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Self and Cosmos

A recent show at Chawkandi Art Gallery presents the latest series of works by young neo-miniaturist, Ali Gillani, who’s work re-appropriates imag

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A recent show at Chawkandi Art Gallery presents the latest series of works by young neo-miniaturist, Ali Gillani, who’s work re-appropriates imagery and established iconography from various miniature and literary sources into a subjective vernacular of symbolism and personal significance to delineate his narrative. His personal style renders the unfolding scene in monochromatic texture, etched through repetitive linework moving in opposing directions, creating a saturated canvas reigned in through geometry and color play.


There is a sense of dichotomy in Gillani’s work, manifested blatantly through the demarcation of the picture plane into light and dark in some of the works through geometric abstraction, and in the unfolding narratives, which seem to present an unfolding battle between opposing forces; valiant soldiers on horses and winged figures, hybrid humanoid demons with animal heads and large serpentine dragons. But it can also be seen in the language the artist employs to present this narrative through; the monochromatic geometric abstraction contrasts with the thematic representational elements, but also serves to keep them situated in the space.


The fields of texture present pockets of activity connected through a single gold thread and clouds of crimson hues, creating a chaotic atmosphere. This seems to represent an inner conflict, a turmoil within that perhaps is being resolved on the artist’s canvas. According to Nusrat Khuwaja in her essay for the e-catalogue, “His art reflects on the nature of reality in which hierarchy, conflict, and the search for an authentic self are continuously engaging with and reconfiguring themselves within a cosmic framework. In this manner, he challenges the boundaries of self, ego and identity within the limitless framework of the cosmos.”


The iconography developed by Gillani draws from various sources, including Indo-Persian and Chinese miniature painting, literature and mythology, but associates his own personal symbolism to these characters. For example, the figure of the Karg from the Shahnameh epic makes multiple appearance in Gilani’s work, a monstrous horned wolf who was shown in the Mongol Shahnameh being killed by the legendary king Bahram Gur. However, here the Karg appears as more of a hybrid creature shrouded in shadow much like the other figures in Gilani’s works, turned into a symbol for the inner demons that we all carry.

Another recurring symbol is the elongated scaled dragon which is rather serpentine, which is borrowed from Chinese mythology and has also found its way into Muslim iconography. A symbol of strength and good luck for the Chinese, in Gillani’s work it represents the empowered self. Thus, many of the battles that seem to be taking place in these work read as inner battles of the psyche, unfolding in a cosmic sea in a spiritual plain. Khuwaja says in her essay, “The concept of the self or ego also plays a prominent role in Sufi doctrine, where it is known as ‘Nafs’. It contrasts with the elevated or spiritual plane of the spirit or ‘Ruh’. These concepts also make an oblique occurrence in Gillani’s iconography. He depicts the horse with its rider that is earthbound with the winged angels that occupy a lofty and esoteric dimension.”

While each individual work focuses on slightly more specifics aspects of this inner battle, the series of works over all seem to represent an endless conflict, where the self seeks to overpower its demons. The human psyche is presented as a complex entity, with many layers and levels, darkness and light, truth and falsehoods, needs and wants. At times good and evil can co-exist, at others one wins over the other. Life then becomes an endless spiritual quest to overpower the Id that only wants instant gratification and worldly pleasures, and to seek to empower and exalt the self.

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