Miniature Painting in Contemporary Art

Sultan’s Accession to the Throne Ceremony with Drone (2018 ) by Halil Altındere

Asian Art Newspaper takes a look at the latest show in Istanbul that explores miniature painting in contemporary art that still references the traditional art form popular that has its roots in the court art of Mughal India, Persia, and the Ottoman Empire.

The curators, Azra Tuzunoglu and Gulce Ozkara, explain the aim of the exhibition as ‘not treating miniatures solely as a historical works, but seeing its future potential’. The art works on show take miniature painting as their starting point to trace the rules unique to miniature painting as well as considering its contemporary practices’. The selected artists have all taken miniature painting out of the pages of manuscripts and, without discarding the past, use painting as well as video, photography, and installations to carry the boundaries of miniature painting far beyond its traditional home. Regarding miniature painting as a quest for meaning does not preclude its qualities as a historical document. The main aims of the exhibition are to look at miniatures from a certain distance in order to see them as a means of considering the world to be able to combine the past, the present, and the future.

Contemporary Miniature Painting

Focusing on contemporary approaches to miniature painting, this exhibition brings together over 40 works of select artists from different countries to contemplate their various approaches to the art form, as well as to reveal the commonalities presented in the genre of miniature painting. The exhibition invites visitors to rethink miniature painting as an art form that contains historical, social, economic, and aesthetical aspects, retaining not only the past, but also the future. Using various media such as sculpture, video, textile, and installation, the works explore issues such as colonialism, Orientalism, economic inequality, gender and identity politics.

Miniature painting was a court art in the Ottoman Empire, as well as in Persia and India. With the economic downturn in the 18th century, the introduction of the printing press, and the Ottoman court taking more interest in the West and Western art, miniature artists had to go beyond the confines of the court and of illustrating manuscripts, trying to find new audiences and means of expression. Even though miniature painting survived these challenges, in the 18th century, it was unable to survive the ‘New World’ that had transformed into Iran, Pakistan, India, and Turkey. In the 20th century, artists again came to look at the miniature art form and created ‘the contemporary miniature’, which has strayed far from its classical definition and has turned into a dynamic and contemporary art form.

Imran Qureshi

One of the leading artists of his generation, Imran Qureshi, began drawing his series entitled Moderate Enlightenment, which he created between 2006 and 2009 and which brought him international fame, after he realised the discrimination against religious people throughout the world in the wake of 9/11. The artist chooses to portray people in private moments – doing sports, walking in the rain, resting underneath a tree, or getting dressed. Marginalisation is symbolised in the subjects’ clothes. The artist maintains that ‘camouflage socks are seen as a threat when worn by a religious person but otherwise merely as a fashion statement’. Qureshi’s works challenge social prejudices and culture in Pakistan, where clashes continue between the contemporary and the traditional.

The conflicts in Qureshi’s miniatures can also be seen in Halil Altındere’s work entitled Sultan’s Accession to the Throne Ceremony with Drone (2018), which was produced in reference to the painting that dates to 1789 by Kapıdaglı Kostantin (Konstandinos Kizikinos), an artist who lived in Constantinople during the 18th and 19th centuries and worked as painter at the Ottoman court. He became known especially for his portraits of sultans. Kostantin is regarded as a bridge for the transition of miniature painting to Western-style painting. In this sense, this painting features elements from the classical miniature style while also presenting one of the first examples of paintings in the Western style. Altındere takes Kostantin’s canvas painting and recreates it in miniature form, in a way taking the work on a reverse time travel. The drone that can be seen upon close inspection adds to the anachronistic structure of the work.

Miniature Painting and Suleyman the Magnificent

The works of Shahpour Pouyan, another artist in the exhibition to take a close look at spaces, uses culture to focus on fundamental concepts such as power, tyranny, and sovereignty. His inspiration comes from Persian miniatures, and the artist makes references to Sumerian, Babylonian, Persian, and Indian cultures. Having produced miniatures since 2008, Pouyan focuses on a series of selected miniatures from Iran and Central Asia and creates manipulated reproductions.

In the two Persian miniatures in the exhibition, the artist removes all the figures from the surface of the miniature, heroes and mythical creatures included, and by doing so, he intervenes with the clarity of the narrative. This enables the viewer to look at spaces that have become independent of the narrative. Pouyan has removed all the figures from a scene from Reception Ceremony of Elkas Mirza in the Suleymanname, a book of Ottoman miniatures in the Topkapı Palace collection that narrates the life of Suleyman the Magnificent.

Shazia Sikander and Indian Miniature Painting

One of the leading representatives of contemporary miniature painting, Shahzia Sikander, uses classical miniatures as her departure point to level her current historical criticism. First shown at the Sharjah Biennial, Sikander’s work in this exhibition, Parallax (2013), is a three-channel installation made up of hundreds of different digital animations. The work opens with an emphasis on the geostrategic importance of the Strait of Hurmuz, through which 40 percent of Middle Eastern oil is shipped, and continues with the concepts of conflict and control as the key themes of a period reaching from the modern to the post-colonial era.

The abstract, figurative, and textual flow that follows the animation adds complexity to the narrative. Six different poems have been written in Arabic and are read for the work, embracing a variety of topics that span regional/historical events to human nature. Sikander maintains that ethnic and racial identities are heterogeneous, not homogeneous, and that specifications like Arab or Persian, differences in cultural, lingual, and religious practices, and their heterogeneous and complex nature cover this up.

For the artist, language is a convenient point of entry: ‘The language of creating images, the language of poetry, the language of words, colours, music.’ The artist went on road trips in her car during his time in the Gulf where she traversed the country from one end to the other and says that she focused on the ‘intense heat, bright light, proximity to water and sand, and mainly the concept of mirage’. The trip, she commented, gave her a new perspective. The flow between times, places, the real and the imaginary is reproduced in the structure of the work, which establishes a balance between flows on different planes.

Until 17 January 2021, Miniature 2.0, Miniatures in Contemporary Art, Pera Museum, Istanbul,