The Reinvention of the Art of the Miniature

Putting a new spin on traditional themes, an artist revitalizes a once-popular form of painting

Shahzia Sikander painting
Separate Working Things I, vegetable color, dry pigment, watercolor and tea on walk paper, 1993-1995. The painting borrows archetypal images of romantic love. Private Collection, ©2021 Shahzia Sikander, courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly, New York

In South Asia in the 15th and 16th centuries, skilled miniature painters packed epic scenes onto canvases the size of a playing card, using brushes made from a single squirrel hair. But by the late 1980s, when Shahzia Sikander was a teenager in Pakistan, the once-celebrated art form had faded into kitsch, tarnished by a colonial period that saw major works divided and sold in the West. “I gravitated to it because I wanted to understand where that stigma comes from,” says Sikander, whose “neo-miniatures” are the subject of a retrospective opening this month at New York’s Morgan Library & Museum. Sikander spent two years learning the technique, which she used to explore modern themes like gender and the legacy of colonial histories. As her work won worldwide acclaim in the 1990s and early 2000s, it inspired a rehabilitation of the genre. “I wanted to make it into a contemporary idiom,” Sikander says. “And now miniature painting has become a bigger thing.”

The Reinvention of the Art of the Miniature
Uprooted Order, Series 3, No.1, 1997, vegetable color, dry pigment, watercolor, and tea on wasli paper. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Joseph Havel and Lisa Ludwig, © Shahzia Sikander. Courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly, New York

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This article is a selection from the June issue of Smithsonian magazine