Throughout 2008, neo-miniatures dominated the art scene in Pakistan. In December in Karachi alone two exhibitions of miniature paintings were held. The latest one, showcasing works by Sumaira Tazeen and Tazeen Qayyum, was held at Chawkandi Art Gallery. Tazeen's work in appearance has nothing to do with traditional miniature; these are paths drawn with hair-thin lines upon which are made unrecognisable forms. She calls them paths which run parallel to her life.
Remaining very much within the framework of traditional miniature and working with the image of a dead cockroach, Qayyum, a Pakistani Canadian, has commented on aggressive global politics and the subsequent suppression of difference. Repeating a dead cockroach motif, she creates feeling of repulsion as well as attraction. Her current work borrows the language of entomology to explore how categories and classifications, used in archiving practices, parallel the agendas of political propaganda.
To express her point she uses real entomology pins and labels. The insect images are spread open for investigation. The labels offer significant yet vague text. Dealing with killing of people like insects and the diminishing value of human life, her work is visually appealing.
Besides other galleries, an overview of miniature paintings exhibited this year at Chawkandi Gallery alone gives a fair idea of new trends in the genre of contemporary miniature. Working with images of Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah and his sister, Fatima Jinnah and incorporating them with hoards of crows, Hasnat Mehmood's digital drawings, that have been worked on a little to create individual art pieces, are politically charged. Skill clearly prevails in these pieces but aesthetics do not seem to be of much concern to the artist.
In May Asif and Sobia Ahmed from Lahore displayed their works. Asif adopted a simple, humanistic approach on his vaslis by dividing the space with circles and straight lines and then filling the circles with flowers and faces. Various forms in simple drawing occupy other places and winged male figures hold the focal point. Sobia's vaslis depict trees and flowers with octopus like shoots running in various directions. At places one sees a female body entangled in a web of floral design.
In November, Khadim Ali exhibited his new work, 'Rustam'. His ogre bears horns on its heads. Some figures are all in gold, making a reference to traditional miniature.
Other galleries too held solo and group exhibitions of neo-miniatures, including the year's first exhibition in January at Artscene Gallery in Karachi. In group exhibitions held at IVS and Canvas Gallery, Karachi and Ejaz Galleries in Lahore, one observed the various directions in which miniature paintings are heading, signalling a clear departure from traditional themes and styles. The only exhibition of traditional miniatures was showcased at Clifton Art Gallery by Shahid Zaki and his students. In the trend towards modernising, to the extent of revolutionising and radicalising miniature by new graduates, the need to preserve the traditional format and imaging of miniature painting was fulfilled by Shahid Zaki and his pupils.
'Genesis 2008' by ten graduates from National College of Arts, Lahore, at Gandhara Art Gallery, Karachi in May proved the point. It was miniature only in so far as its vasli paper; the rest was all new in approach, sensibility, concepts etc. Needle and thread work in concept and practice dominated the show. Thread and needle work was initiated by Aiysha Khalid; Waseem Ahmed followed it with brush work for his labyrinths at Ejaz Galleries, and girls at Gandhara made it up to the extent of 'Rasheeda ki Kasheeda kari' (Rasheeda's embroidery). For innovation's sake, one of them used hair strands for decorating her embroidered vaslis. After Mohammad Ali Talpur's 'Leeka' success of multiple linear works in the West, new generation of miniature painters are also experimenting with lines, producing little impact.
Earlier in February Gandhara Art hosted Muddasar Manzoor. The basic trait of miniature is its small scale made with certain techniques, rendering it a jewel like quality. A skilled drawing master, Manzoor has worked on a large scale but successfully retained that jewel like quality on his canvases.
Canvas Gallery hosted 19 miniature paintings by Amjad Ali Talpur in February. Talpur centred his work on subject, concept and illusion with skills par excellence. He became the first miniature painter to enter Space with his ten 3-D mixed media works. His three-dimensional work is geometrically calculated and involves the viewer physically. In her paintings, Attiya Shaukat narrated the story of her irreversible vertebral injuries leaving her lower limbs motionless. She has painted with extreme delicacy, the four vertebras, broken tissues, ruptured spinal cord, a pair of forceps, a wheelchair, fixtures, the step of the ladder, a pair of socks in two bright red and blue and the belly of the ceiling fan, which she gazed endlessly while lying still on the bed.
One of the pioneer neo-miniature painters, Imran Qureshi's work displayed at Canvas Gallery addresses the youth on current affairs with extremely delicate, simple in line and structure, glittering with gold and a spirit of traditional miniatures.
The break was complete with traditional miniature on Irfan Hasan's canvases on display at IVS Gallery, Karachi in November. He feels free to portray object according to his senses and his imagination.
It is good to see miniature painters living in today's air and working in multifarious directions. They are occupying most of the space in art galleries, but the question is regarding the capital value of the produce. A large body like the pyramids raises questions of aesthetic value. Filling the vacuum does not necessarily mean satisfying the aesthetic sensibility.
Neo-miniature painters are struggling to prove their rationale. The element of stretching the mind beyond the limits of understanding is missing from their works. It has become a routine for students of miniature to paint 'statements', more often, at the cost of aesthete; regrettably, the statements show no affinity to the images most of the time. National College of Arts (NCA) is the foothold of miniature painting. Head of the Department of Miniature at NCA, Basheer Ahmed, although a miniature painter in the traditional style, let loose his pupils to go vagabond on vasli. In the beginning, it was new and came as a surprise; besides being new, the works were more within the framework of miniature and aesthetics dominated the surfaces.
With passing time and too much of it, the element of amusement and surprise was lost. The miniature painters became more pronounced in making social and political statements than artists painting on canvas, with fewer restrictions. It looked more a struggle to find a place in the new market discovered by Shazia Sikandar over than a decade ago.
Sikandar did not work with an idea to discover a market in the West. It was on sheer merit that she got a place there. Her miniatures were a synthesis of modern concept and traditional technique, thus combining the East and the West as well as present and the past.
The 90s introduced prolific miniature painters like Tazeen Qayum, Nusra Latif, Sumera Tazeen, Ayesha Khalid, and Waseem Ahmed who established new ideas on vasli without hurting the aesthetics of miniature. But mostmany of those followed have failed to maintain a balance between the idealism of traditional miniature and the intellectualism of today.