Letter from Mall Road — From the October 2015 issue

Pakistan in Miniatures

Can the artists of Lahore keep violence at bay?

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In the 1990s, a group of artists who later became known in the international art world as neo-miniaturists were students at N.C.A. Shahzia Sikander was the first among them to bring the modern miniature to the West; she now lives and works in New York. For a while, her huge talent represented the whole genre. But recently, her classmate Imran Qureshi has become equally prominent. In 2013, he had an installation on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and he was named Deutsche Bank’s artist of the year. His work often includes Mughal-inspired foliage interspersed with Jackson Pollock–like spatters. A leaf that is a fraction of the size of a fingernail in a miniature painting becomes as big as a hand in his installations.

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SpiNN, 2003, still from a video animation with original music, by Shahzia Sikander

Qureshi, who is in his early forties, lives in Lahore and teaches at N.C.A. He invited me to visit his studio there, where a group of first-year students sat on big square pillows that lined the perimeter of the room. Drawing boards were propped on their laps, and their pencils and paints lay by their knees. They were drawing grids. Upstairs, in another studio, a smaller group sat in a circle. These were the third-year students who had chosen to major in miniature painting. A small set of portable speakers quietly played American pop music, and a middle-aged man from the canteen came around to take orders for snacks: chai, potato chips, cookies.

Each of the third-year students was working on something different. There were no teachers supervising them, and the room felt both more focused and more relaxed than the studio downstairs. I saw several paintings that combined traditional and modern references; one student was drawing Mughal figures inside TV screens. Most of these students had not actually seen a Mughal miniature painting in person. The British built the Lahore Museum next to N.C.A. to be a teaching museum, and there was originally a door between the buildings so that students could duck in to study original pieces. No longer. Because of safety concerns, the Lahore Museum has locked up its miniature collection and special permission is needed to see the paintings.

I stopped next to a student named Minahil Hafeez, who was drawing rows and rows of tiny vertical lines, a few centimeters high, in pencil. She was the only person in the room working in gray scale and abstraction. She told me that the students were busy preparing their portfolios for the thesis show that would take place in a few weeks. In the meantime, their work was being subjected to rounds of critical examinations (known here, as in art schools everywhere, as crits), in which Qureshi and the rest of their teachers would give them feedback. The next day the whole class would gather for a crit. “Come, you’ll see,” she said with a slight tilt of her head.

The next morning, there were twice as many students in the studio. Hafeez beckoned me over to sit by her and ordered me chai from the canteen man. Qureshi was one of four teachers seated at the front of the room. One by one the students were called up. There were two parts to each crit: first, the students showed their work, and then they were asked to speak about it.

The students and teachers mixed languages, often starting in English and switching to Urdu for more complicated ideas or for jokes. Qureshi generally weighed in last, and he spent more time looking than talking. When he did speak, his voice was gruff. He said little to the most promising students. When Hafeez’s turn came, Qureshi pulled out two paintings that he thought were “moving in a new direction.” And he suggested the obvious: that she start experimenting with color.

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