In the assemblage of Chelsea’s marketable ‘hipness’—converted factory buildings, reformed garages, carefully lit coffee shops and brick-and-glass caverns—lies Sundaram Tagore gallery, a space committed to “examining the exchange of ideas between Western and non-Western cultures.” Its latest show is Olivia Fraser’s The Sacred Garden. The title of the show recalls Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel The Secret Garden, about a young girl born in colonial India who is relocated to her uncle’s Yorkshire manor after her parents and their servants are killed by a cholera epidemic. Burnett’s garden is a source of rejuvenation, and perhaps Fraser’s garden—filled with mandalas, lotus flowers and yogic motifs—marks a similar interest in meditative regeneration. Fraser moved to India in 1989 after completing her studies at Wimbledon Art College and Oxford. In Delhi’s National Museum she stumbled upon Indo-Persian miniature paintings, and it was there that she found inspiration for her own works.
The Indo-Persian miniature—traditionally found in manuscripts and painted on Wasli paper—is characterized not just by its size but also indiscernible brushwork, stacked perspective, and finely wrought illustrations of court life, royal hunts, and nature. The style emerged from the convergence of Indian styles of manuscript painting with Persian schools of painting. While claims to any authentic style of miniature painting are specious, it was at the intersection of these various strands that the Mughal miniature form was created—the style most commonly referenced by contemporary South Asian artists in their miniature work. Fraser herself has been clear to point out the influence that Rajput and 19th Century Jodphuri miniatures have had on her own work.
Fraser is not the first of her family to voyage to the subcontinent. William and James Baille Fraser came to India in the heyday of the British Raj, rendering the colonial landscape in watercolor and patronizing what would come to be known as the “Company style” of pseudo-miniature painting. It was the company style—where British company patrons would commission South Asian artisans to produce miniatures in line with European tastes for a European market—that supplanted the Mughal atelier as the site of cultural production. The British applied the Western distinction between “fine art” and “craftwork” to the subcontinent, subsuming the Indo-Persian miniature under the latter. The company style thus became the ideal exportation of indigenous authenticity for a foreign market.
Over a hundred years later, Fraser is engaged in a similar project, mirroring her ancestor’s fixation with Indian landscape, architecture, and people in her own work. In The Sacred Garden, the landscapes, the architecture and the people that occupy William and James Fraser’s imagined India are gone, but techniques of miniature painting remain, fused with a new-age fixation on mandalas, Bhakti and Buddhist imagery, yogic philosophy and modernist minimalism. What we find in The Sacred Garden is a peculiar melding of South Asian iconography; the figure of the mandala, the thousand-petal sahasrara lotus, eyes and hands, reflected across perfectly square, perfectly color-blocked pages. Fraser’s subject matter is “about a search for inner peace,” and the imagery in her work and her process of painting reflect that project. Her painted surfaces are smooth, burnished in jewel tones and marked by symmetrical compositions. They represent hours of work put into hiding the artist’s hand. Despite this labour, Fraser presents us with what appears to be a reproducible object; this invariability seems to be the point. Her repetition of lotus flowers and mandala-hands could adorn any wall without raising an eyebrow. On their own, they’re perfectly pretty; together, they echo Warholian prints.Their connection with miniature painting seems tenuous, but is enough to give them a veneer of Indianness. Can you smell the jasmine yet?
ART AS NATIONALIST PRAXIS
While standing in a Chelsea gallery, it’s easy to forget that miniature painting in South Asia has a complex and contested history; one that began long before Sundaram Tagore brought Fraser’s work to New York. National art is an often overlooked component in the consolidation of the nation. But it’s under the rubric of national art that the miniature painting has come to embody a cultural touchstone in Pakistan. The National College of Arts in Lahore offers a Bachelor’s degree in Miniature Painting, enshrining the genre in the nation’s cultural canon. Central to this canonization is the lineage it draws to Mughal court painters. Continuities with the Mughal-era—articulated as the foundation of South Asian Muslim identity—is a cornerstone in Pakistani myth-making. The story that the emperor Humayun brought Persian court painters to his newly-minted Mughal ateliers solidifies the art form’s Islamic identity. In the divvying up of culture in Partition’s aftermath, Pakistan laid claim to the sufis, Ghalib, Qawalli and the Persian miniature—anything that smacked of the Islamic. India could keep their pantheon of Gods, their classical dance, yogic traditions and the mandala. Syncretism in the Partition and post-Partition eras was a dirty word. It complicated the two-nation theory Pakistan was predicated on, and denied the religious purity Hindu nationalists held so closely. The miniature thus became a hallmark of Pakistani artisanship and craftwork, where “culture” and “tradition” were read as synonymous and firmly rooted in the past.
The construction of the miniature as part of proto-Pakistani tradition was paramount in the post-partition era, evinced by the reception of mid-century painter Haji Muhammad Sharif. Sharif came from a line of Punjabi court painters and was patronized by the Maharaja of Patiala before Partition. It was with a nationalist impulse that poet and secretary of Pakistan’s Arts Council Faiz Ahmed Faiz pushed for Sharif’s first solo exhibition of Mughal miniatures in 1962, an event inaugurated by no other than President Ayub Khan. As a painter able to (re)produce with mastery the style and tenor of Mughal-era miniatures, Sharif and his work were perceived asauthentic; a perfect reproduction providing what the nation needed to point to an unbroken tradition. This perceived authenticity was also the reason for his greatest criticisms. As Omar Tarar has argued in Third Text, Sharif was “An artisan among artists and artist among artisans… his hereditary art practice was caught up in the conflicting demands of modern art and a nationalistic state.” While his role as an artisan needed him to continue tradition, this precluded the kind of genius a contemporary artist was called upon to have. The miniature was too traditional and too artisanal to be considered art.
If Sharif’s reception epitomized the artisan/artist paradox, what the NCA miniature art program did was move the miniature from the realm of craft to the contemporary, from the artisan to the artist, paving the way for the reinscription of the genre by contemporary artists and NCA alums like Shahzia Sikander, Imran Qureshi, Faiza Butt and Saira Wasim. It’s no coincidence that all four passed through NCA’s halls before taking to the international stage. Sikander was at the forefront of this movement, enrolling in the NCA miniature program during Zia ul-Haq’s military regime in the 1980s, and studying under miniature master Bashir Ahmed. As Sikander recently said at ArtBasel in Hong Kong, miniature art at the time of her enrollment “was seen as fundamentally derivative and clichéd, incapable of intellectual rigor…miniature painting was anomaly amid the highly Westernized teaching methods in mid-late 80s Lahore.”
Her thesis project, The Scroll (1989-1991), burst the craft-status of the miniature from the inside. Depicting the artist in an autobiographical tableau, moving through a family home and its angular walls, with the classic miniature frame-within-a-frame composition, The Scroll drew on the miniature tradition precisely in order to break it. While the technical and stylistic strategies might be similar to the Mughal miniature, The Scroll spans five-feet, transforming the miniatures single-scene composition into a melded series of scenes. A sequence of mini-Shahzias populate the painting, moving through moments of quotidienne life: eating with family, reading a book, sitting with friends, while servants sweep the floor, carry tea, roam the kitchen. Under Sikander’s squirrel-hair brush, the venue for royal life became a site for representing the contemporary everyday. It may be consciously bourgeois, but it doesn’t harken back to any kind of golden age. In the final iteration, Sikander is seen painting herself. The miniature is shown as a self-reflexive act labour.
In many ways Sikander has come to represent the international face of the contemporary Pakistani miniature movement. Her work at NCA caused a stir in the miniature art department, and gave a new generation of artists a forum for exploration. Yet Sikander’s explosive success on the international art scene in the 1990s coincided with an increasing silence in Pakistan’s domestic art world. As Raza Rumi put it in Pakistan’s Friday Times, Sikander “slowly disappeared from the local art scene and the narratives within her country of birth, [and was] almost rendered invisible, like the mythical characters one reads in the folklore.” It’s this neglect that Faisal Devji takes up in his recent piece in Newsweek, “Little Dictators.” For Devji, Sikander’s erasure comes at the hands of a coterie of Pakistani art critics for whom Sikander’s work does not fit within their definition of contemporary Pakistani art.
Devji’s “Little Dictators” are perfectly happy with painters who drawn on a traditional style with a clear genealogy and then riff on that tradition. What seems so unsettling about Sikander’s work is that it calls these very genealogies into question. As Sikander told me over email, “I’m driven to speak and open the discourse around the problematic notion of ‘authenticity.’” Sikan-
der’s insistence on using figures from Hindu mythology in her artwork is just as much a strategy of subversion as her experimentation with form and scale. While the latter two challenge the miniature as stagnant craftwork, the former undermines the miniature’s status as essential national tradition.
NATIONAL ART ON THE GLOBALIZED STAGE
Imran Qureshi may be one of the most famous products Sikander’s legacy. He, like Sikander, studied under Bashir Ahmed at NCA in the early 90s, and his miniature works bear a striking resemblance to the style and composition of the Mughal miniature, down to the fine brushwork, the intricate rendering of leaves, faces, and the profiles of faces and clothes. Yet Qureshi’s work is marked by a darkness; nimble trees become uprooted, and twirling flowers turn into spatters of blood on doorways and floors. These same blood spatters later found their way out of the frame-within-the frame of Qureshi’s miniature and onto the rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2013; a site-specific work that would be beautiful in its detail if it didn’t also look like the scene of violent suffering.
As miniature art shifted from an artisanal relic to a site for contemporary experimentation, its status as national symbol underwent a particular transformation. To move from a National Museum to the Whitney and the Metropolitan Museum of Art is not a break from nationalist culture, but a shift to a different kind of nationalism: one which wants to see individual artistic talent on a global stage alongside Jeff Koons and Alex Katz. If constructing a national cultural tradition was crucial in legitimizing the nation, producing contemporary artists for the international art scene was needed to prove that this nation—with its rich history—was also the home of a thriving cultural life. The patrons of these arts aren’t national Museums or local government institutions. They’re global corporate foundations like the MacArthur Foundation and the Abraaj Group, or the US State Department. It’s this kind of nationalism that marks as a source of pride Sikander winning a MacArthur Genius Grant or being awarded a US Department of State Medal of Arts—what Hillary Clinton calls “the diplomacy of art.” The work that Sikander puts out and what the US State Department makes of it are two different things, and while the actions of the latter may not delegitimize the political valence of the former, those actions still serve as a statement about the role of art in a global economy. In this novel state of affairs, art carries a distinct currency. It allows governments and institutions to turn attention away from the wars they are funding, or the labour they are exploiting. As a commodity, it’s a great investment; as a political tool, it’s an excellent one. Dubai may be the best example of what this global economy looks like. The United Arab Emirates is at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and over the past three decades it’s become a home for global capital and its cultural aftershocks. The Guggenheim’s latest outpost in Abu Dhabi is slated for completion sometime in 2017,where it will later be joined by a franchise of the Louvre.
Meanwhile, the Sharjah Biennial has been an art-world destination since 1993. The home of Dubai’s burgeoning art scene is the Dubai International Financial Center; a cluster of glass towers, grassy squares and shining promenades. Galleries are interspersed between sleek international restaurants, making them the perfect eye-candy for window-shopping Credit Suisse execs on the way to their next business lunch. It’s no coincidence that the city’s financial district houses its cultural core, but the irony of it is perhaps lost on the gallerists, art dealers and socialites who flock to its grey marbled avenues.
Within the international art industry, museums, curators, collectors, gallerists, art foundations, institutes, diplomats, bureaucrats, are all involved in an arena that often has very little to do with artist themselves. This detachment is disillusioning. Outrage at the commodification of art is a banal stance to take when the likes of Wordsworth and Coleridge have been complaining about it since the 18th century. What’s interesting is to see the kind of artistic work being done to pick apart the assumptions this global industry is built on. In some ways this is asking a lot, especially when safe art—work that’s good to look at, but isn’t good for much else—is the most economically viable, at least in the short run.
These contradictions aren’t lost on some artists. When Sikander was asked to show at the Sharjah Biennial in 2013, she presented Parallax, a fifteen-minute immersive animation combining paintings, text, and music and sound by composer Du Yun. Drawing on her trips to the Straits of Hormuz, which separates the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf, Sikander fills her animation with images of oil rigs (“Christmas Trees”) pumping fuel, floating dismembered arms, drawing connections between the strait’s place in the British East India Company’s route to South Asia, and the migrant labourers imported from the subcontinent to erect the UAE’s cityscapes today. As Sikander told Bilal Qureshi at Newsweek last month, “Parallax addresses the Strait of Hormuz, particularly the fraught history of imperial control. It explores the colonial legacy of trade and corporate enterprise.”
Sikander’s The Last Post (2010) is an animation of a different kind. It uses a series of intricate paintings and puts them in motion, following the figure of the “East India Company Man” as he moves through Mughal courts and into the opium trade in China. In a way, it depicts everything that the Mughal miniature had left out of frame, and places their production in a network of trade and exploitation. Qureshi’s work is similarly imbued with the political. His Moderates Enlightened series of paintings riff on Pervez Musharraf’s doctrine of “Enlightened Moderation,” adopted after 9/11 under his military rule as a means of combatting Islamic extremism in Pakistan. The series depicts religious-seeming men—wearing long beards, white skullcaps and traditional shal-
war kurta—lounging under trees, exercising, reading books and blowing bubbles. Some are sporting camouflage socks or bags, another a Nike satchel. The images force the viewer to confront their own preconceived notions of extremism. But the camouflage motifs are a gentle nod to the complicities between Pakistan’s military establishment, the CIA, and their history of supporting “Jihadism” at Pakistan’s frontiers.
It’s a manifestation of cosmopolitan internationalism that Qureshi was commissioned to create work for the Met. In his piece for the Met Rooftop Garden, And How Many Rains Must Fall Before the Stains are Washed Clean?, Qureshi takes the miniaturist’s propensity for intricate foliage and paints it with a bloody brush. While the designs are compositionally beautiful, their likeness to bloodstains streaked across the floor makes makes for a piece difficult for the viewer to confront. While, come April, the Met’s rooftop garden becomes the perfect place for park-view summer cocktails, sipping drinks while standing on bloodstains seems comically grotesque. Perhaps this is why visitors to the piece found themselves skirting around its borders. The placement of Qureshi’s piece on the roof floor invokes an aerial spectator, challenging them with a series of questions: What does carnage look like from a drone’s-eye perspective? What does it mean to have a scene of slaughter on the top of a monument to Western Civilization? The circulation of global capital and Western patronage may have brought Qureshi to the top of the Met, but his work refuses to be grateful.
In a certain way, this shift toward an internationalism is predicated precisely on the production of a nationalist artisan culture. We can’t celebrate a work of contemporary art as transgressive or innovative if it has nothing to transgress. One of the reasons neo-miniature techniques are so lauded—blowing up the miniature on a massive scale, bringing the everyday subject into a medium reserved for royalty, taking a static image and animating it through multimedia—is because their radicality rests on an established sense of what the miniature is, as well as the understanding that Sikander, Qureshi and their peers have already mastered the form. Quite simply, we respect their breaking of the rules, because they have taken the time to learn them.
Qureshi’s blood-flower medallions make their way onto Fraser’s canvas in the form of serene mandalas, but not before the gore is wiped off, and the image is made easy to look at. This might just be the logical conclusion to a global art market trying to sell culture as a commodity. On the level of Museum shows and art-fund commissions, Qureshi and Sikander are making work that gives the Mughal miniature a certain cultural caché. But site-specific installations, animated colonial officers and Nike-clad fundamentalists are a hard sell. For a gallery circuit to cash in on multicultural art, it needs to be rid of its political and historical baggage. Fraser’s blossoming lotus flowers and meditative eyes and hands evoke a fascination with Buddhist and Hindu mysticism, but they hardly question what the commodification of that practice looks like. Their modernist sensibility is predicated on an understanding of yogic thought as unchanging and eternal; a cosmology that just needs to be tapped into. Staring into a pair of eyes with golden lotuses for irises, the viewer finds themselves confronted by perfectly smooth surfaces of color and meticulous, indiscernible brushwork, that coalesce into an impenetrable screen.
If Sundaram Tagore gallery is invested in examining “the exchange of ideas between Western and non-Western cultures,” then Fraser leaves her viewer guessing about what exactly is being exchanged. Perhaps it’s a painting technique stripped of a sense of its history. For artists like Sikander and Qureshi, exchange is a much messier picture. It involves histories of exploitation, political maneuvering and bloodshed, which the national art establishment and its transnational corollaries are loath to admit. It raises questions of representation, commodification and globalization, which make for uncomfortable viewing at sites like the Met or the Sharjah Biennial. Sikander and Qureshi are not exempt from the sticky web of the global art market; between art-as-nationalism, art-as-commodity and art-as-diplomacy, it’s hard for any artist to be. Rhetorics of exchange hide the historical and political contingencies that enable cross-fertilized artistic production, masking them behind a veneer of cultural diversity. Under closer inspection, these myths become less palatable. The devil is in the details.
Adil Habib is graduating senior in Columbia College majoring in English and Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies.