Meet the Pakistani Artist Placing Women In the Ancient Mughal Painting Tradition

In Nusra Latif Qureshi's miniature painting, men are pushed into the background.

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23 January 2019, 8:30am

Images courtesy of Nusra Qureshi

This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.

In Nusra Latif Qureshi's miniature paintings, women are the center of attention. It's a groundbreaking choice when you think about how women are missing altogether in the traditional practice of Mughal painting. It' an act of defiance, really, to use the male-dominated medium to tell the stories of women in modern day Pakistan.

Nusra’s paintings, which have been displayed in exhibitions all over the world, simultaneously incorporate allusions to her South Asian heritage and provide commentary on modern life, particularly that of a female artist. There are several experimental elements like double exposure and rough sketches laid over paintings, that a feeling that the images are at once familiar, but still novel.

I spoke to Nusra about her cultural heritage; the reinvention of traditional practice to be more inclusive and the impact of colonization on her output:

VICE: Can tell me a bit about the Mughal period and the rich art produced during that era?
Nusra Qureshi: The Medicis is one dynasty that comes very close to Mughals in how they patronized arts and develop of a certain aesthetic, though unintentionally. They focused on all sorts of arts: textiles, paintings, jewelry and architecture.

The Mughals collected literature, artifacts and books from all over the world and were curious. Through that curiosity they brought together groups of people in art, literature and historiography; and from other practices like philosophy and religion. They were interested in documentation and regularly commissioned historians to write histories. The Taj Mahal is one example of art from that period.

In painting, they exposed and groomed their artists in so many different ways. Emperors in various periods of their reign had various interests. Akhbar, the Mughal emperor, translated lots of manuscripts that he inherited from his grandfather and father into Indian languages. He had those manuscripts illustrated by artists that he chose very carefully and patronized. He had a wonderful system where literature and art where came together in amazing ways. He also employed calligraphers, artists and bookbinders. There was a huge workshop happening.

His son took on a different approach. He took a different interest in art and ended up patronizing artists he considered masters in the every sense of the word.

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Why did you choose to learn Mughal miniature painting in university?
I think the intense and intricate detail that is there; and the extremely sophisticated composition devices. It is interesting to perceive and represent the world through the practice.

Most people were taken in by the detail of the practice. The beautiful details can be used as a technique or tactic to speak to audiences no matter where they are.

What position did women occupy in the Mughal period?
There were some examples of female painters, members of the royal family, learning from the master. They were good painters but there are no documented examples of who they were. There is only a document mentioning those women.

Women were not as important as they are in this century.

Why did you decide to incorporate the female presence into traditional miniature painting?
I did it to give them the agency that they had been denied. Historically, there were very few female painters and if they were practicing, they were not given any focus in the mainstream. In the late 20th and 21st century, tradition is up for grabs for anyone. I saw an absence which I wanted to aggress. There were also many things that related to my own life as a woman in Pakistani society which I needed to aggress.

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Your paintings incorporate elements typically seen in photography like double exposure. What is the relationship shared by painting and photography in Pakistan? How does it influence your practice?
A lot of practicing artists were employed by photography studios to touch up photographs or paint over them. It was a very interesting aesthetic interlude in history which has not been studied. I used a lot of references to photography and how it superimposes our reading of history and the experiences of colonization.

Wherever photography went, it was welcome. It’s still an accepted form of expression. It’s interesting how photography became a symbol of colonization because it emptied out the content of the painter’s imagination. The camera became a tool that replaced the artist. This is problematic but on the other hand, it makes it interesting rhetorically and aesthetically.

There are so many levels that you can read into in photography and painting as opposites. It also brought along this idea that the perspective is not right in the painting because South Asians had uses of perspective which the Western eye were not willing to accept. So there were lots of quite interesting points of departure or conflict. I try to incorporate that a lot in my paintings.

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Your practice plays on the traditional practice. Can you explain the reason behind this? I do not consider tradition to be a sacred, touchable concept. I consider it something that you can play, interact, interpret and reinterpret. Think of a river - a flowing river. If it stagnates then nothing is going to grow in it and it does not support any life. If little streams add to it there is a flow; life and movement.

In India there are hundreds of painters working traditionally. How many of them are working as an artist? The same goes for Afghani and Iranian artists who have been trained in these amazing skills but those skills are static. If you compare their work to work from centuries ago you don’t see any movement. In one hand, its amazing they are continuing those technical skills; they are keeping it alive.

Where is it heading though? Traditional elements can be twisted and interacted with.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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