Art fiend: The miniature paradox

17 Apr 2016


Tradition & tension 4, Asif Ahmed
Tradition & tension 4, Asif Ahmed

The contemporary miniature thrives on contrariness. For educational grounding it adheres to traditional mannerism, and then dismantles the very same tradition to create a new idiom. To attain a college degree in miniature art, students embrace the venerable discipline and submit to its rigorous regimen in order to grasp the exquisite intricacy and precision that is the hallmark of the miniature. But after this ardent exercise of learning the art / craft, they eventually shift gears and create a modern vocabulary to initiate critical inquiry, and qualify as contemporary miniaturists.

Caught between the push and pull of tradition and modernity, the new art that emerges defines the artists’ stance and ability to negotiate these two polarities. Among the many that opt for audacious deconstruction and reinvention of the miniature, there are some who are reluctant to distort the inherent beauty of classical imagery, and prefer to play around it, or opt for minimal disturbance.

Examining and questioning subcontinental history, a primary miniature art feature, is again the subject of inquiry in the two-artist show by Asif Ahmed and Shiblee Muneer, at the Sanat Gallery, Karachi.

Examining and questioning subcontinental history, a primary miniature art feature, is again the subject of inquiry in this two-artist show

Asif Ahmed is among those whose fidelity to the original miniature mannerism is markedly noticeable. First gaining public notice with Banjara Nama, his 2004 thesis exhibition, at the National College of Arts (NCA), Ahmed has since maintained his technical virtuosity. A purist first, and a radical thereafter, his experiments to deconstruct or mix contemporary symbolic images such as crows, dice, and mousetraps, with classical images, have had their hits and misses over the years.

In this show his portraits and profiles of Mughal royalty are impeccably rendered, but their superimposition and juxtaposition with the skull, skeleton, gas mask, gun, and beetle images are uneasy on the eyes. The overlap of miniature graphics on found photographs of the last Mughal princes, Mirza Jawan Bakht and Mirza Shah Abbas (murdered by the British at the time of 1857 war of independence) titled, Bygone memories and All is fair in war and love is well-handled. But it is the standout, Tension and Tradition series, where Ahmed breaks fresh ground. Abandoning the border (hashiya) and book page format he plays with the openness of the pristine white sheet to build lively multicultural compositions in a vibrant palette of multiple hues. This animated mix of images from several famous traditional schools, and pointed use of the scissor and tea cup symbol, unfolds as a chaotic, prickly narrative of the British Raj and post-colonial power politics.

Shiblee Muneer’s multiple renderings of “distorted history” waver between the bold and the brash, the fine and the delicate. Calligraphy, portraiture, figuration, oriental design, pop-art graphics, cut and paste collage are among several stylisations that impact the eye in his dozen odd works exhibited at Sanat.

Incorporating and balancing different techniques and media, within a single frame, is a challenge he seems to relish and, most works aside, the juggling act sits well in the mixed media, Story of excavation artworks. A huge red painted pout smooched on a Mughal visage in Contextual problems in history writing 4 is another teaser.

Untitled, Shiblee Muneer
Untitled, Shiblee Muneer

Grandson of miniature maestro Ustad Haji Sharif (founder of the miniature department the NCA), Muneer has the miniature aesthetic in his genes. He has topped this with a Bachelor’s degree in visual arts from the Beaconhouse National University, and a three-year diploma in traditional art and design (2006) from the Naqsh School of Art. “His experiments in enriching strict cannons of miniature painting, with contemporary techniques to convey 21st century messages, are so brilliant that they gained him a place on the list of “Asia’s 10 Most Inspiring Visual Artists” according to the Asia magazine in 2014.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, April 17th, 2016