New Emissary

Miniature Painting… Animated?

A traditional Asian art form is experiencing a comeback thanks to some modern artists…and their unique ‘tweaks.’

Miniature painting, an art form that’s been around for centuries throughout South Asia and the Middle East, is experiencing something of a comeback in today’s art world thanks largely to contemporary artists who have studied its traditional techniques and then tweaked them to suit their own styles of expression.

And in Pakistan in particular, it's going through an ‘absolutely extraordinary transformation and re-emergence,' according to those like Jemima Montagu, curator of the 2009 East-West Divan art exhibition in Venice.

I couldn’t agree with Montagu’s assertion more, especially after recently having come across the work of Pakistani artist Shahzia Sikander at a very recommendable collective exhibition of contemporary art currently running at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. Sikander, originally trained as a miniaturist at the National College of Arts in Lahore, has, according to her artist website, since the early 1990s been ‘instrumental in the rediscovery, re-infusion, and re-contextualization of Indo-Persian miniature painting.’

Along with the several large paintings by her, the exhibit features two of Sikander’s video animation works, which for me were by far the most interesting pieces of the entire show. The museum sums up the 2003 animation piece SpiNN as a work in which ‘the hairdos of the women spin round-and-round, grow, and move like bats or birds in flight,’ while Nemesis, also a 2003 work, shows ‘animals slowly meld together and transform into an elephant in order to fight black magic.’

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The movements of Sikander’s intricately painted images, pulling together slowly and breaking apart, spinning around all in a sort of slow motion chaos and shown on large screens in a large hall filled with visitors was in itself mesmerizing, but that combined with (headphones playing) the accompanying music made for a kind of surreal and unexpected private experience (that probably needs to be experienced first-hand to fully appreciate.)

There are furthermore the motivations behind Sikander’s works which add new meaning and additional layers of depth to her art. She’s explained that in the case of SpiNN for example, the title ‘alludes to powerful mass-media corporations and to the ways in which core information about a subject is often hidden behind layers of perception that can suggest multiple meanings,’ and suggested that therefore, the message is: ‘perception is shaped and altered on a daily basis, and information is spun to show us what we want.’

Now, I eagerly anticipate catching more of Sikander’s both visually and theoretically fascinating animation works in the future, hopefully sooner than later.