Contempory Miniature Painter
Up to now, the art collections from South, Southeast and Central Asia in the Museum für Asiatische Kunst have been organized on an archaeological and art historical basis. The inventory (2nd century BC to 19th century AD) has been presented as a historically closed chapter; visitors still leave the permanent exhibition without hearing a single word about the survival of corresponding artistic traditions into the present. The contemporary art movements in the places of origin of these old objects are not addressed, although, since the opening of the Bornemann version of the museum in 1970, a markedly increased intercontinental mobility and the internet have brought a completely new quality to the interaction between European and non-European cultures.
In the future Humboldt-Forum this living, contemporary artistic practice is to be brought into focus. With this in mind, the Museum für Asiatische Kunst has decided to do justice to the most recent developments in South, Southeast and Central Asian art by setting up an artist-in-residence program, bringing young artists from the places of origin of the older items in the collection, and giving them a platform. To establish a clear demarcation between the museum and institutions of contemporary art, this will take place in a way that is only possible in a house that holds a collection such as that of Berlin-Dahlem: establishing a relationship with the classic masterpieces and permitting a comparison with them.
Pilot project: contemporary miniature painting with Waseem Ahmed
As a test-run, the Humboldt Lab Dahlem mounted the project “Dahlem Karkhana” or, to put it another way, set up a “Miniature Studio Dahlem.” It consisted of two phases: a studio phase during the Probebühne 4 and an exhibition during Probebühne 5. Waseem Ahmed, a prominent representative of the so-called contemporary miniature painting – a socially-critical art movement in Pakistan – was invited to be resident artist. He graduated from the National College of Arts in Lahore and is an expert not only in traditional South Asian painting techniques, but finds inspiration in post-modern discourse and current social issues. His paintings subtly deal with themes like abuse, religious indoctrination and fundamentalist violence. On first glance they appear to be idyllic, impressing with their masterful technique and harmonious compositions. But a deeper examination reveals disconcerting, deliberately placed alienation effects: blood seeps from the roots of a tree, its leaves become characters of an imaginary text. The idylls become friable.
For the museum visitor there arises a surprising linkage between the old miniatures in the museum’s collection (ostensibly belonging to a past epoch) and the topical, totally divorced from art, largely catastrophic media images from the region. To the voices of the media reporters, who, despite intensive research give essentially an “outsider” perspective, there is added an artistic language of imagery, a (critical) “insider” viewpoint.
Studio and exhibition as a space for encounters
For the residency, the Museum für Asiatische Kunst set up a temporary miniature studio with a Pakistani ambiance: the room’s perimeters were laid out with carpets and cushions for prospective students; the designated workplace for the Ustad, the master, was established in a prominent place on a particularly large and beautiful carpet, with a low South Asian writing table. Here, in painstaking hours of work every day, Ahmed produced four fantastic new works, drawing inspiration from four art works in the Berlin collections (three from the Museum für Asiatische Kunst, and one from the Gemäldegalerie).
Very much to the surprise of the curators, after long deliberation, Ahmed decided not to work with any of the numerous miniature paintings in the Berlin-Dahlem collection. Instead, the artist was drawn to the Buddhist murals from Central Asia, which had previously been completely unknown to him. Their special color palette and motifs had him enraptured, and the empty spaces left by the passage of time (i.e. large areas of damage), as “void spaces,” inspired him to create his own original additions. They offered him a rich, new repertoire of motifs for his own core themes, mainly a discourse with forms of religious fundamentalism, which he also pursued during the Dahlem Project. Finally, for the fourth Dahlem miniature, he was inspired by “The Man in the Golden Helmet” from the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. In this way, a completely new body of work was born.
In several open studio sessions and a full week’s intensive workshop, the public was given the opportunity of gaining insight into the art of painting miniatures and the use of traditional techniques, and even to take the first steps themselves. At the same time the public could become involved in the whole artistic creative process and also enter into a personal dialog with the artist. For the workshop participants it was particularly impressive to witness how much contemplative tranquility and patient practice is necessary, in order to coax the necessary fine lines from the squirrel-hair brushes, the primary tool of the miniature painter; or the mixing of pigments, gum arabic and saphed (white base paint) in order to make the paints and subsequently create the picture, layer by layer, in painstaking craftsmanship, building gradually from the rudimentary areas to finer detailing.
The Solo exhibition displayed during his residency in Berlin Dahlem showed Ahmed’s newly completed pieces, together with 33 of his older works (retrospective). For this purpose 18 of these were on loan from Pakistan, England, Belgium and Switzerland. The exhibition was able to reveal important themes from Ahmed’s work, from his final period as a student, up to the present, with a personal commentary by the artist himself. At the same time the exhibition connected his work explicitly with items from the South Asian collection, in the sense that the contemporary miniatures were confronted with thematically related old album pages in the collection of the Museum für Asiatische Kunst. These entered into a multi-layered dialog with Ahmed’s own paintings. The filmmaker Lidia Rossner, lecturer in visual anthropology at the Freie Universität Berlin, accompanied the painter during his residency. The short film “Sound of Painting” that resulted, managed to capture important aspects of the project.
For the curator, the exchange with Ahmed was very important, and through their dialog she gained insight not only into the works he had created but, in addition, to many aspects of the old tradition. Through discussions on contemporary artistic creativity, as well as the way we look at art itself, the old miniatures in the collection could be seen in a different light. Alongside the opportunity of communicating with the artist directly, the public was, above all, impressed by the vitality of a skilled tradition that was thought to be defunct, and by the connection between that old tradition and the highly socially critical topicality of the paintings’ subject matter. It is precisely here that the commissioning and the success of a future artist-in-residence program for the Humboldt-Forum could lie.
Martina Stoye is curator for South and Southeast Asian art at the Museum für Asiatische Kunst Berlin.