Miniatures Worth a Closer Look

Untitled (9), 2003, collaborative piece in “Karkhana” (

This is the final weekend to see ”Karkhana: A Contemporary Collaboration” at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Intrigued by the diverse images I saw in the publicity for this exhibit—ranging from traditional Mughal imagery to a portrait of Pervez Musharraf riding a Corinthian (?) column—I decided to visit it yesterday.

When I got there I found a room filled with the work of six young Pakistani artists, all alumni of the miniature department at the National College of Arts in Lahore, who are now in various cities (Lahore; Melbourne; New York; Jhelum, Pakistan; and Chicago). The exhibit features five pieces from each artist to show his or her distinctive style, in addition to the collaborative core of the show—a creative experiment of 12 pieces begun when Muhammad Imran Qureshi suggested in 2003 that each of them start two paintings and then send the works to another artist, who would apply his or her own imagery to it and pass it on again until all the artists had added something to every painting. The museum materials also say that “American military action in the wake of September 11, 2001” was a catalyst for this project.

Given their distinctive styles, you can often make out each artist’s contribution to the collaborative pieces, and in one case notes in pencil to the curator on how to mount the works! The Karkhana Series Images online allow a glimpse into the creative process, showing the paintings at each stage along the way to the final product.

Aisha Khalid, Hasnat Mehmood, Muhammad Imran Qureshi, Nusra Latif Qureshi, Talha Rathore and Saira Wasim are the six contemporary artists featured in “Karkhana.” While Mughal rulers of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India historically commissioned artists to make miniatures, these contemporary artists are not bound by royal or state patronage. They are reviving and innovating the South Asian miniature painting tradition, and the “Karkhana” exhibit is an interesting way to learn more about it. A video provides some background on miniature painting, including the intensive method of making wasli (the rag paper that the paintings are made on), the single-hair brushes used to paint the very fine lines, and the continuing controversy over pushing the boundaries of the traditional miniature.

Talha Rathore
Talha Rathore (

The individual artists whose work I kept returning to for just one more look for the nth time before leaving were Talha Rathore and Saira Wasim. Rathore included NY subway maps in her work, pieces of maps that formed highly stylized Persianate trees and fringed her works. Wasim’s political paintings portrayed world figures Cheney, Ronald McDonald, Bush, Musharraf and more in incredibly fine detail, set in surreal settings such as a merry-go-round. It’s true that I’m a fan of public transport and political cartoons, but I believe these paintings and the rest are compelling miniatures that would draw most people in for a closer look.

If any of this sounds interesting, but you can’t make it to the Asian this weekend, you’re not completely out of luck. “Karkhana” is making another trip back east in spring 2007, this time to NY’s Asia Society. And there’s always the fully illustrated catalogue, for sale online and featuring reproductions of the paintings, additional essays by scholars and loads more background on the miniature tradition, which I enjoyed flipping through.

November 4, 2006
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