A project of Hinterland Galerie in Vienna, a glimpse of imagined homelands was sighted at the Alhamra Art Gallery Lahore
Anyone familiar with the rise of modern miniature painting in the early 1990s can recall, among other things, how easy it was to transport miniature as part of one’s personal baggage. There was no issue of huge transport charges or custom duty nor were there storage or handling problems.
The main attractions for buyers, collectors, galleries and museums abroad were indeed the exquisite work, interesting solutions towards image-making, division of colours, patterns, borders and miniature’s unique status as an exotic art practice. Yet, convenient shipment added another worth.
Initially created as manuscript illustrations, miniatures were always easy to carry from one place to other, compared to murals and huge sculptures. In the present times, a work of art sent in a suitcase is significant in another way. After 9/11, the world is altered with a lot of travel restrictions. Most people from the third world, especially Muslims, travelling to any European or North American city have faced a traumatic immigration process. In that scenario, a work of art dispatched inconspicuously as personal luggage can easily pass through customs and immigration check.
Interestingly, what we face today in terms of international travel and transportation is connected to the genealogy of Indian miniature painting. From the earliest examples of the Sultanate period to the Mughal School, Deccani and Rajput paintings, the art of miniature was a meeting point for diverse traditions, styles and practitioners. Two of the most notable names in the history of Indian miniature are Mir Sayyid Ali and Khwaja Abdus Samad -- both Persians. They accompanied Humayun on his journey back to re-conquer the Indian Empire. Following them, many painters came, and examples of works from various regions were amalgamated into the corpus of Indian miniature. It became a manifestation of influences from multiple sources and origins.
The sense of migration is still a part of contemporary miniature painting. In most cases, it is not the works stored in a suitcase but ideas contained in the head which are executed at several prestigious venues of the mainstream art world. However, the element of a ‘stranger’ remains a subtext. It indicates the division of the political world which is marked by national boundaries and is safeguarded through barbed wires, visa restrictions and immigration officers. Prior to the evolution of nation-state in its present form, most people were free to go wherever they liked, either for trade or finding personal fortune. Imagine Marco Polo waiting at a Chinese port for his visa or Christopher Columbus bribing the Italian officials to get a travel permit.
A large part of the population today recognises the importance of being away, in physical form or as mental migrants, from their place of origin in order to be a part of a vast and universal experience. It can happen in the realm of fantasy as well as in the domain of art.
Actually, art making in a way is to discard one’s reality and venture into extraordinary realms. A glimpse of imagined homelands was sighted in Lahore last week, during the exhibition ‘Where Are We’ (held from May 15-22, 2016, at the Alhamra Art Gallery). A project of Hinterland Galerie in Vienna and supported by the Austrian Embassy, the exhibition was the first, followed by its showing in COMSATS Art Gallery Islamabad and Vista Art Gallery, Tehran, in addition to its final destination at the Hinterland Galerie, Vienna.
The most important feature of this exhibition which comprised of video installations, mixed media, embroidery, prints, drawings, collages, was the element of displacement that connects all the artists. Even though the gallery is situated in Vienna, the artists shown have a transnational identity or past. Either they were born in countries outside Austria or interested in other regions. So the exhibition was an attempt to cross over borders and to bring together artists from different origins dealing with the issues of displacement -- physical, cultural and political.
Several works in the show reflected the participants’ positions about religious rituals (nomadic mosque by Azra Akamija), money as the carrier of cultural and economic identity (embroideries by Carla Degenhardt) video of travelogue (Passagen by Lisl Ponger), memories of people left in the dresses they used in the drawings of Frenzi Rigling.
Looking at stones stuck on the linear drawings (basically surface scratches) in the work of Vooria Aria or the cut-outs of figures and their combinations in the art of Niko Wahl, one recognises how the idea of migration can be used in making works, which incorporate slates from traditional graves in Iran to create a surface for linear drawing (Aria). Or human figures as being the embodiments of a history of migration, as it started with the ‘800 Jewish Polish orphans came to Tehran in 1942’, where ‘they lived for months in tents before resuming their journey to India and Palestine’.
In the works produced by Wahl one could observe figures, either free standing or part of a rectangle of canvas, entirely comprised of Farsi text. This aspect of work testifies how we as humans are not made of flesh and bones but of words, which we need to present at a point/port of arrival. Niko Wahl shared that experience "In 2015, when prolonging my visa for Iran, I stood at the police line between young Africans and others who tried to secure a permit to stay legally in this country".
But art is a means to transcend state and status-quo. Thus in the works displayed at Where Are We, one detects and discovers the inherent condition or curse of displacement. Despite the restriction of travel and difficulties of sending an art work, the exhibition offers that there can still be ways to communicate that experience at galleries of the globe as well as at the airports of the world. (Hinterland Galerie also hosted Universal/Personal , ‘a group exhibition of young emerging artists from Pakistan’ from April 7 May 6, 2016, which included Aisha Abid Hussain, Rubaba Haider, Rehana Mangi, Ali Kazim, Noor Ali Chagani, Hammad Gillani, Adeel uz Zafar; and it would be interesting to note that five out of these seven artists were trained in the discipline of miniature painting).