How Shahzia Sikander Reinvented the Art of Miniature Painting

In 2019, two Persian paintings sold for around £800,000 each at a private auction house in London. The paintings are glowing manuscripts or “miniature” paintings that belong to the same book: the 15th-century edition of Nahj al-Faradis, which tells of Muhammad’s journey through heaven and hell. The original book, once a masterpiece of art, has been torn to shreds, leaving only sixty ornate images. Bound, the manuscript may be worth several million pounds; after being dismembered, its contents have been sold for over fifty million.

The dismemberment of the manuscript is part of a larger story, one about the extraction of patronage and the demise of empires. The term “miniature painting” is a creation during the colonial period and is a general term for various figurative paintings that appeared in modern Iran, Turkey, and Central and South Asia. During the imperial period, private collections and museums in Europe held most of the illuminated manuscripts, many of which were still stored in warehouses, effectively erased. (In 1994, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art had to trade a de Kooning for a de Kooning to return part of a 16th-century manuscript.) The craft was also weakened. When “fine arts” were taught in colonial schools, manuscript painting was neglected. Even after independence, the National Academy of Arts, Pakistan’s premier art academy, emphasizes Western traditions.

When artist Shahzia Sikander arrived at NCA in 1987, manuscript painting was seen as kitsch. On campus, however, Sikander was introduced to Bashir Ahmed, one of the few artists associated with the heritage of craftsmanship. Ahmed studied under Sheikh Shuja Ullah, the last member of the Mughal court artist family, and in 1982 founded a two-year miniature painting project of its kind The first item in . Many see Ahmed as an unruly traditionalist, but Sikander sensed an opportunity to explore and reinvent a form overlooked by the art world. She trains up to 18 hours a day in Ahmed’s small studio, learning as much as she can about the form’s original method, including picking hair from a squirrel tail for one of her brushes.

The process of creating these paintings is meticulous and historically the paintings are meant to illustrate religious stories, scientific documents, poems, stories and imperial history. Even before the illustration begins, the paper must be made and prepared, the folios sanded and cut. Tea is used to give the paper a subtle layer of color. Artists would then sketch and outline their work, and paint experts would apply watercolors, building different shades with tiny brushstrokes. The backdrop and architectural spaces are adorned with arabesques, with rhythmic designs designed to capture the beauty of nature and the creation of God. Then using a thin brush made of just a few hairs, the artist will outline the final composition.

While immersed in training, Sikander also began to question power—how it shapes the world, and at whom. Growing up in the 1980s, during the dictatorship of Mohammed Zia-Haq, she experienced a shift toward restrictions on freedom, the politicization of religion, and the policing of public life. At the same time, the U.S. military presence in the region is infiltrating Pakistani culture, introducing anti-communist propaganda and the value of war. As Sikander observes this complex political landscape, the art of miniature painting shows her a cutting edge. In a conquered form pinned on the past, she can attempt to portray the tensions of the present.

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