Persian miniatures, retooled for today

BEIRUT: Dating back to the 16th century, the muraqqa is an album of miniature illustrations and calligraphy, usually taken from several sources. The form helped make miniature figuration the preponderant form across a broad swath of the Muslim world, from Mughal India, to Safavid Persia, to the Ottoman Empire. As time passed, individual readers began to view each miniature of the muraqqa as a freestanding work rather than part of an ensemble of images.

It is that same perspective that Gemmayzeh’s ArtLab gallery is following in its latest exhibition entitled “Persian Minis.” Displaying more than 120 small-sized artworks by nine Iranian artists, this show highlights the shift from traditional Persia to modern Iran.

Miniatures by Hasan Moosavi, Mansoureh Hosseini, Safa Kasaei, Saba Soleimani, Mahshid Raghemi, Sepideh Kazemi, Nahid Kazemi, Milad Khanevadeh and Maryam Tabatabaei suggest an artistic kaleidoscope from drawings to paintings and mixed-media works.

Each of the works on exhibit represents a story in itself, so that the “content” of the show ranges widely from childlike visions of the world, to archive photos, to esoteric realms and abstract art.

The show includes a large selection of works by Milad Khanevadeh, each of which exudes originality. Buttons, wires, feathers and other recycled items have been glued atop old photos.

Other artists gave new life to miniaturized versions of well-known master works.

Saba Souleymani has given a contemporary reading to James McNeill Whistler’s famous “Whistler’s Mother,” transforming it completely. Here we find a much younger looking woman, wearing a black gown and white headdress, like in the original, but superimposed over her face is a sketch of a wolf’s face. The “mother” is now transformed in a 21st-century version of the Little Red Riding Hood’s grandma – although with a white bonnet.

Surrounding the miniature work is a text in Persian letters, no doubt explaining the character’s situation in the illustration.

Another Souleymani work takes inspiration from Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” Painted in 1930, this well-known painting portrays a pair of aged dirt farmers, a man and a woman, in the distinctive garb of the rural U.S.

In Souleymani’s version, the aged farmer stands next to a child – dressed in a red cape and hat, so that she approximates Red Riding Hood. The farmer has a set of pointed ears appended to the top of his head and the huge fork (a residue of Wood’s original) is oddly foreshortened at the handle. The ensemble gives the farmer a predatory, vaguely menacing, aspect – one accentuated by his touching Red Riding Hood.

The fretful-looking woman usually represented next to the farmer’s is here in the background, standing behind a tree as if in hiding while watching the man and child pose. As in the artist’s other work, a text in Farsi surrounds the vista.

Mansoureh Hoseini’s watercolors deliver its viewers to a world that is nearly aquatic.

All of his works bear similar items such as the fish, animals and ill-defined circular shapes.

His palette is dominated by shades of brown. Some onlookers may find in Hoseini’s technique a minimalist, altered vision of that of Marc Chagall. Although Chagall uses much brighter colors, Hoseini’s works leave that same impression, which is that the characters seem to be either constantly falling or flying.

This surrealistic feeling in the Iranian miniature is punctuated by recurring items, like Chagall’s works with the bride, goat and musical instruments.

In some of the works in “Persian Minis” viewers find miniatures being used to illustrate a text.

In Nahid Kazemi’s illustrations, trains, birds, trees, buildings and landscapes frame an invisible text. The illustration on its own does not lack meaning or depth. As in the classical muraqqa, each illustration holds significance.

In one of Kazemi’s works, three brides are rendered in an unidentified context. What attracts the onlooker’s attention is how lightness, motion and wind are rendered in the drawing.

Although we see the amount of details in the work, it does not oppress the paper. The detail is balanced by the work’s dynamism.

The other works on show are very different from one another. They all provoke an interest as each has its own backstory. This exhibition enables viewers to see not only the contemporary power of tradition, not least in the treasure trove that is Iran’s arts scene.

“Persian Minis” is on show at Gemmayzeh’s ArtLab gallery until Feb. 1. For more information, please call 01-560-567.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 16, 2014, on page 16.




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