Solo Exhibition of Intriguing Miniature Paintings by Asif Ahmed

Cloaked in traditional iconography with a modern contemporary metaphor, a solo exhibition of intriguing miniature paintings by Asif Ahmed opens at Tanzara today (Thursday), with the curatorial skills of art critic Aasim Akhtar as powerfully evident as Asif’s own profile as a contemporary image-maker.

The exhibition is titled ‘The King Must Die.’ Talking to this scribe, Aasim shared the reason governing his choice of the said title. “When in power, all kings and monarchs think they are perennial and will stay forever. They must also realize that one day, all emperors have to leave their throne; they all must perish. And once they leave their throne, they become anonymous, and no longer command the respect, authority and leadership that they once did,” he said.

The artist, Aasim pointed out, has used traditional iconography that has been derived from Mughal miniature, but the metaphor is relevant to contemporary times. “The context in which he has re-employed Mughal imagery is highly contemporary. He has used the head of a king as a metaphor for a monarch or a patriarch,” Aasim explained.

Aside from the head, Asif has used the metaphor of a housefly, which comes in the shape of an invader, a foreign, alien, atopic entity, or a colonial power. “The housefly threatens the king; it wants to overthrow and topple the king, who is vulnerable because he is constantly subjected to rivalry and the beset with the threat of being overthrown in a coup,” Aasim stated.

The artist has also used the outline or silhouette of the map of Pakistan, with its details not specified. In such paintings, he is referring to the circumstances that led to the creation of Pakistan. From the last Mughal kings, the monarchy, the maharajas, the rajas, and the feudal lords to the fiefdom, the serfdom, foreign occupation, and the colonial onslaught, all find powerful portrayal in Asif’s art.

Three miniatures in the collection portray wrestlers with maces held in their hand. In one painting, the artist has painted ‘Gama Pehelwaan,’ who was the hero of his times. Here again, the artist alludes to icon-making and hero worship. “Like a king is known by his heroic deeds, a wrestler too is a monarch in his own right and is looked up to like a king or monarch,” Aasim added.

Responding to a query, Aasim spelled out that this was his first experience as a curator both with Tanzara as well as with Asif, and proved to be “a great one indeed.” Commenting on the work, Aasim said that while Asif has used the same symbols that he has been employing in the past, he has narrowed down his context without either repeating or reinventing himself. “The artist has made no direct references to personalities. We cannot identify the kings and monarchs; we only go by their posture, their garb, and their demeanor. And yet, the metaphor is very apt to our times,” he said in conclusion.

Commenting on the works, the gallery’s director Noshi Qadir said, “As a contemporary image-maker, Ahmed wishes to push artistic limits through varied aesthetic thoughts and visual explorations of select socio-political and cultural issues. He has built his own individual body of symbolism that addresses itself through a soul-searching process. He has complete mastery of interweaving concept with the image he creates. Symbols such as the emperor’s head, skulls, elephants and insects all appear as elements to make a profound statement.” Asif’s works have been widely exhibited home and abroad and are in private and public collections worldwide. His works have also been selected and sold by various international auction houses, notably Saffron Art and Sotheby’s London.

Born in 1980, Asif’s work focuses on political intrigue, the illusion of power and the game of chance. Blending the contemporary with the historical, he uses gouache on ‘wasli’ to recall to the tradition of miniature painting associated with the Mughal period.

Ever since his 2004 thesis exhibition ‘Banjara Nama’ at Lahore’s National College of Arts, Asif has dedicated his practice to the miniature-painting format. His subjects, however, are distinctly contemporary, and he frequently uses symbolic images such as crows, dice and mousetraps, to make political statements that cross through the centuries.

In 2004, Asif received his degree in miniature painting from the National College of Arts in Lahore. Since then, he has exhibited extensively in Asia, with Karachi’s Chawkandi Art Gallery, Lahore’s Ejaz Art Gallery, and the Kyoto Museum in Japan. Among the group exhibitions in which his works have featured are ‘Reprise’ at Aicon Gallery, New York, in 2011; and two shows at Nomad Art Gallery, Islamabad, in 2009 and 2008.

Asif won the Ustad Haji Sharif Award for Miniature Painting in 2005, and a distinction for his thesis project, ‘Banjara Nama’, in 2004. His works are featured in many publications such as ‘A Subtle Rendition’ by Vikas Harish, ‘Three Narratives’ by Salima Hashmi, and ‘Miniature Aesthetics’ by Amra Ali, among others.

The exhibition will continue at House 14, Street 12, F-7/2, Islamabad, till December 8.

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