In 2019, two Persian paintings sold in a private-auction house, in London, for roughly eight hundred thousand pounds each. The paintings were illuminated manuscripts, or “miniature” paintings, and they belonged to the same book: a fifteenth-century edition of the Nahj al-Faradis, which narrates Muhammad’s journey through the layers of heaven and hell. The original book, once an artistic masterpiece, had been ripped apart, reduced to sixty lavish images. Bound, the manuscript was likely worth a few million pounds; dismembered, its contents have sold for more than fifty million.
The dismembering of manuscripts is part of a larger story, a tale of extractive patronage and the passage of empires. The term “miniature” is a colonial creation, a catchall category for a diverse array of figurative paintings that emerged in modern-day Iran, Turkey, and Central and South Asia. During imperial rule, most illuminated manuscripts were claimed by private collections and museums in Europe, where many still reside in storage, effectively erased. (In 1994, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran had to trade a de Kooning in order to repatriate part of a sixteenth-century manuscript.) The craft, too, was diminished. When colonial schools taught the “fine arts,” manuscript painting was neglected. Even after independence, Pakistan’s premier art academy, the National College of Arts, emphasized Western traditions.
By the time the artist Shahzia Sikander arrived at the N.C.A., in 1987, manuscript painting was seen as kitsch. But, on campus, Sikander was introduced to Bashir Ahmed, one of the few artists linked to the craft’s legacy. Ahmed had studied with Sheikh Shuja Ullah, the last in a family of Mughal court artists, and, in 1982, he had founded a two-year program in miniature painting, the first of its kind. Many saw Ahmed as an outré traditionalist, but Sikander sensed an opportunity to explore—and remake—a form ignored by the art world. She spent up to eighteen hours a day training in Ahmed’s small studio, learning everything she could about the form’s original methods, down to picking hair from a squirrel’s tail for one of her brushes.
The process of creating the paintings, which historically were commissioned to illustrate religious stories, scientific texts, poetry, tales, and imperial histories, was meticulous. Before illustration even began, the paper had to be made and prepared, the folios burnished and cut. Tea was applied to give the paper subtle layers of color. Artists would then sketch and outline their work, and pigment specialists would apply watercolor, building varying tones with tiny brushstrokes. Backgrounds and architectural spaces were decorated with arabesques, rhythmic designs meant to capture the beauty of nature and God’s creation. Using fine brushes made of only a few hairs, artists would then outline the final composition.
While immersed in her training, Sikander also began interrogating power—the way it shaped the world, and at whose expense. Growing up in the eighties, during Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship, she experienced a shift toward restrictions on freedom, the politicization of religion, and the policing of public life. At the same time, America’s military presence in the region was seeping into Pakistani culture, introducing anti-Communist propaganda and the valorization of war. As Sikander observed this complex political landscape, the art of miniature painting presented her with a frontier. Using a subjugated form that had been consigned to the past, she could try to depict the tensions of the present.