‘Beyond the Page: The Miniature as Attitude in Contemporary Art From Pakistan’ at the Pacific Asia Museum

When Picasso incorporated motifs from African art into his paintings, it was seen as a step forward for modern art. No one thought about what it might mean for African traditions. After all, they were “primitive” and therefore frozen in time.

Something similar might be said for our understanding of South Asian miniature painting. Although references to its diminutive, highly stylized depictions of aristocratic life or mythic stories have appeared in contemporary art -- Shahzia Sikander’s work being the most prominent example -- there has been little discussion about how the miniature tradition itself has evolved.

“Beyond the Page: The Miniature as Attitude in Contemporary Art From Pakistan” at the Pacific Asia Museum aims to change that state of affairs. The show at first comes across as another paean to the globalization of contemporary art (and the rise of South Asian artists and markets within it), but ends up revealing how the miniature tradition resonates surprisingly well with contemporary practices.

The carefully focused exhibition features the work of 13 artists of Pakistani descent who riff on the techniques and imagery of miniature painting, in particular the delicate, courtly images of the Mughal Empire of the 16th to the mid-19th centuries.

Seven of the artists trained in the genre at the National College of Arts in Lahore, where “miniature” is a discipline alongside painting, printmaking and sculpture. All are well versed in the conceptually oriented global language of contemporary art, and they interpret the miniature tradition through a variety of media, including painting, video, sculpture and photomontage.

Several artists reexamine the initial colonial encounter between Pakistan (then part of India) and the British Empire. Hamra Abbas turns the tables with tiny, extreme close-up portraits of smiling white people she met during a residency in London. The delicately painted but brutally cropped images echo the miniature portraits that British subjects commissioned from South Asian artists during the colonial era, some of which are on view in a companion exhibition drawn from the museum’s collection. In these images, colonists inserted themselves into an aesthetic tradition usually reserved for images of rulers and gods. By contrast, Abbas’ present-day miniatures reflect a movement in the opposite direction: the Pakistani artist’s presence in the homeland of the former colonizers.

Whereas Abbas uses the miniature aesthetic as a historical touchstone, other artists examine the genre’s formal affinities with Western art.

One example is the similarity between the painting technique par dokht and late 19th century pointillism. In both cases, an image is composed, not of lines and areas of color, but of hundreds or thousands of tiny dots.

Rashid Rana updates both traditions for the electronic age by replacing paint with images from pop culture. In the mural-sized digital print “All Eyes Skywards at the Annual Parade,” he reproduces a photograph of a Pakistani nationalist celebration out of thousands of Bollywood film stills. Whether par dokht or pointillism, the image suggests how the unrestricted flow of global pop culture might undermine political tensions between Pakistan and India.

Other artists explore the miniature’s reliance on a grid structure, also a staple of Western art. In an untitled work, Rahana Mangi revisits a painting she began as a student in the miniature program at the National College of Arts by stitching a fine net of black hair across the central image. The diagonal grid makes palpable (and bodily) the armature that miniaturists use to structure their pictures and create patterns. It also brings the genre into dialogue with the spare, rectilinear work of Sol LeWitt and Agnes Martin.

Likewise in a reductive vein, Noor Ali Chagani extrudes the grid into three dimensions, constructing his pieces out of hundreds of tiny bricks. His dollhouse-scale walls and undulating brick “carpet” are wry little minimalist sculptures.

There is a tendency to define works like these as contemporary to free them from restrictive and often exotic associations with traditional forms. But couldn’t they simultaneously be a continuation of the miniature tradition? Why should the categories “contemporary art” and “South Asian miniature” be mutually exclusive?

“Beyond the Page” suggests that they aren’t and provides a glimpse of what a truly global culture might look like: a place where the local textures the global and difference can be recognized without becoming a disadvantage.