EXHIBITION: LOCATING THE SELF

Published September 24, 2023
Undying Loop
Undying Loop

There is a buzz across the gallery circuit in Karachi about the miniaturist Ali Gillani’s first solo show, ‘Self and Cosmos’, currently taking place at the Chawkandi Art Gallery.

Gillani graduated with a degree in miniature art from the National College of Arts (NCA), Lahore, in 2020. His work has been shown at the Dubai Art Fair this year, and is scheduled to be showcased at the upcoming Art Fair in Abu Dhabi and at the Indian Art Fair in 2024.

He is also already represented by the prestigious Sabrina Amani Gallery in Madrid, which is quite an achievement, given that entering the global market usually requires many years of struggle for most artists. Gillani’s world is currently filled with exciting opportunities, but these can also lead to one becoming consumed by the market.

These are all important markers for an artist, especially at a time when markets have been saturated with miniature art. Perhaps, this is a good moment to take stock and look at the larger context from which Gillani and other miniaturists have emerged and how they engage their viewers.

While speaking to Gillani, the curator of the show Nusrat Khawaja, and Haider Hussain of Chawkandi, I was thinking back to December 1997, when the recently graduated miniaturists from NCA had a first major group show at the invitation of Chawkandi’s director Zohra Hussain — marking the beginning of the neo or contemporary miniature movement.

With Ali Gillani’s star on the rise, he is giving miniature art a new lease of life

These included Imran Qureshi, Talha Rathore, Nusra Latif Qureshi, Sumaira Tazeen, Aisha Khalid, Fasihullah Ahsan and Amina Ali. That was a time when the word ‘neo-miniature’ was coined, and Chawkandi was the hub from where it took flight. In those days, artists would wait years to get a show here.

Almost three decades later, Gillani — who is also Qureshi’s student — has an impressive first show up at Chawkandi. The difference now is that the markets are filled with ‘neo’ or contemporary miniature, and that initial stir, shock and rapture cannot be recreated.

Is miniature art, as one collector asks, bringing anything new to its vocabulary? We are past the intervention in size, the transformation in the imagery, the distortion of traditional boundaries. Some people might recall Qureshi’s figure of a bearded figure in shalwar qameez and Nike tennis shoes, which has been copied to death and is a cliché now. Miniature has travelled, taken flight and stretched and stretched — and it is now exhausted.

We Don’t Belong to Each Other
We Don’t Belong to Each Other

Gillani’s quiet imagery dances its dance, oblivious to the baggage of expectations, and the startling interventions and experimentation that took the international art world by storm. I talk to him about how this is a challenging time for artists, particularly those specialising in miniature studies.

I am instantly drawn to the quiet nature of his compositions, which are skillfully and meticulously rendered in gold leaf, archival inks and gouache on wasli. I am in awe of his intricate linework, which meanders through the page to compose larger than life creatures, whose presence is inobtrusive.

A fresh approach which stills the noise, his work is anti-spectacle and allows the viewer space to meander. He is quick to refute the idea when I remark on the meditative quality of his repetitious line.

He surprises me by explaining that he works on the imagery while, for example, speaking on the phone or in between a multitude of other tasks. He simply paints what feels right at the time. What could be more truthful than an artist allowing his creativity to come from wherever it does, without questioning it or framing it with jargon?

We speak of the paradox of the presence of monstrous beasts against the large and quiet emptiness of the wasli sheet. He refers to the politicians who “make promises that mean nothing”, as we stand in front of the painting Undying Beliefs (2022). He refers to the intent, but not the meaning. These displaced forms float as graceful marks and sometimes disappear into blurred smudges.

One can sense the recurring reference to opposites, whether it is in the act of an intricately detailed figure from the Hamzanama, juxtaposed with free flowing washes, or linear marks that disrupt a traditional margin or the haashia. The imagery is layered and anchored in disparate locations. It is in the past and the present. More significantly, the artist allows himself the freedom to indulge, as he juxtaposes the decorative elements with diagonals reminiscent of Western minimalism.

Interestingly, Gillani tells me that, despite being interested in graphic design, he was placed in the fine arts department at NCA against his wishes. Chance brought him into the miniature studies department, where Qureshi insisted that he pursue fine art. Gillani’s paternal grandfather, Fazal Hussain, was a peer of Shakir Ali at the NCA. His father, Faisal Hussain, also studied design at the NCA in the early 1990s.

Unlike most contemporary miniaturists, Ali Gillani’s work is anti-spectacle | Chawkandi
Unlike most contemporary miniaturists, Ali Gillani’s work is anti-spectacle | Chawkandi

Here is Ali Gillani, also the art director and designer of a gaming company called Artductive. According to curator Khawaja, “Gillani’s floating figures are reminiscent of martial arts scenes in iconic films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in which warriors seem to defy gravity in their choreographed sword fights. The lyricism of his spatial layout gives a compelling quality to his paintings. The viewer is drawn by the ‘music’ of his artwork.”

She adds: “Gilani’s contemporary iconography, the Karg, is a monstrous, honed wolf, described in the Mongol epic Shahnameh. This horned figure has transmuted from a legendary character into a symbol for the inner demon of one’s nature. The recurring image of a dragon with scalloped scales is reclaimed to symbolise self in an empowered form.”

Gillani says that he has a deep interest in understanding religions and reveals that he joined groups that would travel to proselytise and convert people, only to realise that perhaps they “themselves needed reform.” He has been studying different religions in search of answers, and perhaps painting for him is synonymous to note-taking, thinking out ideas in a visual form or ‘composing’ them as he would a page of drawings for animation.

You see a rendering of Imam Hussain’s horse Zuljanah, amidst faint gouaches of sepia. Here Gillani is contemplating on endurance and strength, but nothing is direct in his rendering. As for its meaning, this is not the time to summarise. A journey that has just begun with an unusually strong presence will find its strengths and weaknesses.

His generation of miniaturists will choose, reject and alter their equation with the miniature. His is a new chapter, faced with the challenges of being interpreted, or misinterpreted, in the global markets.

‘Self and Cosmos’ is on display at the Chawkandi Art Gallery in Karachi from September 12-26, 2023

The writer is an independent art critic, researcher and curator based in Karachi

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 24th, 2023

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