My life is hanging by a thread – on Zeeshan Muhammad’s Dying Miniature

On Zeeshan Muhammad’s ‘Dying Miniature’
Catalogue text for his exhibition at Green Cardamom Nov 2008-Feb 2009

My life is hanging by a thread.
– Florence Nightingale, 1896.

Zeeshan Muhammad, iDying Miniature/i, graphite on sandpaper 2008
Zeeshan Muhammad, Dying Miniature, graphite on sandpaper 2008


The series Dying Miniature (2008) departs significantly from most recognisable aspects of Mughal miniature painting, to the extent that without its title there would be little means of anchoring this work to the genre it nevertheless discusses. The works are exercises in emphatic denial beginning most notably with the sandpaper support, the absolute inverse of the deliberately super-smooth surface of wasli. Whereas wasli enables the hairline-fine, fluid detailing characteristic of miniature painting, the sandpaper not only inhibits but actively aggravates the material of the image, in a kind of gestural violence. The strange congress of graphite and sandpaper is mutually destructive, the surfaces destroying as they destroy, and being marked as they mark – Zeeshan was obliged to use a number of plain old pencils, because the sticks of graphite he had bought for the task kept crumbling under the force of his drawing. The drawings are the result of a process whose violence prompts the awareness that drawing happens by a process of abrasion and residue.

The only recognisably ‘miniature’ aspect of these works is their two-dimensionality and their subjects, whose stylised outlines and poses are recognisably typical. The figure, empty of detail, is a silvery, worn-down silhouette; one of the fading populace of the universe of the miniature. It is as though the genre of miniature painting has exhausted itself for Zeeshan, through overuse; in this situation of overfamiliarity, what is gained in nuance can be lost to banality. As the relentless pacing of a caged animal eventually wears a flat, dry path in the grass, so might the genres of painting eventually make their subject barely detectable.

At the heart of Muhammad Zeeshan’s enquiry and practice for the last few years is the knowledge that that which distinguishes a form also constitutes its limits. The general trajectory of works such as Dying Miniature has its roots in Zeeshan’s earlier painting practice. Bodies of work such as Well Directed (2005) and High Notes (2005) are recognisably and methodologically miniature painting, but their content was a departure, depicting distinctly unpleasant subject matter. Repeatedly featuring delicately bandaged or otherwise concealed objects such as pistols, bananas, rats and vultures, the works alluded to phallocentrism, corruption and violence via extremely delicate, almost vulnerable renderings. Like graphite on sandpaper, here is another conflict; the more disturbing the combinations of images, the more lyrically and compellingly they are laid down. It is uncertain whether the bandages are intended to conceal corruption, or nurse the wounds, but what is clear is the tension, as nurturing and violence tentatively co-exist. And here perhaps are the roots of the irrevocable and paradoxical link between creation and destruction in Dying Miniature. Somewhere along the way, the subject matter was beginning to overflow and even destroy the form.

***********

In 2007, Gasworks and Green Cardamom invited Muhammad Zeeshan on residency in London. As I was the curator of the residency programme at Gasworks, we had plenty of opportunity to talk as we meandered around the damp London summer. The question of how an artist’s practice, interests and assumptions take life, in varying contexts of international art, is raised nowhere more frequently than on residencies. While there is something of an international artistic neverland developing across places with highly mobile and well-funded artistic populations – transnational practitioners with a number of shared values that would seem to undermine the rhetoric of ‘internationalism’ (and, more politically, multiculturalism in the arts) – it is not easy to brush away the element of eurocentrism within the inherited values of such practitioners. The residency programme at Gasworks, in striving to invite artists who would not as automatically enter these freewheeling networks, was often faced with artists who knew what their practice meant at home (for whom, indeed, the notion of an artistic ‘home’ still existed in one way or another), and whose residencies were a process of confronting their work with the multiplicities, banalities, and excitements of London. None more so than in the case of Muhammad Zeeshan.

In London, and at Braziers workshop in Oxfordshire, the differing potentialities of his practice in different contexts began to dawn on him. In Pakistan, he had frequently been told, he said, that his work was ‘not miniature’. In contemporary art circles in the UK, this question was barely relevant anyway, and the transgressive nature of his work – insofar as that was necessarily desirable in an art culture that produces exhibitions such as Sensation (Royal Academy of Art, London, 1997) and the Turner Prize exhibitions – was largely in question. It made sense to Zeeshan, in this situation, to explore different media entirely, such as audio multiples, video, performance, and collage, producing, amongst other things the video work Flag Ceremony (2007), which was later exhibited as an artist’s project at the Dubai Art Fair in 2008. In these conditions it seemed as though Zeeshan could only explore his interests – including, perhaps obliquely, the limits of miniature painting – by using other contemporary media.

Painting has, of course, always had its ‘deaths’, in claims reminiscent of Florence Nightingale’s deathbed assertion – which she in fact made sixteen years before she eventually expired. And the threads in Zeeshan’s paintings in the expanded field of miniature are, after all, remarkably robust. In In God We Trust (2008), the eponymous text of the image is rendered in painted stitches on wasli. These fine lines, reminiscent of the wraith-like hairlines that featured in many of his earliest paintings, represent the, surprisingly immaterial, warp and weft that holds together the most cherished ideals and structures of a society – a construct that also runs through his book work A Colligation (Isolated Facts) (2008). In God We Trust, due to be destroyed by ritual immersion in black ink, in fact survived its ‘death’ in an event that, according to one’s persuasion, spoke strongly of the robustness of God, painting, or just wasli. The thematic and gestural violence of Zeeshan’s works are not there, it seems, in order to destroy, but to renew. Survival – of process, or surviving a process – is then the strongest thread running through Zeeshan’s work. So from here on out, miniature survives in Zeeshan’s practice – even if it is on sandpaper.

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