At the peak of Islamic power, armies from Arabia traveled across what would later become the Islamicate world. In their conquest, numerous diverse cultures and societies fell under their reign and many became arabized. Some prominent examples include the Berber cultures of North Africa and the historical area of Syria. In history and in myths, it is said that the Persian Empire was the first to resist this colonization when Ferdowsi wrote the Shahnnameh or The Book of Kings, circa 977, in a particularly high poetic and literary form of Persian, leading to its revival and rise. Over time, the influence of this Persianate world, Iranzamin, grew and expanded west, east and north, influencing the heritage of empires such as the Ottoman and Mughal in their architecture, literature, administration and art. One of its lasting legacies is of course that of the Persian miniature painting style, which was influential in the development of miniature painting within the Mughal Empire.
It is thus appropriate that Muhammad Zeeshan’s exhibit is aptly titled Safarnama. His new body of work at Canvas Gallery deals with this theme of travel in the context of our syncretic heritage, Hindu and Muslim, Iranian and Indian. Zeeshan, who was trained in miniature at the National Gallery of Arts, is part of the now established and global neo-miniature movement, in his own works is critiquing this stylistic technique and exploring new ways to work with it. This is apparent in his use of techniques such as laser scoring which represents an emerging body of work that is experimental yet rooted in cultural heritage. It must be noted that Zeeshan’s heritage, from Mirpurkhas in Sindh might also be have directly influenced his current body of work, given Sindh’s historical links to Sufism and Hinduism, and current anxieties in the province around the forces of extremism. This current solo exhibit comes on the heels of Zeeshan’s ‘Posternama’, related in style and execution, and continues to showcase the artist’s historical skills in signboard painting, but also his relationship to his formal training in the arts.
In the preamble to the exhibit, Muniza Agha Fawad states that ‘honoring historical and metaphysical figures from Hinduism, mysticism and Islam, the characters of ‘Safarnama’ celebrate the Subcontinent’s cultural diversity’. In light of growing homogeneity on both sides of the border, Zeeshan’s characters embody not only these individuals on the theme to travel, which has remained an important concept of exchange of ideas and cultures globally and religiously. These concepts also interweave over religion – for example Jhulelal, is dear to both Muslims and Hindus, while others are more specific to a religious group or sect. Buraq, of course is a classic representation of the ascension of the Holy Prophet in Islam. The figure here represents not only the heavenly journey that transcends space and time but also how these figures acquire meaning as their concepts themselves travel geographically in the imagination of the believers. In addition, the Buraq, as many of the other symbolic depictions in this exhibit is also part of popular visual culture. Her depiction is found in truck art, and sign painting, showcasing Zeeshan’s ability to borrow and engage with the local.
Zeeshan’s technique is a unique way of depicting these ideas. Perfecting the art of laser scoring, his work at one reveals and veils the characters presented to us, perhaps a direct homage to Sufi philosophy on our own limited knowledge of the world. On dark green wasli background, which Zeeshan says has been glued six sheets together for the process of to be successful, Ghous Pak looks melancholy. The figure is beautifully constructed and Ghous Pak is re-imagined to us as he is depicted in the vernacular; as in the memory of the oral histories of the peoples of the subcontinent. Zeeshan’s process includes pre-sketching these large works in individual parts, and then working with laser printer to create the final works. He then applies his miniature techniques to selected parts of the figure usually the face is the most prominent, that is vibrant with colour. The rest of the image is realistically presented, with the most delicate features. Ghous Pak’s shield is made apparent to us despite the minimal use of colour, and attention is paid to the minutest of detail.
Both physical and spiritual travel has always been rooted in the sharing ideas and cultures, allowing a beautiful pluralism to emerge within a society. In light of growing homogeneity in our country and a decrease in space for the moderate forces, perhaps it is works and concepts such as those given to use by Muhammad Zeeshan that can lead us to think back about our own mixed heritage, and find a way to reclaim these modes of thinking again.
‘Safarnama’ was on at Canvas Gallery, Karachi, from 4-13 March 2014.
Aziz Sohail is Studio Director for Rashid Rana Studio and an independent curator and critic based between Karachi and Lahore