Intimate Visions

CAC exhibition “uses beauty to discuss difficult issues”

click to enlarge The man depicted is Dr. Mir Ghulam Murtaza Bhutto, the  brother of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan. He was assassinated.
The man depicted is Dr. Mir Ghulam Murtaza Bhutto, the brother of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan. He was assassinated.

Realms of Intimacy: Miniaturist Practice from Pakistan, which opens the Contemporary Arts Center’s 2011-12 season Sept. 23, isn’t really about Pakistan. It’s not even all about small pictures.

“It’s about using beauty to discuss difficult issues,” says Assistant Curator Justine Ludwig.

Ludwig has assembled the work of five artists, all former students of the National College of Art in Lahore, Pakistan. Only one, Imran Qureshi, still lives in Pakistan.

Popular issues are gender roles and cultural labels, in addition to Pakistani and U.S. politics. Although some of the artists do visit their homeland, the opportunity to discuss these themes within Pakistan doesn’t exist for most.

Four of the artists are women — “strong women,” Ludwig emphasizes.

Imran Qureshi is the lone male and enjoys artistic freedom as an NCA instructor. The other artists are Ambreen Butt of Boston, Faiza Butt of London, Nusra Qureshi of Australia and Saira Wasim of suburban Chicago.

In the 1980s, the NCA revived the Mughal practice of miniaturist painting, a source of nationalist pride. Historical images include court life, battles, animal hunts and nature, and they appear in the new works. But rather than creating copies of centuries-old pieces — popular with tourists in neighboring India — today’s artists introduce their own points of view and contemporary subjects. The practice’s use of layers, combined with marrying newer materials such as Mylar with traditional elements such as gold leaf, lends itself to the artists’ efforts to sort out multicultural identities and a world in turmoil.

The movement’s overarching theme is adapting — adapting to changing times, and adapting an ancient painting method so it will be relevant in a contemporary world, whether the artwork is large or small. (Note that the CAC’s exhibit title says miniaturist practice, not miniaturist pictures.)

The study of miniaturist painting is about “being meticulous, having discipline, being obsessive about detail,” Ludwig says. Traditionally, the artist sits on the floor with a brush that might be no more than a single squirrel hair. Ludwig says the exhibiting artists still make their own brushes and paper, and they continue to mix pigments in shells.

Ludwig, whose focus is South Asian contemporary art, has traveled to Mumbai, India and the city’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya museum (formerly the Prince of Wales Museum) to research its collection of historic miniature painting. Pakistan’s instability kept her from traveling there, but Ludwig has visited Ambreen Butt, Faiza Butt and Wasim in their new cities.

Familiarity with Pakistan’s Mughul Empire, its past as a British colony or its current politics is not a prerequisite to appreciating the exhibit.  The work can be viewed simply as beautiful art, Ludwig says. “It’s so sumptuous and gorgeous, and the technique is so stunning.”

Though some works are the size of a sheet of paper, the big messages pull the viewer in for a closer look. One detailed “realm of intimacy” could command a wall by itself. The attractiveness of an individual work might open “the opportunity to delve into the political,” Ludwig says, “but this does not have to be a political exhibition.”

Ludwig tries not to choke up while selecting the more than 50 works that will be shown.

“Terrorism traumatizes around the world,” Ludwig observes as she considers the beauty of the art and the ugliness that inspired some of it.

Imran Qureshi has contributed a floor installation of red and blue splashes that look like blood and water, especially when viewed from a story above. A closer inspection reveals an intricate flower pattern in the pools.

The installation is about “peace, beauty, reclaiming acts of violence and removing yourself from them,” Ludwig says.

Qureshi is also known for miniaturist paintings depicting religious figures in Western dress or engaged in modern activities, but Ludwig says he shifted to larger works after witnessing a suicide bombing. (This spring, Qureshi was awarded a top prize at the Arab art world’s Sharjah Biennial for a blood-red installation in a courtyard. View it at



Wasim’s allegorical works draw comparisons to editorial cartoons and are the most overtly political of the show. Muslim leaders are puppets of George W. Bush. Ronald McDonald repeatedly appears as a symbol of capitalism and colonization. A carousel suggests a never-ending cycle of corruption and military rule. Wasim is an Ahmadi Muslim and therefore considered a non-Muslim in Pakistan, where some relatives have been killed.

Nursa Qureshi and Ambreen Butt address gender roles. Qureshi’s layers often depict a male figure as nothing more than an outline, to counter women’s traditional invisibility. Butt creates self-portraits that challenge and are challenged by images from her homeland.

Similarly, Faiza Butt injects feminine imagery and colors into works that put men under scrutiny. Magenta paint washes over large headshots of Muslim bombers. A portrait of Benazir Bhutto’s brother Mutaza, killed in 1996 during a mysterious confrontation with police, is set against starbursts that could be straight out of Tiger Beat. But the garland around him is composed of not just pretty butterflies but also blood and weapons, suggestive of the shadow over his political career and family. His sister, the former prime minister, was assassinated by terrorists in 2007.

“The beautiful and the ugly meld into one,” Ludwig says. “You can’t separate the two unless you’re spending time with the art.”

So have a seat — the CAC has designed chairs low to the ground to create the feeling of sitting on a floor like a miniaturist painter — and get to intimately know these realms.

WASSUP: REALMS OF INTIMACY's Friday opening celebration at the CAC includes a 6:30 p.m. panel discussion with artists Ambreen Butt, Faiza Butt and Saira Wasim, which is open to the public. The exhibit continues through Jan. 22, 2012.