Is the open-endedness of contemporary art accommodating the new miniature or are the genre’s mannerism and vocabulary so fertile that hybridisations, instead of diminishing it, only seem to strengthen it? Variously tagged as modernist or post-modernist art, the contemporary miniature, undeterred by critical reasoning, continues to flex its muscles much to the delight of its practitioners and viewers. The recent Poppy Seed exhibition, The Karachi Miniature, a curatorial collaboration between Poppy Seed director Sumbul Khan, and Mahreen Zuberi and Sumaira Tazeen (who teach and formulate miniature curricula at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture and Karachi University, respectively), invites fresh speculation on its precarious journey forward.
As an indigenous art form, the miniature sits well with its practitioners and audiences not just because of its rich pictorial content but also its arduous training. The learning regimen, demanding devotion and determination develops and braces the students’ tenacity and working skills. For those interested in current expressions, this foundation equips them with the confidence to innovate and radicalise within a contemporary ambit without breaking ties with the miniature ethos. With some artists the miniature sensibility is so entrenched that even when the art is totally removed from its parent form it still references the miniature in essence.
Wholly contemporary in concept and idiom, Mahreen Zuberi’s Sub series takes its cue from the removal of the submarine from the landmark Submarine Chowk. Establishing a sense of loss of a familiar site and the disorientation it creates in the human psyche, she goes on to play with the ‘sub’ to reinforce the current state of disorder in society by placing it alongside a water sprinkler or a dripping hose. The cheeky humour soft pedals the irony intended. Employing a minimal and subtle design module, Zuberi expects the viewer to engage with the art on her terms. Similarly, her deep attachment with the miniature technique is revealed in stages as one ponders over the exactness of her rendition and the restrained, minute scale of her work.
The child (read: little girl) in Sumaira Tazeen continues to surface in her work. Introducing the concept of ‘miniature sculpture’ in paintings, she toys with handcrafted objects that remind one of dollhouse furniture. Titled Dur Kay Dhool, her three-dimensional arrangements in this show reference her earlier dowry box theme. A fusion of the conventional gudrung technique and lace, velvet and gota, the works speak of pre-nuptial preparations peculiar to this region. Gender disquiets, with a focus on issues concerning unmarried girls, is an ongoing concern in Sumaira Tazeen’s work which, of late, had been stationary. In comparison to a somewhat uncertain display of workmanship on her current theme in another recent show, she is now innovating with flair, finesse and confidence.
A humorous take on obesity to assuage the battle of the bulge comes forth in Hina Farooqui’s Size Zero series of work. Taking advantage of a Mughal era reproduction of an obese Baba Bharat Singh, she paints present-day prototypes (fat uncles) she encounters in her daily urban environment. Working in gudrung and cyanotype on wasli, she brings a similar mix of the old and the new to her technique.
Specifically painting/photographing intimate home interiors to evoke an aura of silence and communion with the self, Madiha Suboor’s work is a combination of digital print and gouache on vasli. The reference to the miniature is in the technicalities alone.
Following the Sufi trail, Malika Abbas centralises on the shrine as a haven in her miniatures. Her paintings on wasli, along with gouache and hand-painted photographic renditions focusing on Sachal Sarmast’s tomb in Fakhir Jo Goth in Khairpur village in interior Sindh, are imaginary narratives glorifying the Sufi ‘silsila’ and devotional sentiments. The scale and the kind of media that is used are the only indirect links to the original miniature.
A wrist watch mechanism is as technically precise and intricate as a miniature painting. Building on this equation, Nosheen Iqbal sculpts delightfully minute profiles of royalty from the Mughal era and related imagery out of mechanical components like computer chips, discs, snaps, clock and wrist watch screws, tacks, rivets, studs, clips and fasteners. Novel as well as contemporary, this interpretation plants miniature aesthetics right into the heart of the mechanical age.
Painting portraits of ordinary people onto the heads of pawns on a chessboard to highlight the exploitation of the masses enables Raheela Abro to justify her commitment to the spirit of the miniature. Fariha Nader’s Tanao comes across as an implosion within the miniature genre – a symbolic manifestation of upheaval within the discipline.
Ironically, in the Karachi Miniature, the body of work is not entirely city specific – other than Zuberi, most artists have focused on art in an urban environment. The effort to capture the Karachi temperament is missing. Likewise the miniature philosophy is unevenly distributed: some artworks purport a genuine will to contemporise the genre while others seem to be stretching the sentiment.
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