Khadim Ali on Miniature Painting and his Process

3:56 | Published on December 13, 2013 | 456 Views

Artist Khadim Ali talks about the history and meaning of miniature painting in Afghanistan, and his use of traditional tools and techniques to represent characters and themes from the epic Persian Shahnameh (Book of kings)—including the heroic figure of Rustam. He also discusses a recent move toward larger-scale work and the creative freedom he has experienced while living and working in Australia.

For more information, visit the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative.

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Miniature painting is a kind of painting that was first started in Central Asia. And the first school of miniature painting was established by one of the Turkmen kings, Tamerlane, in a western city of Afghanistan called Herat, and under the supervision of old master Behezad. And when the Uzbek sacked Herat, all these miniature painters, all these miniaturists went to Iran. And then from then onward, Afghanistan was deprived of their own artworks. And then The Book of kings, the Shahnameh we had back at home, it had the copies of illustrations done by Behezad. So, my first encounter with miniature painting was from my childhood, and then looking at the image of a hero, looking at images of demons, and looking at the images of those places. 

When I went to Iran in 1996, ’97, I came across Western art. It was modern painting, modern art. But back when I got admission to the National College of Arts, I came to know that they offer degrees in miniature painting. And I said, there’s nothing that can be better than this!

It’s a really traditionally bound technique—a courtly bound technique, I should say—you know, making your brushes with squirrel-tail hair, or kitten hair, and preparing your paper, and making your own pigments. And it’s two-dimensional works. And it’s very illustrative, too. And it’s obvious from its name, it’s miniature.

But now, I’m going beyond that scale. I’m just doing big works, and really, really big works, like, taller than my own height. But I’m using the same materials used in miniature painting.

Once I start the painting, I just take my time. And if sometime I leave the painting for one year, for two years, and then after two years, I again start working on those paintings. And, it’s not different layers of artwork under it; it’s just the different layers of time. So, there are paintings in different times, and with different moods, with different places. I started the work in Afghanistan, and I painted a little bit in Pakistan, then I finished it in Sydney.

The subject that I’m dealing with is the hero in the book of Shahnameh. Rustam is a symbol of good and the dark side of the humanity is symbolized as a demon. So, he’s fighting demons. And in the end of the story, Rustam was betrayed by one of his own friend, and got killed. My work is also inspired by those stories. I’m painting demons, or the collectives of Hazaras. That they were treated as demons. They were killed, because they think that we are not human. The book is actually a secular book. Yet it was politicized, and the people who have this demonish character, they are calling themselves Rustam.

My fear of showing these demons in Afghanistan, or showing these demons in part of Pakistan, is I don’t want people to look at those painting in religious contexts.

In Australia, one thing’s for sure, that it’s an open platform, you know? We have the freedom of our speech. In terms of art, I can do whatever I want to. I work without any fear that I had in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yeah. And I’m just exploring myself.