Sahyr Sayed, Housefly. Mixed media.
The fine arts arm of the National College of Art in Lahore, Pakistan offers undergraduate majors in painting, sculpture and printmaking—all the basics. And then there’s miniature painting, a department started in 1982, where students are taught traditional techniques and encouraged to explore the medium’s potential applications within a contemporary context. This is where Shahzia Sikander was trained in the early 90s, before she went on to become a major figure in the contemporary art world.
“The curriculum requires the students to replicate the works of old masters from the Persian, Indian, and Mughal school to understand the traditional miniature painting technique as a reference to develop a personal art practice. They are expected to utilize, manipulate and alter the traditional practice and create an intellectual continuity to the tradition,” explains Sahyr Sayed in an email to The Creators Project. Sayed graduated from the miniature painting department in 2012, and recently returned as a faculty member.
The discipline, unsurprisingly, requires a lot of patience, according to current student Ifra Mahmood. Students learn how to prepare all the traditional tools: wasli (a multi-layered handmade paper), brushes made of squirrel hair and bamboo, natural pigments, and purified gouache. Once they have those down and begin their personal art practice, however, there are no restrictions in terms of medium or scale. “We are open to experiment,” says Mahmood.
Dispatched, work by NCA student Ifra Mahmood. Watercolor on wasli, 8 x 11 inches.
Once they complete the program, students follow the same path as any other art graduate, seeking exhibition, residency and teaching opportunities. Sayed’s own work, which has been exhibited across Pakistan and India, questions the ideals of a “happy home” by recreating and transforming components of her childhood dollhouse. “The social construction of gender and the sociology of the family are of interest to me,” reads her artist statement. She brings in miniature sculptural elements alongside her painting practice: In her piece Housefly, a painting on wasli is surrounded by tiny glass bottles filled with varnish and covered in cloth.
The NCA’s focus is clearly on innovation, preparing students to engage in a contemporary art world that consistently expects to see traditions subverted. “Contemporary miniature artists in Pakistan are producing highly diverse work in terms of medium and conceptual concerns. From meticulously detailed paintings to site specific installations, Pakistani miniature artists are engaged in translating their understanding of miniature painting into a global art form,” concludes Sayed.
Click here to learn more about the Department of Fine Arts at Pakistan's National College of Art.