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Past patterns repeated in 'Beyond the Page' at Pacific Asia Museum

Past patterns repeated in 'Beyond the Page' at Pacific Asia Museum
For Hamra Abbas' "Battle Scenes," Londoners were photographed in warrior poses from a 16th century manuscript. (From the artist, Green Cardamom / Pacific Asia Museum)
Whimsy? Satire? Superheroes? An exhibit opening Thursday at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena looks at how Pakistani artists are vibrantly re-imagining the venerable genre of South Asian miniature painting.

From roughly the 16th to 19th centuries, court painters crafted jewel-toned book and album illustrations that depicted hunts, battles and powerful people. In recent decades, a new miniature movement has flourished, one that uses past stylistic conventions and themes as a launch pad for modern commentary and flights of fancy.

"Beyond the Page: The Miniature as Attitude in Contemporary Art From Pakistan" features 13 artists who maintain a traditional emphasis on technique and detail even as they mix media and experiment with size, scale and content.

The 50 works in the exhibit, co-presented by the London-based Green Cardamom arts organization, show how far beyond the page things have gone -- for instance, Rashid Rana's composite "All Eyes Skywards at the Annual Parade" blends a crowd of spectators with a sly nod to local cinema, while Faiza Butt's felt tip on plastic vellum "Justice League" offers up not comic-book heroes but military and religious leaders.

One especially intriguing creation is "Battle Scenes," for which Hamra Abbas photographed London park-goers in poses that match the warriors pictured in a 16th century Mughal manuscript. In Abbas' five foot-high lenticular prints, the figures seem to change depending on the angle from which they are viewed.

Aside from its multiple visual meanings, the piece can be read politically, says Green Cardamom co-founder Hammad Nasar, who curated "Beyond the Page" with writer-curator Anna Sloan and Bridget Bray, a Pacific Asia Museum curator. "The park's playful inhabitants are members of Western liberal democracies," he says, "and thus key actors in the world's most recent 'battle scenes' in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Within Pakistan, the miniature renaissance has engendered what Nasar calls "a love-hate relationship." Miniatures are a popular subject at influential centers such as the National College of Arts in Lahore and have attained commercial success and acceptance overseas -- all of which spark "the usual split reaction of increasing interest and accusations of selling out."

Foreign awareness of the Pakistani art scene has grown in recent years. Last fall, the Asia Society Museum in New York mounted a major survey, and a more specialized miniature show was brought to the U.S. four years ago by Green Cardamom, which encourages the creation and dissemination of Indian Ocean art. "Many people think of Pakistan in military and geopolitical terms," says Bray, "but there's a burgeoning cultural scene too. We think this exhibit will go a long way to broadening perceptions."

In addition to "Beyond the Page," which closes June 27, the museum will present a companion exhibition of traditional miniature paintings from its collection from Feb. 24 to May 16.

calendar@latimes.com
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