How Shahzia Sikander remade the art of miniature painting

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In 2019, two Persian paintings sold at a private auction house in London for around eight hundred thousand pounds each. The paintings were illuminated manuscripts, or “miniature” paintings, and they belonged to the same book: a 15th-century edition of the Nahj al-Faradis, which recounts Muhammad’s journey through the layers of heaven and hell. The original book, once an artistic masterpiece, had been torn apart, reduced to sixty lavish images. The bound manuscript was probably worth a few million pounds; dismembered, its contents sold for over fifty million.

The dismemberment of the manuscripts is part of a larger story, a story of extractive patronage and the passage of empires. The term “miniature” is a colonial creation, a catch-all category for a wide range of figurative paintings that have emerged in today’s Iran, Turkey, and Central and South Asia. During Imperial rule, most illuminated manuscripts were claimed by private collections and museums in Europe, where many still reside in storage, effectively obliterated. (In 1994, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran had to barter a de Kooning to repatriate part of a 16th-century manuscript.) Craftsmanship, too, was diminished. When colonial schools taught “fine arts”, manuscript painting was neglected. Even after independence, Pakistan’s first art academy, the National College of Arts, emphasized Western traditions.

By the time artist Shahzia Sikander arrived at the NCA in 1987, hand-painted painting was considered kitsch. But, on campus, Sikander was introduced to Bashir Ahmed, one of the few artists with a legacy of craftsmanship. Ahmed had studied with Sheikh Shuja Ullah, the last of a family of Mughal court artists, and in 1982 he founded a two-year program in miniature painting, the first of its kind. Many viewed Ahmed as an outraged traditionalist, but Sikander sensed an opportunity to explore – and remake – a form ignored by the art world. She spent up to eighteen hours a day training in Ahmed’s small studio, learning all she could about the form’s original methods, right down to plucking hair from a ponytail. squirrel for one of his brushes.

The process of creating the paintings, which were historically commissioned to illustrate religious stories, scientific texts, poetry, tales and imperial histories, was meticulous. Before the illustration even began, the paper had to be made and prepared, the sheets burnished and cut. Tea has been applied to give the paper subtle layers of color. Artists would then sketch and outline their work, and pigment specialists would apply watercolour, creating varying tones with tiny brush strokes. Backgrounds and architectural spaces were decorated with arabesques, rhythmic patterns meant to capture the beauty of nature and God’s creation. Using fine brushes made up of just a few hairs, the artists would then outline the final composition.

While immersed in her training, Sikander also began to question power – how it shaped the world and at whose expense. Growing up in the 1980s, under the dictatorship of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, she experienced an evolution towards restrictions on freedom, the politicization of religion and the maintenance of order in public life. At the same time, the American military presence in the region was seeping into Pakistani culture, introducing anti-communist propaganda and the valorization of war. As Sikander observed this complex political landscape, the art of miniature painting presented him with a boundary. From a subjugated form relegated to the past, she was able to attempt to depict the tensions of the present.

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