Basharat Bashir

Significance of miniature painting in history and its influence on contemporary art

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In the Indian subcontinent miniature painting was considered to be a very intense form of art. Miniature paintings were phenomenal, and mostly dealt with unraveling illustrated stories both sacred and secular manuscripts, captured with minute, intricate details. The term miniature is derived from “minimum” and is used for very small or tiny. The history of miniature art dates back to prehistory, including paintings, engravings and sculptures. Most popular miniature paintings were from the court art of Mughal Empire, Persia and the Ottoman Empire. Miniature art flourished during 16th to 17th century and miniature poainting of that period was also ‘limning’, which included finely wrought portraits executed on vellum, handmade paper, copper, or ivory.

Earlier Miniature painting involved a range of materials from palm leaves, paper, and wood to marble, ivory panels and cloth sheets. Organic and natural minerals like stone dust, real gold and silver dusts were also used to create the exquisite colours. Even the paper used was special; polished with stone to render a smooth non porous surface. Then water colour and gouache (opaque water colours) along with gold and silver colours on vellum or prepared papers were used by miniaturists. Arising from a fusion of the separate traditions of the illuminated manuscript and the medal, miniature painting flourished from the beginning of the 16th century down to the mid-19th century. Later with the introduction of printing press and fascination for Western art forms the miniature lost its appeal to keep up with the taste of the court. Miniaturists looked for other subjects and experimented with various new forms, such as mural painting. Even though miniature painting survived these developments, it could not sustain its dominance in the art world. In the 20th century miniature as an art form was revived by artists who returned to miniature art form and created ‘the contemporary miniature’, which has strayed far from its classical definition and has turned into a dynamic and contemporary art form.

A section of contemporary artists is focusing on contemporary approaches to miniature painting that still references its roots in the court art of Mughal India, Persia, and the Ottoman Empire. It can be seen in a highly anticipated exhibition titled “Miniature 2.0: Miniature in Contemporary Art” curated by Azra Tuzunoglu and Gulce Ozkara in Istanbul’s famous Pera Museum. Forty works of various artists from different countries were exhibited to contemplate their various approaches to the art form, as well as to reveal the commonalities presented in the genre of miniature painting. According to the curators, the aim of the exhibition is ‘not treating miniatures solely as a historical works, but seeing its future potential’. The main aim of the exhibition is to look at miniatures from a certain distance in order to see them as a means of considering the world to be able to combine the past, present, and the future. The exhibits take contemporary miniature as a means of resistance to issues such as colonialism, Orientalism, economic inequality, gender and identity politics by using various media such as sculpture, video, textile, and installation.

The exhibition features work by Hamra Abbas, Rashad Alakbarov, Halil Altındere, Dana Awartani, Fereydoun Ave, CANAN, Noor Ali Chagani, Cansu Çakar, Hayv Kahraman, Imran Qureshi, Nilima Sheikh, Shahpour Pouyan, Shahzia Sikander and Saira Wasi

Imran Qureshi

A Pakistan based artist Imran Qureshi, one of the leading artists of his generation and a master of the art of miniature. Qureshi was born in Hyderabad and lives and works in Lahore, Pakistan. Qureshi’s work is firmly rooted in the traditional miniature paintings of Mughal court. He reworks the painting style to depict flora, fauna, body parts and calligraphic scripts. Disturbed by following bombings in his home city of Lahore, he added blood-red paint into his palette, splattered or delicately drawn in works that contrast violence with beauty. The use of gold leaf and red acrylic paint is a distinctive feature of his work. The luminosity of gold-leaf alludes to the celestial plane, in contrast to the vibrant splashes of red and ornate vine motifs that become symbolic of the vulnerability of the human body. For him, ‘the flowers that emerge from the paint represent the hope that – despite everything – the people sustain somehow their hope for a better future’. His work is admirable for a practice that combines local situations with a global viewpoint, artistically, socially and politically.  He got international fame by his drawing series entitled “Moderate Enlightenment”, which he created between 2006 and 2009 to highlight the discrimination against religious people throughout the world in the wake of 9/11. The artist chooses to portray people in private moments like doing sports, walking in the rain, resting underneath a tree, or getting dressed. Marginalization is symbolised in the subjects’ clothes. His works challenge social prejudices and culture in Pakistan, where clashes continue between the contemporary and the traditional. Qureshi’s installation “Seeming Endless Path of Memory” and video titled “Breathing” form a unique synthesis of the formal language of contemporary motifs, abstract painting, traditional motifs and techniques, exhibited together with drawings that were commissioned for the exhibition. Imran Qureshi has been exhibiting locally and internationally for almost twenty- five years and he is giving a great contribution to expand the language of miniature painting and preserving the history.

  Shahzia Sikander

Pakistani American artist Shahzia Sikander is internationally celebrated for bringing Indo-Persian manuscript-painting traditions into dialogue with contemporary art practice. She was born in Lahore, Pakistan and currently lives and works in New York City. Sikander is one of the leading representatives of contemporary miniature painting. She often incorporates the traditional forms of Mughal (Islamic) and Rajput (Hindu) styles and culture, and uses this style as her departure point to level her current historical criticism. Sikander has also integrated the techniques and forms of traditional miniature painting, relying on the layering of images and metaphor to drive her work. Similarly to her miniature paintings, Sikander relies on the process of layering to create digital animation. Her forms and figures exhibit a quality of continual morphing as transparent imagery is layered, providing a complexity with endless shifts in perception. Sikander’s one of her famous work “Parallax” is a three-channel installation made up of hundreds of digital animations. The work opens with an emphasis on the geostrategic importance of the Strait of Hormuz, through which forty percent of Middle Eastern oil is shipped, and continues, with the concepts of conflict and control as key themes of a period from the modern to the postcolonial era. The abstract, figurative, and textual flow that follows the animation adds complexity to the narrative. Six different poems have been written in Arabic and are read for the work, embracing a variety of topics that span regional/historical events to human nature. Sikander maintains that ethnic and racial identities are heterogeneous, not homogeneous, and that specifications like Arab or Persian, differences in cultural, lingual, and religious practices, and their heterogeneous and complex nature cover this up. “The Scroll” 1992, is a semi-autobiographical manuscript painting in which Sikander included formal elements of historical miniature painting. This painting portrays scenes of everyday contemporary Pakistani life, including rituals that explore cultural and geographic traditions. Many hues, patterns and incidents appear in “The Scroll”, identifying Sikander’s attention to small detail, muted color palettes, and understanding of architectural elements colligate with the intimacies of domestic culture.

Nilima Sheikh

Nilima Sheikh is a visual artist based in Baroda, India. Sheikh originally trained in Western-style oil painting and later moved to miniature painting style by taking inspiration from the Rajput and Mughal court painters. Sheikh has done extensive research about traditional art forms of India especially traditional tempera paintings like Pichhwai and Thangka paintings.  Nilima Sheikh’s artworks have ranged from small paintings evocative of Mughal and Rajput miniatures, to vertical scrolls rooted in East Asian customs.  Over her 50-year career, she has woven into her work her concerns with femininity, tradition, violence, poetry and national politics. She works in series and uses traditional materials, including tempra and wasli paper. “When Champa Grew Up” (1984) is her landmark series which described the tragic life story of a woman murdered for her dowry by her in laws. “The Country Without a Post Office: Reading Agha Shahid Ali”—a solo exhibition at Gallery Chemould in 2003 that took its name from an anthology of Ali’s writing—Sheikh presented a visualization of poetics and politics. The artist’s citing of Ali’s poetry, which focused on the contemporary conflict in Kashmir, reflected on the inherent conflicts between aesthetics and trauma. As in some of Sheikh’s earlier work, these paintings employed the syntax of free verse, with compositional narratives developing not from linear descriptions but from the flexibility of independent and layered readings. Nilima Sheikh features eight banners painted between 2003 and 2010 for a series “ Each night put Kashmir in your dreams” focusing on both the magical history and contentious present of Kashmir. The resultant multifaceted works, at once masterful and haunting, recall the complex culture of the Kashmir Valley, once described as paradise on earth. Her art practice of more than five decades includes works on paper, installations, large scrolls and screens, paintings, illustrations for children’s books, and theater set designs.

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