“Who can forget those moments when something that seems inanimate turns out to be vitally, even dangerously alive? As, for example, when an arabesque in the pattern of a carpet is revealed to be a dog’s tail, which, if stepped upon, could lead to a nipped ankle? Or when we reach for an innocent looking vine and find it to be a worm or a snake? When a harmlessly drifting dog turns out to be a crocodile?”
Following the idea of Amitav Ghosh, imagine if the world created by Saira Wasim on her waslis comes to life. Although she paints miniature, a genre that has historically incorporated influences from European art, her work can be considered as a hybrid of a different nature — where imagery of baroque kind is contained within the borders of traditional miniatures.
Born in 1975 in Lahore, Wasim was trained in miniature painting at NCA, before migrating to the US, her homeland for the past many years. The specific style for which she is known is visible in her recent works too at her solo show from Sept 27-Oct 11, 2016 at Unicorn Gallery, Lahore. Most works in the exhibition are new, except two taken from the artist’s personal collection. Even though there is a gap of four years between her recent and previous work, one hardly notices any difference. Her technique, scale, medium as well as choice of imagery and placement of pictorial elements are the same.
This peculiar imagery is what makes Wasim a distinct and important artist of her generation. One occasionally hears criticism concerning the development of her art; implying that her work has stayed similar over the years. Comments of this sort do not come as a shock since we are surrounded by works of art obeying the demands of this age — of constant modification.
In the past, traditional artists were not keen or even aware of this urge for change. They followed the same scheme, pattern, composition and style that existed before, and within that tried to introduce different variations. The worth of an artist was not gauged on the basis of his newness, but on his ability to excel in what was already established. To a traditional mind, producing something new was easy, but using the same means/sources and yet creating works of higher quality was more challenging.
In that sense, the art of Saira Wasim, even if does not follow the code or stylisation of miniature painting, in essence is part of that legacy in which continuity of a narrative and method is more important than experimenting with newness — for the sake of it. The art of Wasim reflects upon the political and societal situation, and is thus linked to historical miniatures in which painters depicted images of court and hunt scenes.
This kind of imagery while connecting her work to the past, also infuses in it a sense of postmodernity. Despite the scale and medium, her work is more like a European painting executed in opaque watercolour on wasli paper. This combination of the two, not unique to her aesthetics, is one way to decode her work. It is the peculiar construction and selection of imagery that makes her work intriguing.
At her recent exhibition, Saira Wasim is showing paintings like Flying Machine, Europa and Pieta, with their strong Western visuals and references. In this group of ‘miniatures’, characters from Victorian England (Gladstone and Disraeli), eminent personalities from European art history (Peter Paul Rubens, Diego Velasquez, Frans Hals, and a few others along with the Prince of Wales) are composed in improbable situations and settings. Time becomes a minor disturbance in the art of Saira Wasim. Hence we see illustrious personalities from the European past posing side by side, even though they were born centuries apart or in different regions.
This sense of magic realism or fantasy is evident in her works which deal with home. But what is home for a painter living in the US? Is it the Judeo-Christian civilization what we refer to West, or is it the long abandoned land, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan? In her paintings, her original country turns into an imaginary territory in which political figures, religious clerics and ordinary people become part of a world that survives on the imperceptible boundaries of reality, imagination and fascination. Thus in Flirting with Faith I, one locates the loathsome face of a religious figure from the capital flying with another companion on two rams. Their voyage from this soil to heaven under the canopy bearing a human skull determines the fascination of militants with death and destruction in the name of faith.
Likewise, the figure of another religious figure, the head of a right wing political party in Pakistan, is merged with that of a horse, accompanied with another human body with ears of a donkey or mule. The work signifies how faith is used as a blinding device for many, discouraging them from exploring reality of their experience and truth of their observation.
For the artist who is residing in America and whose community has been persecuted by mainstream Muslims, the issue of tradition and modernity seems crucial, since no matter how modern a religion claims to be, every faith intrinsically belongs to past. Her work The Crucible presents this condition in which a holy figure from Renaissance is composed with a cellular phone that is resting on a man in a long loincloth. The state of a world dominated by the media (like gods) and its subjugated majority is only one way to understand the painting since there is more than that: Wasim focuses on how the war against terror and extremists is fought — in the battlefields of electronic media. According to her “Orthodox Christian scholars believe that God is using Islam to punish Christen West… Similarly, Muslim believes in Allah’s wrath upon Muslim….”. Subsequently her work maps a scenario in which the modern relationship of power to public is documented with all its absurdity, if not cruelty!
This trait brings her art close to the glorious heritage of miniature painting, because instead of imitating the style or copying technique, Wasim reverts to the original and initial reason de ’art of miniature painting: following the images, intentions and intricacies of court and corridor of power.
In these two dimensional surfaces — echoing Ghosh’s observation — her characters, compositions and incidents become alive and keep haunting us.