March Issue 2008
Reinventing the Miniature
Recently online gallery Gandhara Art’s exclusive outlet, the Gandhara Art Space, hosted a select show, ‘Surreal Narratives’ by miniature artist Mudassar Manzoor. The art on view, a quiet but eloquent body of work, had instant impact — it stilled the eye and stirred the imagination, beckoning contemplation at both technical and conceptual levels.
Currently, the contemporary miniature, thriving on a mushroom swell of horizontal expansion, is in dire need of a vertical incline. Composed of scores of middling practitioners and only a handful of ‘specialists,’ it needs to bolster its image with fresh innovations and a deeper level of technical virtuosity. The emergence of a new devotee not only reinforces the standing of the discipline, but invigorates its thrust as well.
Manzoor, as an artist with potential, was singled out when he debuted with a solo titled ‘Belief,’ in Lahore in 2007. Spun around a spiritual quest, the work was executed with a deft hand. A year later, after two significant international participations in Korea and France, the artist resurfaces with ‘Surreal Narratives’ at Gandhara Art in Karachi. Still relating to the mystical and the otherworldly, Manzoor has further pared and modulated his content, refined his rendering and trimmed and sharpened his palette.
Small in number but huge on effect, this collection of 18 works invites dialogue with content and examination of the painterly process simultaneously. An NCA graduate with a major in miniature, Manzoor has a firm grip over the traditional ethos and technicalities of the genre. His course of reinvention, unlike most confrontational art today, is subtle and easy on the eye. A first and obvious departure from tradition is a change in scale. The paintings reference the miniature but are large in size. Having done away with the customary ‘hashia’ and Arabesque patterns, Manzoor reconstructs and relocates the foliated borders as per the demands of his compositions. Typical elements of the Mughal/Persian landscape, the lotus bud, tree images and curling, diaphanous clouds are similarly exaggerated and modulated. The organic vegetal form does much to build the allusion of the other worldly. Manzoor improvises on the conventional miniature imagery to create mythical shrubs and trees. Gnarled, twisted or dense with leafs, flowering like magical bonsais or burgeoning with gilded cupolas/aureoles, his imaginative flora create the surreal atmosphere of transition that is the crux of his oeuvre.
Jumping genres, the artist settles on the western realistic sensibility for the depiction of his human figure. His considerable ability to render the figure correctly and his attention to anatomical detail bring credence to the body language of his protagonist. Oblivious to the world around, his invocatory bodies, arms outspread, beckoning or raised in prayer, seem to be located in a far-off cosmic space. If the atmospherics he conjures up are suggestive, the figurative element in his paintings is more so. The postures and movements of his models conform entirely to the invocation of the divine. Bare-bodied, shrouded or veiled, his figures appear to be in communion with their saviour. At prayer — crouched, standing or simply summoning the heavens — he adheres strictly to the state of transcendence. A new reference to the process of ‘rebirth’ is manifest in the conch shell/womb and bud image in this series as well.
Dramatic use of colour spreads — a palette rich and subtle by turns — is not just intended to seduce the eye but to emphasise the exercise of transition from one world to another. Deep midnight blues, resonant reds and greens, juxtaposed with lavish gold embellishment, are attractive and effective as design ploys, just as the sparing use of white and yellow are employed to project an ethereal luminous presence, which adds distinctly to the imaginary aura of divinity the artist is keen to build.
Some jarring notes in his otherwise fluid compositions are created by planar juxtapositions and superfluous insertion of traditional geometric borders — their hard linear presence disrupts an otherwise seamless atmosphere of organic imagery.
Conceptually, Manzoor’s paintings revolve around a spiritual centrality, but it is the visual evocation of the heavenly that brings impact to his work. The artist needs to guard against overplaying his theme. Imagery that is contrived and managed, even repetitive and monotonous, can disturb the fine balance between works that are inspired and those that are manufactured. One hopes he will not fall prey to ‘formulas’ and will continue to work on achieving a more harmonious balance in his compositions.