when a group of terrorists attacked a public school in Peshawar and killed more than 150 students and teachers. The government’s response to this was to order all public schools and government buildings to raise their boundary walls by four feet in order to prevent such attacks. Chagani feels that this is not enough, as all it achieved was a change in the city’s landscape.
Syed Hammadullah Shah Gillani is the youngest artist in the exhibition. Graduating with a BFA from the NCA in 2015, this is his first show. From afar, Gillani’s expressionist strokes appear random and aggressive but a closer look at the graphite markings reveals meticulously rendered detail using the miniature technique of pardakht.
Gillani says he likens the combination of the two opposite techniques of gestural abstraction and detailed miniature painting to the existence of extremism (in a society or within an individual) and its development. Seemingly, it is the large and traumatic events that lead to extremism of any kind but to Gillani, it is the small insignificant developments over a period of time that give rise to radicalism – whether it is religious, political or ideological.
Using the miniature technique that she has been trained in as a point of departure, Rehana Mangi works with a material that is more commonly associated with the tools of miniature painting. Miniature artists use paintbrushes made from fine squirrel hair to paint but Mangi uses human hair as her medium to embroider meditative patterns onto fabric and wasli. For her, human hair holds a special significance. She tells Art Radar:
I have been collecting my fallen hair forever […]. I don’t even remember since when […] just as I have always seen my mother and grandmother do so. My grandmother saved her fallen hair in the cracks of walls to prevent the hair from being used for black magic which was very common in her village.
The artist’s miniature works are often within a grid like structure, which reminds one of traditional miniature paintings, but Mangi explains that she learnt the use of grids from her father who was her first art teacher. He taught her how to copy pictures by drawing a grid onto them and would buy portraits of his favourite movie stars for her to copy in this manner.
Mangi says that although the idea of fallen hair may be repulsive to some, for her it is beautiful as she has a deep attachment to it. And by using it to create something unique she hopes that the viewer can appreciate the beauty of it too.
Ali Kazim is one of the two artists in this exhibition who is not trained in miniature painting. His works investigate the human body and concerns relating to it. The body, to him, represents the personal, but is also universal as human needs and emotions remain the same around the world.
Drawing Project II is a set of drawings on delicate and translucent paper that Kazim did five years ago and it depicts the complex organisation within the human body in a two dimensional format. Kazim says this work was his first step in exploring the relationship between a two-dimensional drawing and its three-dimensional representation. He followed the set of drawings with an installation that consisted of intestine-shaped hollow tubes made with human hair and suspended from the ceiling. With both works, the artist explores the fragility of the membranes through his use of fragile tissue paper layers and human hair.
Adeel uz Zafar is the other non-miniature artist in this exhibition. His internationally recognised, signature style is that of artworks that depict well-known characters and soft toys wrapped in bandages. What makes the works unique is not just the hyper reality of the images but also the technique that Zafar employs. Working on vinyl, he etches into its surface to create the textural details. To the viewer, the black and white works appear intricate, soft and calm; the lines and hatchings meditative in appearance. However, the reality of creation is far from it as the scratching of the vinyl is a hard process that yields a jarring sound, which is in conflict with the contemplative action of repetition.
Zafar’s mixed media installation Among the Believers presents this contrast to the viewer through a recording of the sound created while he works and a book of photographs of the engraved drawings. Talking to Art Radar, Zafar says that for him the sound is not pleasant:
It makes you uncomfortable while looking at the book with no words and creates a paradox if you do not know how the image has been made. The images look calm and meditative but as soon as you start hearing the sound, the perspective gets changed. This may be an uncomfortable experience for the audience but for me it is part of life – not just in my work but also in the socio-political context of where I am living.
Also exploring perspectives and tradition is Aisha Abid Hussain. The artist takes the regular process of making wasli paper beyond the conventional: rather than stopping at the usual four layers to create a paper board, Husain continues the layering process until she achieves a three dimensional wasli.
She then inscribes it with text, derived from old manuscripts and her personal collection of old letters, revealing some parts and concealing others. Like that of some of the other artists in the exhibition, Husain’s process is also laborious and meditative. Husain says that
the purpose is not to lay stress on readability. I wanted to challenge the notion of reading and understanding text as text only and to provide a chance to the viewer to read it as an image.
Through her art, Rubaba Haider redefines the traditional techniques of not only miniature painting but also that of weaving and embroidery. She incorporates cultural metaphors from her everyday life like embroidery techniques, needles, knots and various fabrics to depict the fragility of relationships on a micro level. She tells Art Radar that she
chose to subvert these traditional crafts through using traditional materials in an unorthodox way. The simplicity and fragility in my paintings shows the fragility of relationships, and how a mere thread binds everything. Relationships, like threads, can be so sensitive that they break easily, and at the same time, it can be so strong that they hold everything together.
The exhibition highlights how, like other contemporary artists, Pakistani artists’ practices today are also linked to their own personal vocabulary, which does not necessarily come from their training. It can stem from their life experiences, influences and inspirations from surrounding cultures or socio-political change.
Summing up her experience of curating the exhibition, Khalid shares that while usually curators complain that the most difficult part of curation is to deal with the artists, for her that was the most enjoyable part of the whole process. Khalid, who is an artist herself, reveals that the greatest experience of putting the show together was in working with the artists – to see how their work evolved and how the work of one artist complemented that of another.
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