Muhammad Zeeshan is a young but established artist who entered the Miniature Department at National College of Arts in 2000 as a naive young man with an abundance of talent and little else. Today, he is at the forefront of contemporary miniature painting and has held hugely successful shows across the globe. He has recently returned to Pakistan after a two year stay in the US.
ArtNow: You were amongst the first few artists to skew our perspective of neo-miniature in Pakistan. While audiences were still swooning over the traditionalism of the aesthetics you introduced the element of pop culture and erotic representation. What made you take the route?
MZ: To answer this question I shall have to pull out references from the early 50’s when the miniature practice was retrieved from the courts into an academic setting of Mayo School of Arts with Haji Muhammad Sharif as its academic head. A syllabus was created for the craftsmen of the time to learn miniature as an institutional form. I believe that Haji Sharif was the first person who brought forth the establishment of Miniature as a school system, alternately introducing the traditional practice in a contemporary form. Haji Sharif himself belonged to the traditional method of learning art (and I appreciate the challenges a student of that background faces after becoming a teacher of a school of thought where there is Modern academics involved) I feel it was a big step for Haji Sharif to have introduced the first syllabus regarding Miniature painting. Thereafter, many contributed to the ‘contemporary’ journey of Miniature which was then suitably funded in order to bring it to its present glory.
I was a small part of the clan who graduated in 2003 from NCA, pushing forward the legacy, which became instructional some 60 years ago. My teacher was Imran Qureshi, a name well known in the miniature world and I feel that I was lucky to have been a part of his academic setting because I got the chance to experience the full magnificence of miniature under his guidance. Because we are now a part of the international platform we are sophisticated enough to use words like Neo, Contemporary but the attitude fashioned during Haji Sharif’s time when the craft of the miniature entered the Modernity of Mayo School of Arts.
As far as the erotic representation is concerned, well I would have to say that these images are not erotic to me, they were/are a means of livelihood! I started work as a cinema board painter in Mirpurkhas. The cinema showed porn and I was hired as a team member of the painters where I had to censor the images to an extent that they tweaked to capture the interest of the passing viewer on the street. Exposed to such images at an early age they became normal every day visuals. Pop culture imagery was routine painting. Billboards of either a popular soft drink brand, or paid portraits of political candidates during elections on walls were part and parcel of daily work. So it was quite ordinary for me to use them in my compositions.
AN: Have you been influenced by billboard artists whom you may have seen in your city of origin during your days before you joined art school?
MZ: Definitely! The most popular name artist of the billboard genre was Mirza Irshad Baig. He is quite well known in Mirpurkhas and he was my teacher (ustaad) when I was learning painting initially. My basic art education was under him. Another artist who has inspired me greatly is Iqbal Mehdi. I never got the chance to see his original works but he was a magazine/digest artist and his illustrations would feature in various weekly digests, which I would tear out and keep in a collection. I have some 500 of his illustrations, which I would copy and make to learn.
AN: You said once that your time at NCA was difficult for you, physically and financially? Were there any teachers who helped you?
MZ: Yes, there were many who have helped me conceptually. My main challenge after stepping into the world of NCA was to go through the synchronous metamorphosis. I belonged to a traditional background with conventional surroundings. NCA is a biosphere where there were modern, liberal, traditional, contemporary even rigid strains of thought all coexisting together. I had so much choice. When you have been dictated throughout your life about what to do, how to do it and where to do it, it is quite humbling to find independence all of a sudden. I chose the contemporary attitude because I was drawn to it. My first teacher who influenced me, how to ‘see’/’assess’ and whose teachings I still follow is Quddus Mirza. He introduced me to the art of ‘looking’ and choosing what to draw on the paper when ‘looking’ at a given object. It was most liberating since I was given the power to differentiate between my old traditional practice and the new system of academia. Hamra Abbas is someone whom I used to help after college hours. She was a masters’ student at the time and I used to help her with her sculptures. I felt that was an enriching experience. I was involved with her art practice and it is always a novel opportunity to see an artist at work.
Imran Qureshi was someone I looked up to and he helped me acquire many independent projects from outside college, which helped me to earn enough to get through the month. Sajjda Haider Vandal, National College of Arts Principal of the time was someone who helped me with subsidizing not only the monthly college fee but also my hostel fee. She secured funding from outside college as well. And I am proud to mention here that throughout my college life I was the top student of my department and therefore bagged the ‘Merit’ and ‘Grant’ Scholarships, which were enough to relieve me of the burdensome fees.
AN: Were the years away from Pakistan fruitful for you? Did you work and exhibit in the US? Did you feel tempted to stay on and not return?
MZ: I believe I am someone, who works best in unusual and unfamiliar circumstances. I love traveling, especially because I come across such diverse cultures, practices and people. I have done workshops and residencies in Britain, Germany, and India. I have re-visited these places either for exhibiting or to reunite with friends. Yes, traveling has immensely effected my working methods and images. During my stay in the US, I got the opportunity to exhibit in many countries and perhaps the most interesting opportunity was an invitation for a time-based installation project at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, California. It was an exhilarating experience. But I never wanted to stay on in the US. The urge to return home was strong. I wanted to be back. I guess I was homesick. But it was a great working environment for me.
AN: Tell us about Dying Miniature. The works were shown in Pakistan in your absence so audiences never got a chance to hear about it from you. The images were silhouetted and stark and difficult to deconstruct and there was much speculation about the title.
MZ: Dying miniature can be best described as an institutional critique of miniature painting. I studied miniature and I teach it as well. I am recognized as a miniaturist and therefore this project was about what the medium means to me and how it is understood in today’s world. The fact that I have been positioned/categorized in the miniature world as a neo-miniaturist opens a lot of queries. What is ‘neo’ or contemporary? If the practice of miniature is contemporary then it is stemming from the traditional and then modern practice of the discipline. How and when are we recognizing these periods to have taken place? During my teaching sessions, I initiate the class with the basics. The traditional aspect of miniature is highlighted through the printed images present in the library or on the Internet. Court practice, handmade discipline and craftsmanship is part of the training and are elements that are glorified during the introduction. And when I ask the students to bring the materials, I send them to shop for Winsor & Newton colors, Scholar sheets, and certain brand brushes. The source is a printed image in a particular book, which perhaps is a reproduction of another printed image. Printing itself is such a contemporary attitude, and then to expect an acquisition of the miniature’s fine line detail understanding from a printed image, which has been built with primary color dots to create the illusion of the pigment, and a pixelated line, is such a wholesome contemporary experience that I find the company of tradition preoccupied quite thoroughly. Therefore I feel that I have never learnt traditional miniature technique. I was introduced to the contemporary art practice from day one and I am doing the same as a teacher.
The technique of miniature requires certain steps to be followed. A smooth burnished surface; fine light line, small-scale traditional images. For ‘Dying Miniature’, I reversed the process. I use an abrasive surface, which was an industrial sand paper. I used hard, dark graphite strokes, which are built in numerous layers to represent a shiny jewel like surface, and I used the copy images in silhouette where the details are non-existent and the scale is enormous. The beauty of the Dying Miniature for me is in its finished surface. Where I was scratching the abrasive surface with graphite to build layers upon layers, the finished product is burnished and shiny as opposed to the traditional miniature where the initial surface is burnished and shiny. The title was chosen for the works to create speculation so I guess it was the right move.
AN: Why have you felt the need to explore such technologically advanced mediums as laser scoring? Do you think it will add to your growth and stature as an artist if you have delved into contemporary mediums?
MZ: I think I am already part of the ‘Contemporary Medium’. Using the laser cutter technology may increase my stature and growth as an artist. I came across the laser cutter machines during one of the auditing sessions of my wife Kaif’s classes in San Francisco. A demo was being held for the undergrad students of design and architecture of what the machine could do. I was mesmerized by the possibilities it opened for me. Ideas rushed into my mind and I felt the ‘aha!’ moment. I saw the technique as part of our everyday lives. Furniture, utensils, buildings etc are all things made with the help of the laser cutter. Drawing is something that I love doing. It is part of my daily practice and part of the reason I was so drawn to the scoring aspect of the laser cutter. I was looking for a way to capture free hand drawing through various mediums; a medium, which would imitate my drawing principles and elements to the last dot. The beauty of the laser cutter lies in the way I can influence the laser’s intensity. The hot red point follows the exact pattern with the exact intensity and precision as indicated by my free hand instruction. It is a beautiful mimicking machine, which creates non-mechanical results upon your direction.
AN: What do you think is the reason behind the success of artists coming from Hyderabad, Mirpur Khas, Tando Allahyar and other cities of Sindh? Is there a defining factor that you think has propelled these artists?
MZ: The artists that you have hinted towards are a few from this region who are known. They also seem to have the same couple of teachers under whose guidance they all were trained. So there is a connection between the teachers and the students. Being a trainee with these teachers you need a certain kind of attitude, which is very much required in the art world, a consistency, a focus. These students have that and therefore slowly and steadily have built their careers and name in the contemporary art world. Another major encouraging factor for all the artists from this region including myself is the name of R.M. Naeem. R.M. is the pioneer artist who came from the region of Sindh and made a name in the NCA/art world. His success proved to us and many after us, that a space can be created and earned with hard work and good strategy. His standing in the past and today is a success example and a source of encouragement for many teachers and parents that a life can be carved out for oneself in the world of art with perseverance and a good attitude.