Re-inventing the Miniature Painting

Reinventing the Miniature Painting, Written by Louis Werner, Photographed by Kevin Bubriski
Using a fine brush that, in centuries past, would have been handmade from squirrel-tail hairs, a student of the miniature tradition begins by practicing the classical techniques.
Hira Mansoor works while Qureshi critiques another student. “Everything should have a meaning and a purpose,” he says, “but not everything has the same degree of meaning.”
Hira Mansoor works while instructor Imran Qureshi critiques another student. “Everything should have a meaning and a purpose,” he says, “but not everything has the same degree of meaning.”

Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kimfamously begins with the boy hero seated astride a cannon in front of the Lahore Museum, called in Urdu the Aja’ib Gehr, or “Wonder House,” marveling at all that was inside. Today, another kind of Wonder House is just next door to the museum, in the Miniature Painting Department of Pakistan’s National College of Arts (NCA).

Here, in a two-year intensive program that is a kind of modern karkhana, or Mughal painting workshop, students learn meticulous techniques, including ultrafine figure drawing and brushwork, tea staining of page borders and burnishing of paper surfaces—as well as how to work with such centuries-old materials as brushes made of squirrel-tail hair; handmade, multi-layered paper called wasli; and mussel-shell paint pots. Later, they give their imagination free rein to create new possibilities and new meanings for this highly disciplined tradition, in the context of a contemporary art world where few rules still seem to apply.

Except for a faint bleeding of sound from students’ iPods, silence reigns in the miniatures room.In recent years, contemporary Pakistani miniature painting has caught the eye of the international art crowd. There are frequent group and solo shows in London, New York, Paris, New Delhi, Hong Kong and Japan. Shahzia Sikander, a miniaturist and 1993 NCA graduate, won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (the so-called “genius award”) in 2006, as well as her government’s National Medal of Honor. In the same year, a landmark exhibition of miniatures painted collaboratively by six artists, initiated by NCA teacher Imran Qureshi, had a well-reviewed run at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut. In September, the Asia Society in New York will open a major show of contemporary Pakistani art that will include works by several of the country’s top neo-miniaturists.

Instructor Imran Qureshi has exhibited his modern miniatures from Pakistan to the US.
Instructor Imran Qureshi has exhibited his modern miniatures from Pakistan to the US.

It was, in fact, Rudyard Kipling’s father, Lockwood, who in 1875 founded what is now the NCA, then called the Mayo School of Art, with the intention of training a new generation of creative national artists who could draw on the collection of the Lahore Museum for inspiration. The NCA is now Pakistan’s premier institution granting Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees, and annually some 20,000 applicants seek one of its 150 admission slots; of these, only a dozen or so are chosen for the miniature-painting major.

Qureshi explains that it takes a special sort of student to major in miniatures, as opposed to, say, studio painting or printmaking. First of all, miniature painters sit on the floor all day, holding their paper up close to their eyes, bracing their painting arm against the body. “The hand becomes the palette, shells the mixing bowls. The floor replaces the stool, and the lap becomes the easel,” he says.

Rearranging figures from old paintings and adding new ones teaches students elements of composition.
Rearranging figures from old paintings and adding new ones teaches students elements of composition.

Minute, repetitive brush strokes render delicate figures in a painstaking technique called pardakht, a kind of linear pointillisme. It’s a far cry from the drips and splashes tossed about by the easel painters in the studio next door. Except for a faint bleeding of sound from students’ iPods, silence reigns in in the miniatures room.

Miniaturists choose their genre for reasons that derive from their personalities. Ayesha Durrani, a 2003 NCA graduate who now teaches first-year drawing, admits to being “a neat freak” who loves miniatures “because they are so civilized.” Rubaba Haider, an ethnic Hazara (an Afghan minority of Persian descent) whose family now lives in Quetta, switched her interest from computer science to painting when she discovered people with “almond-shaped eyes like mine” in her grandfather’s collection of Persian miniatures. The mental discipline required by pardakht, she says, is roughly equal to that demanded by computer programming.

“Painters must place themselves into the tradition without being smothered by it,” says former NCA principal Salima Hashmi, “and still enjoy its delicious rigor.”
“Painters must place themselves into the tradition without being smothered by it,” says former NCA principal Salima Hashmi, “and still enjoy its delicious rigor.”

Aisha Abid, a 2008 graduate who admits to being something of a subversive at heart, subverts the miniature-making process itself by building up her wasli paper to a couple of centimeters’ thickness, covering it in imaginary writing, in homage to its former use for manuscript illustration, and then attacking the whole thing with a knife. “I’ve always wondered, ever since I was small, ‘How did the old painters do it?’ I was first intrigued by their technique. Yet I was also afraid of being restricted just to copying their art. It was only when I saw the NCA senior art show that my eyes opened—here was true personal expression within tight bounds.”

Head of the fine arts department Bashir Ahmed, known to his students as “Bashir sahib,” or simply ustad (“teacher”), is the last in a lineage of traditional miniature painters that began at the NCA in the 1940’s with Shaikh Shujaullah, former court painter to the Maharajah of Amber in Rajasthan, and Hajji Mohammad Sharif, former court painter of the Punjabi princely state of Alwar Patiala.

“Miniature as attitude” is an attempt not to follow the tradition blindly.Says Ahmed, “Here we must squeeze the eight years of the traditional apprenticeship into the last two years of a BFA. So we must hurry—but not too much. I always ask my students to slow down the clock, to take four days to make what they think they can do in one. If they do it too quickly, I send them back to take more time. Students are free to use the techniques we give them over the first years to do what they want in the last. But I insist on a firm foundation.”

Ahmed founded the miniature department in 1985 at the urging of Pakistan’s leading modernist painter, Zahoor ul-Akhlaq, who, as a student at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in the 1960’s, pioneered miniatures in a contemporary idiom. His homage to a well-known equestrian portrait of Emperor Shah Jahan’s three sons by court painter Balchand redrew the human figures into silhouettes and crosshatched out all reference to the landscape, lending it an effect akin to a Jasper Johns flag painting—culturally iconic imagery rendered in a new style that implied instability, even chaotic change. Art historian Virginia Whiles, freelance curator and expert in contemporary Pakistani art, says this painting “played a pivotal role in the reinvention of the miniature” and seeded an effort to “localize modernism” in a Pakistani tradition.

“We must squeeze the eight years of the traditional apprenticeship into the last two years of a BFA,” observes Bashir Ahmed, who founded the miniature department in 1985.
“We must squeeze the eight years of the traditional apprenticeship into the last two years of a BFA,” observes Bashir Ahmed, who founded the miniature department in 1985.

There is debate among contemporary miniature artists over what Whiles calls “the trap of the copy.” As Shahzia Sikander said at her 2001 Asia Society show in New York, a time when she was working in a more traditional vein, “the entire notion of ‘copying’ needs to be clarified.” Is it, she continued, “understanding the process, or is it understanding the lineage of the medium, or is it mere appropriation? Copying can also mean understanding history. One has to look at someone else’s work very carefully before relating to it in a personal way, in the same sense as claiming a historical past.”

In India today, in contrast to the approach at NCA, miniature painting is taught almost purely as a copyist art for the tourist trade. Only in Pakistan does one find radical innovators like Qureshi painting oversize “miniatures” directly onto the walls of museums, or works like Rubaba Haider’s 2008 senior thesis, a piece she calls mader-e-gul (“My mother, the flower”): an installation of 35 paintings in small, round frames hung from the ceiling waist-high in a walk-through maze, each painting an image conjured from her own emotional responses to her mother’s stomach surgery.

“Page No. Eleven,” by Aisha K. Hussein, collage and gouache on wasli.
“Page No. Eleven,” by Aisha K. Hussein, collage and gouache on wasli.

Or others like Aisha Khalid’s split-screen video that shows, on one side, a Pakistani hand embroidering a rose and, on the other, a European hand pulling out its threads. The piece was inspired by Khalid’s experience at the Royal Academy of Visual Art in Amsterdam, when a European student found her seated on the floor, bent over a miniature, and thought Khalid was doing a performance-art piece—acting out the role, Khalid says with an ironic smile, of an “oppressed maker of women’s work.” This all gets to what Whiles has called “miniature as attitude”—an attempt not to follow the tradition blindly, but rather to converse with it across generational lines.

As wildly creative as NCA miniaturists are invited to become by the time they graduate, their first full year of study is dedicated to the mastery of technique. Teachers Waseem Ahmed and Naheed Fakhruddin, both NCA graduates themselves, oversee their 13 students’ progress not only in pardakht, but also in tappiai, or background color application; layee, or flour-glue paper surfacing and burnishing; and siah qalam, or black-brush work. However, they add with relief, catching one’s own squirrel in Lahore’s Shalimar Garden for brushmaking is no longer required, as it was in the early days.

It takes a special sort of student to major in miniatures,” says Qureshi.
“It takes a special sort of student to major in miniatures,” says Qureshi.

Fakhruddin was Bashir’s first student in miniatures, and she is happy still to think of herself as a strict traditionalist. “I learned a lot from him,” she says, “just as an apprentice might learn from the master of a karkhana. I know when to be strict and when to be gentle with my students, when to take their brush in my own hand and when to simply tell them how to do it.” Yet fellow teacher Waseem Ahmed adds an element of free play in his work. One of his pieces depicts the Hindu god Krishna as a denim-clad Bollywood star with a black-gowned Marilyn Monroe as his golden-haired gopi, or cowherd girl.

Mussel shells have long served as mixing bowls for miniature artists.
Mussel shells have long served as mixing bowls for miniature artists.

In their studio, student Hafiz Salim is working from a photocopy of “Jahangir’s Dream of Shah Abbas’ Visit” by 17th-century Mughal court artist Abu al-Hasan Nadir uz-Zaman. His assignment is to rearrange the figures and insert others from secondary sources, the better to understand the elements of miniature composition: He adds a watching figure taken from the Windsor Castle copy of thePadshahnamah. (Unfortunately, the Lahore Museum’s own miniature collection is frequently rotated off view, so NCA students, contrary to Lockwood Kipling’s wishes, must often use photocopies from other museums as source material.)

Next to Hafiz, Hareem Sultanate is working on a modified copy of a Mughal piece, drawing the wide floral border freehand. “We rarely talk to the students next to us. It is too distracting when we work like this,” she says. Indeed, students sitting closely side-by-side for two semesters, heads always down, seem almost as though they were riding a bus on a year-long journey during which they’re allowed to talk to their seatmate only during tea breaks.

Hajra Saeed is making a video of a moving  Rubik’s Cube, its faces painted as miniatures. Former NCA principal Salima Hashmi, now head of the visual arts department at Lahore’s Beaconhouse National University, thinks that contemporary miniatures are “defining a problematic identity” in Pakistan. “Painters must place themselves into the tradition without being smothered by it,” she says, “and still enjoy its delicious rigor, something I think is particular to South Asian arts.” Yet she, like many miniaturists themselves, thinks that the international art market often wants to exoticize the new practitioners, and that its expectations can restrict a painter’s development. “Buyers must connect to miniatures’ now-fractured genre history. Although they don’t have to ask ‘What is it about?’—because, after all, miniature painting is still primarily figurative—many people continue to desire a fixed visual paradigm in this free-fall 21st century.”

Hashmi in fact finds a considerable amount of personal freedom even in classical miniatures, in what she calls a “fusion of refinement and experimentation,” as seen, for example, in workshop accidents and incompletely painted surfaces, unintentional collage effects, overpainted margins and even the occasional drop of perspiration that has fallen from the painter’s forehead onto the paper and then been worked into the design. (This is less common than it used to be, as the miniature studio is the only one at the NCA that is air-conditioned, precisely to avoid such accidents.)

Student Iram Khan at work on her latest project.
Above: Student Iram Khan at work on her latest project. Below: Part of her series “Hide and Seek.”
Part of her series “Hide and Seek.”

Halfway through their final term, the students begin to show their creative sides. Hajra Saeed, a 22-year-old from Lahore, is working on an interactive piece using the newspaper’s puzzle page that has been transfer-printed onto wasli. She plans to write her own clues to solve the puzzle and then, instead of providing the solution in words, to give the answers in the form of miniaturist images. Twenty-five-year-old Noor Ali from Karachi sits in his usual corner, its walls hung with architectural drawings, a portrait of David Hockney and interior design schemes from shelter magazines—all, he explains, aide-memoiresfor his work that deals with “idealized interior space.” “I like the neatness and calmness of miniature, the close attachment to one’s work,” he says. “You stay still within your own art. It’s complicated, really. The rendering of form itself is most inspiring.” For further inspiration, Noor consults an Urdu-language dictionary of Freudian psychoanalytic terms and reads Gaston Bachelard’s classic text on how to experience the feeling of empty rooms, The Poetics of Space.

Final-year students, in both their crossover projects in other departments and in Qureshi’s individual critiques, are asked to rethink much of what they have been taught. Hira Mansoor’s “linked project” is salt-print photography, seeking common ground with miniaturism’s rigorous technique; Hajra Saeed is making a video of a moving Rubik’s Cube, its faces painted as miniatures. Another student is working on studies in geometry—an echo of miniatures’ often complex architectural settings—by making prints on acrylic plates. The idea is to bring the awareness of other disciplines back to their final semester of intensive miniatures, which culminates in a senior thesis show.

The NCA campus, top, is located next door to the Lahore Museum with its Miniature Painting Gallery.
A plaque, above, commemorates the school’s first teacher of miniature painting.
The NCA campus, top, is located next door to the Lahore Museum with its Miniature Painting Gallery. A plaque, above, commemorates the school’s first teacher of miniature painting.

In another corner, Qureshi is critiquing Sajjad Hussein’s portrait of his sister, finely rendered in the pardakht manner. The image floats in an abstracted landscape of gaily colored arcs drawn as receding hills, which are stamped by his sister’s own flower drawings. Qureshi asks Hussein to seek a more personal connection between figure and background. “Everything should have a meaning and a purpose, but not everything has the same degree of meaning,” he says. “Sometimes, after you make a stroke without thinking it through, you should return to it and give it a better reason for being there. Shape it again, with more meaning the second time round.”

Qureshi is firm but gentle, his eye curious for all kinds of art. When visiting London, he says, he always goes to the Tate Modern, yet had his happiest moment at a private appointment at the Victoria and Albert Museum to view the 116 paintings in a precious illustrated manuscript of theAkbarnama, the life of the Mughal emperor Akbar. “It was truly a marvel to hold them in my own hands—no frames, no mat boards. You see so much more.” This appreciation for work of the late 16th century he carries equally to the work of his students.

Ahsan Jamal is a 2003 NCA graduate who has chosen to remain attached to the demanding idiom of small detail and fine technique. Not one for espousing “miniature as attitude,” his is closer in spirit to what Salima Hashmi calls “the submissive nature” of the genre’s technical demands. His series of circular five-centimeter (2″) paper discs, painted with psychologically astute micro-portraits of friends and disturbing tiny landscapes of distant horizons, was shown in New York at the Aicon Gallery in the summer of 2008.

To Hashmi, Ahsan Jamal is closer in spirit to “the submissive nature” of the genre.For him, the studio is almost a sacred space—or a kitchen. “I relate cooking to making my art,” he says. “Eating fulfills whatever the body craves, as does my painting. I associate certain tastes with certain moods. If I take on a new student apprentice, we start by cleaning the house together. If you see visual pollution, that is what you paint. I am learning the pardakht of my own life—to dance with less movement.”

Rashid Rana’s pixelated photomontages, some as large as 2 by 3 meters (7 x 10′), are as far from the scale of Ahsan’s micro-miniatures as one can imagine, yet they too fit within the miniature tradition in their own way. Rana’s “Red Carpet-1”—an overall image of a Persian carpet made up of tiny photographs of a Lahore slaughterhouse—sold at Sotheby’s in May 2008 for $624,000. An earlier photomontage, playfully entitled “I Love Miniatures,” consisted of an image of the Emperor Jahangir, in a classic profile view, made up of tiny photographs of Lahore billboards.

2003 NCA graduate Ahsan Jamal’s series of small, psychologically astute miniature portraits was shown in New York last summer. 2003 NCA graduate Ahsan Jamal’s series of small, psychologically astute miniature portraits was shown in New York last summer. 2003 NCA graduate Ahsan Jamal’s series of small, psychologically astute miniature portraits was shown in New York last summer.
2003 NCA graduate Ahsan Jamal’s series of small, psychologically astute miniature portraits was shown in New York last summer. 2003 NCA graduate Ahsan Jamal’s series of small, psychologically astute miniature portraits was shown in New York last summer. 2003 NCA graduate Ahsan Jamal’s series of small, psychologically astute miniature portraits was shown in New York last summer.
2003 NCA graduate Ahsan Jamal’s series of small, psychologically astute miniature portraits was shown in New York last summer. 2003 NCA graduate Ahsan Jamal’s series of small, psychologically astute miniature portraits was shown in New York last summer. 2003 NCA graduate Ahsan Jamal’s series of small, psychologically astute miniature portraits was shown in New York last summer.
2003 NCA graduate Ahsan Jamal’s series of small, psychologically astute miniature portraits was shown in New York last summer. 2003 NCA graduate Ahsan Jamal’s series of small, psychologically astute miniature portraits was shown in New York last summer. 2003 NCA graduate Ahsan Jamal’s series of small, psychologically astute miniature portraits was shown in New York last summer.
2003 NCA graduate Ahsan Jamal’s series of small, psychologically astute miniature portraits was shown in New York last summer.

“I like to hold conversations between the micro and macro aspects,” he says. “In the big picture, I let them see what they want to see. In the pixels, I show them what I want them to see. In Pakistan, we have the old always beside the new—a Mercedes and a donkey cart on the same road.”

Rana holds that contemporary miniature is more a movement than a genre and feels that technique alone cannot take the movement forward. He likens this to the dilemma of the Bengal Revival movement at the turn of the 20th century, led by Rabindranath Tagore, which was controversial at the time for breaking with traditional materials and subject matter, and which also spawned many second-rate artists who merely wore the label without adding anything to it.

The mental discipline of miniature painting is comparable to that of computer programming, says Rubaba Haider, a former programming major.
Her thesis project, “mader-e-gul” (“My mother, the flower”), installed 35 paintings in small, round frames that hung from the ceiling in a walk-through maze.
Top: Mussel shells have long served as mixing bowls for miniature artists. Above: The mental discipline of miniature painting is comparable to that of computer programming, says Rubaba Haider, a former programming major. Her thesis project, “mader-e-gul” (“My mother, the flower”), installed 35 paintings in small, round frames that hung from the ceiling in a walk-through maze.

Meanwhile, new student Sardar Abdul Rahman Khan has big plans to add something new to the tradition of the movement/genre. Just beginning his one-month rotation in the miniature department, he is already certain that it will be his major. Afterward, he says, he wants to design video games. “I’m a big electronic-media guy,” says Sardar, whose family is originally from Afghanistan. “I love playing around with Photoshop, and I’d love to bring miniature painting into video-character design. Some of the stuff out there now is quite poorly drawn.
I could really make it better.”

Video-game design may not be what ustad Bashir has in mind for the pardakht technique that he insists students must master before graduation, but Sardar’s teacher Hasnat Mehmood is all in favor of experimenting with anything at hand. He teaches fine graphite-pencil drawing in miniature style, and tries above all to keep his students from developing a “copyist” mentality. He puts new students through autobiographical exercises, asking them to draw a self-portrait beside a copied classic Mughal figure as a diptych in an invented architectural setting. Somehow, one can imagine Sardar then taking the next step, animating the whole thing on his laptop computer.

Chip Rossetti Kevin Bubriski (www.kevinbubriski.com) is a documentary photographer who lives in southern Vermont. He will be associate professor of photography at Union College, Schenectady, New York, in 2009–2010.
Louis Werner Louis Werner (wernerworks@msn.com) is a frequent contributor to Saudi Aramco World and also writes for El Legado Andalusí and for Américas, the magazine of the Organization of American States.

This article appeared on pages 24-35 of the July/August 2009 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

The Trucks of Pakistan

Masterpieces to Go: The Trucks of Pakistan; Written by Richard Covington, Photographed by Shahidul Alam / DRIK

Under the shade of a colossal banyan tree, Karachi truck painter Haider Ali, 22, is putting the finishing touches on his latest creation: a side-panel mural of Hercules subduing a lion, rendered in iridescent, undiluted hues of purple, yellow, red and green. His 10-year-old nephew, Fareed Khalid, applies a preparatory undercoat of white paint to the taj, the wooden prow that juts above the truck’s cab like a crown. Like Ali’s father, who first put a brush into his son’s hand at age eight, Haider is carrying on a master-apprentice tradition with Fareed, who spends his afternoons in the painter’s workshop after mornings in school.

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Lying on his back beneath the truck—a 10-ton, six-wheel Japanese Hino—a body repairman strings a chain of hammered steel peepul leaves to dangle around the chassis. When the truck is under way, these metal leaves will clang together, creating a cacophony that is music to a driver’s ears. Above the chain man, a carpenter is chiseling out the wooden panels adorning the doors. Nearby, the truck’s owner sits observing the work in progress as an outdoor barber lathers the man’s face for a shave. A crooning pop tune crackles out of a tinny radio as a pair of pariah kites flutters noisily home to roost. Welcome to Garden Road, the traffic-choked heart of Karachi’s booming truck-painting industry.All across Pakistan, this rolling folk art has turned village lanes, city streets and long-distance highways into a national gallery without walls, a free-form, kaleidoscopic exhibition in perpetual motion. The vast majority of Pakistan’s trucks, buses and motorized rickshaws are riots of color, bedizened top to bottom with eye-popping landscapes, portraits, calligraphic poetry, religious verses and wisecracking expressions of star-spangled banter. Only the biggest, blandest container freight trucks, the 18-wheeler rigs, escape decoration, looking naked by comparison.

The dazzling, eclectic choice of images is a cultural grab bag, mingling with equal gusto East and West, secular and sacred. Pakistani film stars like Musarrat Shaheen and athletes like cricket legend Imram Khan vie for space with figures from Greek myth and European icons from the Mona Lisa to Princess Diana. Decked out with romanticized visions of Pakistani military heroes like Sarwar Shaheed, F-16 fighter jets and Ghauri missiles, some trucks become roving patriotic billboards. Others give prominence to religious shrines like the Ka’bah in Makkah and the Faysal Mosque in Islamabad, or they display verses writ large on an image of an open Qu’ran. The Prophet’s winged horse, Buraq, is a favorite emblem, handily symbolizing trustworthy devotion and speed. Dreamlike scenes of wooded lakes and snow-capped mountains, alpine hunting lodges and tigers chasing deer are framed by flowers and diamond-shaped reflective strips in bright red, orange and green.

In the cabs, faux marble Formica-paneled doors open onto gaudy treasure caves filled with artificial roses and marigolds spun of silk and satin. Tiny faceted mirrors and rick-rack ring the windshields, while swaying pompoms and wall clocks festooned with flashing lights hang from the ceilings. Giant heavy-lidded eyes painted on side panels and pastel-colored scarves fluttering from cab windows are intended to ward off the evil eye.

The roots of the tradition date back more than nine millennia, says Kenoyer. "You can look at a truck and tell exactly what region it comes from and what ethnic group the driver belongs to."Americans got a tiny taste of Pakistani truck painting in the summer of 2002 at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, when Ali and bodywork expert Jamil ud-Din brought a truck from Karachi to Washington, D.C. They decorated it right there on the National Mall, as outdoor artists-in-residence. As a talent scout for the festival’s Silk Road theme, truck aficionado Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, an anthropology professor at the University of Michigan and a top us scholar of Pakistani culture, chose the pair for their versatility in incorporating the country’s disparate styles of truck art. Their finished masterpiece, a 1976 Bedford, is now part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection.

As co-director of the Harappa Archaeological Research Project, based at the ancient Indus Valley site that flourished nearly 5000 years ago, Kenoyer takes a very long view of truck painting. The roots of the tradition date back more than nine millennia, he says, to well before the mud-brick city of Harappa was constructed.

Today’s truckers are the successors of Neolithic traders who moved goods along roughly similar routes from the coast of Pakistan inland to Central Asia, using what artifacts show were heavily decorated camel caravans. Today, Kenoyer says, “the paint jobs identify competing ethnic groups, just as the different designs did on ancient pottery and later on fabrics and carpets. You can look at a truck and tell exactly what region it comes from and what ethnic group the driver belongs to.”

Truck and bus painting and bodywork are also big business. In Karachi alone, a port city of 14 million on the Arabian Sea, more than 50,000 people toil in small, family-run workshops comprised of apprentices and highly trained artisans, each with his well-defined specialty. Dominated by the painstaking ethic of proudly independent craftsmen, this time-consuming manufacture is the opposite of mass production: Every hand-painted truck, bus and rickshaw, despite sharing numerous signs and symbols, virtually screams its uniqueness.

A stroll through the warren of streets and alleys of the dusty Garden Road district, one of five Karachi neighborhoods devoted to vehicle decoration, offers an education in the truck painter’s art. In one open-air stall close to Ali’s workshop, a dapper metalworker, improbably clothed in an immaculate white knee-length tunic with matching prayer cap, hammers away at prefabricated nickel-steel mud-guard flaps, creating repoussé tigers and chevron designs that an assistant subsequently tints bright red, yellow and green. In a hole-in-the-wall shop nearby, a man surrounded by stacked cans of pigments and powders mixes electric orange fluorescent compound into resin varnish to produce vividly glossy lacquers that glow in the dark. Down one lane, a 14-year-old boy brushes an iron radiator grille with fuming acid to remove rust.

Rows of shops are filled with all manner of outlandish ornaments and tantalizing accessories. Suspended beneath an array of beadwork eagles in one tiny emporium, shimmering gilt peacocks and fish twirl gently in the breeze. Another store is crammed with plastic flowers and miniature chandeliers to furnish cab interiors. Hubcaps with spinning metal cones spill out of another. Nearby, the specialty is shiny model planes that flash red and green lights.

Truck owners spend small fortunes on all this. A decent paint job costs $500 to $1000—perhaps more, depending on how splendiferous it is. Body decoration and repair can easily run an extra $2000. All told, a basic painting and body job adds up to a minimum of $2500, equivalent to two years of the average truck driver’s salary. As a rule, however, owners or owner-drivers pay for the decoration, although hired drivers employed by a company are often free to choose whatever illustrations they like.

This labor-intensive operation usually takes six to 10 weeks. During this period, many drivers hover around the workshops like part of the extended family, suggesting possible subjects and alterations, earning nothing during the time their truck is being spiffed up. Unbelievably, the majority of truckers splurge on a full makeover of their vehicles every three or four years.

Ali, who receives most of his commissions via word of mouth, always signs his work, and this discreet advertising regularly attracts new clients.

“Owners get what they pay for,” the artist explains. “The fancier the painting, the more it costs.” Recently, one particularly demanding trucking magnate lavished more than $13,000 on outfitting his rig. The mammoth undertaking took more than four months.

“It’s worth the expense,” volunteers truck owner Doda Khan after his shave at Ali’s workshop. “More people will hire me if I have a beautifully painted truck.” Khan is a native of Quetta who makes his living transporting wood and glass in Sindh, the province of which Karachi is the capital.

“Truckers don’t even spend so much money on their own houses,” marvels Durriya Kazi, head of the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi and a walking encyclopedia of Pakistani truck-decoration lore. “I remember one driver who told me that he put his life and livelihood into the truck. If he didn’t honor it with the proper paint job, he would feel he was being ungrateful.”

Kazi is convinced that truck art tells a broader truth about Pakistani society’s pervasive desire to heighten reality. “We have an irresistible tendency to decorate everything—from lowly tape cassette players to brides to trucks—because we’re such dreamers and escapists,” she declares. “It’s all part of our need to intensify experience, perhaps to make us forget our drab lives.”

With her angular good looks, long, striking gray hair and upper-class accent, Kazi seems an unlikely champion of truck-painting esthetics. Her passion for this underappreciated art was piqued a decade ago when she dreamed up the idea of having her university students decorate a truck, fill it with paintings and drive the mobile magnum opus around Pakistan.

“The idea was to see how ordinary people would react,” Kazi explains in her home in north Karachi, where photographs of painted trucks share space with war-themed Afghan kilims depicting tanks and helicopters, kitschy cinema posters featuring turbaned Lotharios, old-fashioned metal talcum-powder boxes with demurely smiling housewives, intricately embroidered Sindhi wall hangings and a whimsical Ali Baba hoard of eclectic folk art exotica. “Art has become such an elite activity and so marginalized in this country that I wanted to try to take it out of the galleries and literally get it on the road,” she adds.

Reaction to this nomadic student exhibition was largely favorable, even if the professional truck artists turned out to be the toughest critics. “The Garden Road painters said the pictures were interesting, ‘but you’ve painted them very badly,’” the professor recalls. “The students were flabbergasted. They thought they possessed superior talents just because they were in art school, but they soon realized how sophisticated the technique really is. The paint has to be applied in delicate layers and glazes. You can’t just brush it on the way you do with oil paint.”

Bangladesh and Thailand have their painted rickshas. Japan has its semitrailers strung with flashing, custom-fitted lights. The Philippines are reputed for their garish “Jeepnies,” collective taxis whose bodies are built atop vintage us Jeep chassis. In Haiti, “tap-taps,” jaunty buses dressed up in comic-book colors, ply the island’s roads. But nowhere do vehicle artists get quite as carried away as in Pakistan. Kazi, who holds a master’s degree in English literature, trained as a sculptor in the uk and now creates interactive exhibitions with local folk artists, set out to discover why. After 10 years of scouring workshops, haunting ornament shops and chatting up truck dealers, transport company proprietors, drivers, artists, craftsmen and suppliers, the art professor has pieced together an informal history of truck painting that she someday hopes to turn into a book.

In the late 1940’s, she says, when trucks first began to deliver long-haul goods, each company developed its own painted logo so that illiterate people, then and now the majority of Pakistanis, could recognize who owned the trucks. Displays of solidarity with the infant nation, partitioned from India in 1947, were always a sure bet. One enterprisingly loyal transporter featured a crescent and star modeled on the Pakistani flag; another had a sign tracing the geographical outlines of the new country. Gradually, these logos became more fanciful.

"Truck art tells a broader truth about Pakistan, Kazi believes. "It's all part of our need to intensify experience."“They were badges of competition,” Kazi explains. “And the more flamboyant the design, the better business became.”

Although truck decoration initially mimicked motifs that had been found on camel caravans and oxcarts for thousands of years, the practice took a quantum leap in the 1950’s when Hajji Hussain hit town. Renowned for the stylized murals and frescoes he painted in palaces in his native Gujarat province in India, on the border with Pakistan, Hussain settled in Karachi when he married a local woman.

With palaces in short supply in working-class Karachi, Hussain cleverly shifted gears, adjusting his flair for subtle line and shading to the task of embellishing horse carriages and trucks with discreet floral borders. The decoration did not remain discreet for long, as its appeal quickly led to its enveloping the entire exterior surfaces of the vehicles.

In the 1960’s, the country’s economy boomed and, along with it, the transportation industry. The Bedford, a British-built truck with a rounded cab and 2.3-meter-high (7′) paneled sides that give it a precarious, top-heavy look, became the prestige truck of choice. Not by chance, Kazi soon discovered: The son of Muhammad Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s president from 1962 to 1969, set himself up as the country’s sole Bedford dealer and made sure that Bedfords were the only trucks imported into the country. (Locally manufactured trucks were no competition.) “The style of painting and dec- oration evolved to fit the Bedford like a glove,” Kazi says.

Mockingly dubbed “rockets,” the lumbering Bedfords made up for their snail’s-pace acceleration with virtual indestructibility, indefatigably chugging along a quarter of a century and more after they first rolled off the assembly lines. “The owners don’t mind changing engines. It’s the chassis that is so precious,” Kazi explains. “Original Bedford springs, for instance, are like gold for truckers.”

When Bedford’s parent company, Vauxhall, stopped production of the much-loved Bedfords some 13 years ago, Japanese imports like Hino, Nissan and Isuzu supplanted them. “Even though the Japanese trucks have better fuel economy, superior brakes, longer wheelbases and bigger windshields, there’s still nostalgia for the Bedfords,” reckons Kazi. “It’s only recently that the decorative panels, carving and accessories have somewhat grudgingly been adapted to fit these newer trucks.”

During the 1960’s and 1970’s, the increasing sophistication of truck decoration began to reflect the growing wealth of the drivers and the rise of a new urban class. “People who had come from poor village backgrounds suddenly had money,” Kazi observes. “They were richer than their parents and ancestors and wanted to show off their new-found confidence, position and authority.” For rival truck and bus owners jostling for business, dueling paint jobs became essential for gaining a competitive edge.

Boldly speculating where only academics—and certainly not the artists themselves—dare to tread, the professor draws a parallel between contemporary truck design and the exquisitely refined court decoration of 16th- and 17th-century Mughal emperors. In Kazi’s view, truck cabs boasting a profusion of dangling mirrors and fringed silk and satin embroidery are direct descendants of the Sheesh Mahal (“mirror palace”), sumptuous halls of mirrors and brocade found in palaces and forts in Lahore, Patiala, Jaipur and Agra.

“The Mughals loved this play of light where one candle could illuminate a vast hall,” remarks Kazi. “Why not truck artists and drivers?”

Some of the more popular landscape scenes, those depicting the hunt, lions, grouse, deer, hunting lodges or mountain chalets, are taken straight out of Mughal court painting, she maintains.

Later, when a visitor tries to describe Kazi’s theory of the Mughal connection to Haider Ali, the veteran painter flashes a puzzled, indulgent smile. It’s clear he’s not buying it.

“I paint from photos the drivers bring me, designs they point out on other trucks, anything they want,” he says. “And if they don’t know what they want, I make up scenes from my imagination.”

Generally, the painting follows an informal, unwritten grammar. The taj, or prow, above the cab is customarily reserved for mosques and other holy monuments. Side panels fizz with waterfalls, lakes, mountains, landscapes, hunting lodges and animals. The rear of the truck is typically emblazoned with a single large portrait encircled by flowers, vines and geometric configurations.

Ponderous but virtually indestructible, "rockets"--British-made Bedfords--are still the ultimate workhorses of the trucking industry throughout Pakistan.One recent trend speaks volumes about the emerging fortunes of truck owners and drivers. Instead of putting someone famous in the place of honor on back of their trucks, some drivers have commissioned portraits of their sons. “It’s part of the country’s newfound upward social mobility,” says Kazi. “Now, truck drivers feel they don’t have to boost their status with celebrities; their own sons are good enough.”

When a new truck comes in for outfitting, it is totally bare bones, with only a cab and a chassis—albeit invariably reinforced to within an inch of its life. Six-wheel rigs designed to carry five-ton payloads are routinely bolstered to haul 10, 15, even 20 tons. Used trucks are overhauled according to the owners’ wishes and pocketbooks, ranging from simple paint jobs all the way to complete makeovers of bodywork and decorative art.

Like a medieval guild, the division of labor in truck and bus workshops is highly demarcated, with individual artisans responsible for each stage of the process. One person is in charge of erecting frames of steel ribs over flatbed floors of hard pine and, for buses, covering the frames with steel and plastic shells. (Ordinarily, cargo in open trucks is wrapped in tarpaulins strapped down by ropes or simply left uncovered.) Separately, an electrician installs wiring while a metalworker fashions dangling steel balls, hammered-steel mud flaps and shiny leaf chains. The carpenter who carves arabesque inlays on cab doors and taj crowns of walnut or deodar cedar is distinct from the upholstery specialist who stitches beadwork into fancy cab-seat cushions and embroiders cloth flaps on windows with gold and silver thread. While a master artist like Haider Ali paints large portraits and landscapes, he commonly relies on an assistant to fill in backgrounds and borders. In a culture that puts great stock in poetry, there are even a handful of scholars and poets whom drivers commission to write original poetic inscriptions for their trucks or search out a few well-turned phrases by other authors.

“One classic line,” says Kazi, is “‘If your mother prays for you, it’s like a breeze from heaven.’” Other selections, particularly on buses, are racier, like the teasing, convoluted come-on that reads, “I wish I were the book you are reading, so that when you fall asleep and the book falls on your chest, I would be so close to you.” In general, she points out, trucks display themes of distance, the journey and spiritual longing, while “90 percent of the messages on buses have to do with love, particularly unrequited love.” (Rickshas, with far less space, make do with a cryptic word or two like “I wish” or “broken pearl.”)

“Sometimes you have no idea what they mean,” laughs Kazi.

Like western pictorial allusions and the imported trucks themselves, many of the materials used in truck decoration also come from outside Pakistan, and they are put to uses the manufacturers never dreamed of. Shipped into the country in 10-centimeter-wide (4”) rolls, reflective tape from Germany and Japan is cut, shaped and layered to create fantastical compositions. “Because the roads were not lit, reflectors were essential,” Kazi explains. “But truck decorators turned this pragmatic necessity into an excuse to go wild.”

Other regional idioms include calligraphy in Peshawar, geometric designs in Rawalpindi and Islamabad, woodwork in Baluchistan and camel-bone inlay work in Sindh.Although Karachi is the country’s principal center for truck decoration, other regions have evolved their own signature idioms. In Peshawar, trucks sport far more calligraphy than illustration. In Rawalpindi and Islamabad, designers cut out colored plastic sheets and layer them to create unusual patterns and geometric effects over the truck exterior. Artisans in Baluchistan and Peshawar are esteemed for their magnificently detailed woodwork carved on cab doors and interiors. Camel-bone inlay is emblematic of Sindh, while stainless-steel peacock appliqués are popular both in Sindh and the Punjab.

Frequently, truck decoration mirrors the country’s demographic shifts. When Kashmiri woodcarvers migrated south to Karachi in the mid-1980’s to escape fighting in their homeland, many found work refurbishing trucks. Their spidery filigree tracery soon began to pop up on the doors and taj crowns of local vehicles.

For such a vibrant industry, supercharged with color, the future, unfortunately, looks distinctly gray. Unlike the current generation of painters, body workers and decorators who learned their trades from their fathers, uncles and older brothers, the upcoming generation shows little interest in following in their relatives’ footsteps. Nor do their parents necessarily want them to.

Take 40-year-old Abdul Aziz, who started painting at age 15 in his father’s workshop. “Business is not good now because there are too many truck artists,” sighs Aziz in his blisteringly hot bus-painting atelier in the Landhi district of east Karachi. “My son will have a better future if he finishes school and takes up a more secure profession.”

Still, with all the irrepressible energy that goes into truck decoration, it’s hard to imagine this quintessentially Pakistani craft dying out any time soon, particularly with painters like Master Shahid Sahab around to renew the tradition.

“Master Sahab paints crazy, wacky things like army officers waterskiing, a Saracen warrior slaying Godzilla, mythic Greek heroes in togas,” chuckles Kazi. “Then he’ll put plastic lovebirds on the dashboard and a ludicrous-sounding horn that blasts out a wolf whistle. I love this kind of madness.”

Somehow, you feel sure that the rest of Pakistan does, too. For optimists like Kazi, who shudder at the unthinkable prospect of the country’s roads becoming as drab as any garden-variety interstate or autobahn, this moveable feast of imagery is nowhere near a dead end.

Richard Covington Paris-based author Richard Covington(richard.covington@free.fr) writes about arts, culture and the media in Europe, the Middle East and Asia for theInternational Herald Tribune, the Los Angeles Times,Smithsonian, Reader’s Digest and other publications.
Shahidul Alam Shahidul Alam is the founder of Drik Picture Library (www.drik.net), the Bangladesh Photo Institute and Pathshala (The South Asian Institute of Photography), as well as the biennial Chobi Mela Festival of Photography in Asia. He lives in Dhaka.

This article appeared on pages 8-17 of the March/April 2005 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Gum Arabic Written and photographed by Charles O. Cecil

I remember the morning I realized why gum arabic is so vital to modern manufacturing--and to several African countries. I was stationed in Niamey, the capital of Niger. I took homemade pancake syrup out of the refrigerator and saw, in the bottom of the pitcher, a large deposit of crystallized sugar. Remembering some samples I had brought back from a visit to a gum-arabic tree farm, I measured out a bit of water, dropped in a pea-sized pellet and stirred.

Though some gum will flow naturally from cracks in the bark of the Acacia senegal tree, commercial tappers stimulate the flow by removing thin strips of bark, an operation that requires some skill if the tree is not to be injured. Tapping is normally done once a year starting in October, the end of the rainy season in Niger. Gum collection begins about four weeks after stripping, and can be repeated every few weeks thereafter for several months. Most trees yield gum for about 10 years.
Though some gum will flow naturally from cracks in the bark of the Acacia senegal tree, commercial tappers stimulate the flow by removing thin strips of bark, an operation that requires some skill if the tree is not to be injured. Tapping is normally done once a year starting in October, the end of the rainy season in Niger. Gum collection begins about four weeks after stripping, and can be repeated every few weeks thereafter for several months. Most trees yield gum for about 10 years.

Gum arabic can be almost completely dissolved in its own volume of water—a very unusual characteristic. I added the resulting solution to the pancake syrup, and in less than half a minute, the sugar crystals dissolved.

Gum arabic is the hardened sap of theAcacia senegal tree, which is found in the swath of arid lands extending from Senegal on the west coast of Africa all the way to Pakistan and India. Just as Arabic numerals acquired their name because Europeans learned of them from the Arabs—who had picked them up from India—so too do we owe the name of gum arabic not so much to its origins, but to Europe’s early trading contacts with the Middle East.

According to Sudanese sources, gum arabic was an article of commerce as early as the 12th century BC. It was collected in Nubia and exported north to Egypt for use in the preparation of inks, watercolors and dyes. Herodotus, writing in the fifth century BC, mentions its use in embalming in Egypt. In the ninth century of our era, the Arab physician Abu Zayd Hunayn ibn Ishaq al-Ibadi, writing in his Ten Treatises on the Eye, described gum arabic as an ingredient in poultices or eye compresses.

By the Middle Ages, gum arabic was valued in Europe among scribes and illustrators. Following the gilding of letters in illuminated manuscripts, the application of color was the final stage. For this, illustrators mixed pigment in a binding medium. Until the 14th century, the most common medium was glair, which was obtained from egg whites. However, glair was not only difficult to prepare, it also reduced the intensity of the colors. When it was discovered that gum arabic—so readily soluble in water—could be applied more thinly and that the resulting colors were more transparent and intense, gum replaced glair.

Acacia senegal is one of more than 1100 varieties of acacia tree. Most common in the African grassland savannas along the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, it is found as far east as Oman and India. During their first two years, seedlings require protection from weeds and livestock, but need little care after that. Drought-resistant, trees can survive sandstorms and temperatures up to 45 degrees Centigrade (113 degrees F), but cannot tolerate frost. When mature, they reach two to six meters' height (6-20'). Their lateral root system makes them soil stabilizers, useful for erosion control, and researchers give their mineral-rich leaf litter high marks for rehabilitating degraded soils. In several countries, Acacia senegal is part of large-scale sustainable-agriculture, forest-management and rural economic-development strategies.
Acacia senegal is one of more than 1100 varieties of acacia tree. Most common in the African grassland savannas along the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, it is found as far east as Oman and India. During their first two years, seedlings require protection from weeds and livestock, but need little care after that. Drought-resistant, trees can survive sandstorms and temperatures up to 45 degrees Centigrade (113°F), but cannot tolerate frost. When mature, they reach two to six meters’ height (6–20′). Their lateral root system makes them soil stabilizers, useful for erosion control, and researchers give their mineral-rich leaf litter high marks for rehabilitating degraded soils. In several countries, Acacia senegal is part of large-scale sustainable-agriculture, forest-management and rural economic-development strategies.

In Turkey, illuminators used gum arabic in the application of gold to manuscripts by mixing 24-carat gold leaf with melted gum arabic to make a gold paste. This they applied with fine brushes dipped in a gelatin solution. The ability to judge the correct density of the gold paste and the gelatin prior to application was one of the marks of an accomplished illuminator. Too much gelatin would make the gold look dull, while too little could cause the gold film to crack.

Gum arabic was also important to Turkish scribes for making lampblack ink, which was obtained by burning linseed oil, beeswax, naphtha or kerosene in a restricted airflow. The resulting imperfect combustion produced a fine black soot that could be collected on the inside of a cone or tent of paper or a sheepskin placed above the flame. The soot—lampblack—was then mixed with gum arabic and water. The carbon particles in the ink did not dissolve but remained suspended in the water, thanks to the emulsifying qualities of the gum. When the ink was applied to the paper, the particles remained on the surface, offering a smooth appearance. In case of an error, they could be easily wiped or scraped away. In contrast, most modern inks are solutions that are absorbed into the fibers of the paper.

In Niger, Boureima Wankoye, with his brother Boubacar, are leaders in developing private-sector production of gum arabic. Using seedlings imported from Sudan, their operation provides work for some 6000 rural families. In 2003 the United Nations Environment Program named Wankoye to its Global 500 Roll of Honor, one of eight individuals selected worldwide as outstanding contributors to sustainable development.
In Niger, Boureima Wankoye, with his brother Boubacar, are leaders in developing private-sector production of gum arabic. Using seedlings imported from Sudan, their operation provides work for some 6000 rural families. In 2003 the United Nations Environment Program named Wankoye to its Global 500 Roll of Honor, one of eight individuals selected worldwide as outstanding contributors to sustainable development.

In Africa today, individual farmers use gum arabic for other, more traditional uses, and heaps of gum arabic can be found in most local markets. It is said to soothe sore throats, assuage stomach and intestinal disorders, treat eye problems and combat hemorrhages and the common cold. It can be used as an emollient, astringent or cosmetic. The seed pods of Acacia senegal, 8 to 13 centimeters long (3–5″) with flat seeds inside, make excellent fodder for livestock. Left unprotected, the trees will be browsed by sheep, goats, camels, impala and giraffe. Dried and preserved seeds are eaten by some people as a vegetable. When the trees have passed their gum-bearing age, the wood is used both for fuel and in charcoal production. The dark heartwood is so hard that it makes excellent weavers’ shuttles. Ropes can be made from root bark fibers.

The modern industrial era has produced an explosion of manufacturing uses for gum arabic. In the 19th century, it was important to early photography as an ingredient in gum bichromate prints. Today it is used in lithography, where its ability to emulsify highly uniform, thin liquid films makes it desirable as an antioxidant coating for photosensitive plates. The same quality also makes it useful in sprayed glazes and high-tech ceramics and as a flocculating agent in refining certain ores. It is a binder for color pigments in crayons, a coating for papers and a key ingredient in the micro-encapsulating process that produces carbonless copy paper, scratch-and-sniff perfume advertisements, laundry detergents, baking mixes and aspirins. It is used in textile sizing and finishing, metal corrosion inhibition and glues and pesticides. Moisture-sensitive postage-stamp adhesives rely on it.

Gum arabic is unique among the natural gums because of its extreme solubility in water and its lack of taste. As a food additive, it has been extensively tested and appears to be one of the safest for human consumption. In beverages, gum arabic helps citrus and other oil-based flavors remain evenly suspended in water. In confectionery, glazes and artificial whipped creams, gum arabic keeps flavor oils and fats uniformly distributed, retards crystallization of sugar, thickens chewing gums and jellies, and gives soft candies a desirable mouth feel. In cough drops and lozenges, gum arabic soothes irritated mucous membranes. Many dry-packaged products, such as instant drinks, dessert mixes and soup bases, use it to enhance the shelf life of flavors. In cosmetics, too, it smoothes creams, fixatives and lotions.
Gum arabic is unique among the natural gums because of its extreme solubility in water and its lack of taste. As a food additive, it has been extensively tested and appears to be one of the safest for human consumption. In beverages, gum arabic helps citrus and other oil-based flavors remain evenly suspended in water. In confectionery, glazes and artificial whipped creams, gum arabic keeps flavor oils and fats uniformly distributed, retards crystallization of sugar, thickens chewing gums and jellies, and gives soft candies a desirable mouth feel. In cough drops and lozenges, gum arabic soothes irritated mucous membranes. Many dry-packaged products, such as instant drinks, dessert mixes and soup bases, use it to enhance the shelf life of flavors. In cosmetics, too, it smoothes creams, fixatives and lotions.

Gum arabic is also used in sweeteners and as an additive in foods and beverages, as a thickener in liquids, including soft drinks, and in food flavorings. It is used to manufacture pharmaceutical capsules and to coat pills, and in the manufacture of vitamins, lotions and mascara and other cosmetics. Gum arabic is also a valuable addition to sweets, one supplier’s Web site adds, “including chocolates, jujubes, and cookies.”

In the Wankoye enterprise, the women who work in the warehouse are the primary points of quality control, as they are in most other gum-arabic sorting facilities in Africa. Sieving and picking through the bags of gum, they remove sand, dirt, bark, twigs and other undesirable debris, as well as pieces of other, less desirable, gums that individual collectors may mix in with the gum arabic. The gum does not deteriorate if kept dry and can therefore be transported long distances.
In the Wankoye enterprise, the women who work in the warehouse are the primary points of quality control, as they are in most other gum-arabic sorting facilities in Africa. Sieving and picking through the bags of gum, they remove sand, dirt, bark, twigs and other undesirable debris, as well as pieces of other, less desirable, gums that individual collectors may mix in with the gum arabic. The gum does not deteriorate if kept dry and can therefore be transported long distances.
In the Wankoye enterprise, the women who work in the warehouse are the primary points of quality control, as they are in most other gum-arabic sorting facilities in Africa. Sieving and picking through the bags of gum, they remove sand, dirt, bark, twigs and other undesirable debris, as well as pieces of other, less desirable, gums that individual collectors may mix in with the gum arabic. The gum does not deteriorate if kept dry and can therefore be transported long distances.

“New industrial uses are likely to ensure growing demand,” says Drew Davis of the US National Soft Drink Association. “The soft drink industry is growing all the time. Production of chocolate and other candy is growing. A growing global middle class, increasingly educated, is driving the demand for printed media. Better health care increases the consumption of pharmaceuticals. Scarcely any industry now using gum arabic is in decline,” he observed.

World trade in gum arabic reached about $90 million in 2000. Some 56 percent of the traded volume came from Sudan, and much of the remainder was exported from Chad and Nigeria. Sudan’s historically dominant position in the modern gum-arabic trade is a result of excellent soil conditions for Acacia senegal in much of the country and the long experience of many Sudanese in collecting and sorting the gum to yield the consistent quality grades that high-tech manufacturers rely on. One major us importer told me that “the tree can grow in Australia, New Mexico, Benin—but the gum isn’t right.”

Mussa Mohamed Karama, former general manager of the Gum Arabic Company of Sudan, points out that several million Sudanese—the country’s population is 29 million—are involved in some aspect of the gum-arabic trade. “The tree doesn’t need foreign components to produce,” says Karama. “You don’t have to fertilize it; you don’t have to water it or add chemicals. It grows naturally, and with minimum effort you collect the gum.” Anthony Nwachukwu, president of Atlantic Gums Corporation, a Connecticut importer of gum arabic, adds, “The employment opportunities at collection centers are really important for women. The gum harvesting season presents them with one of the few opportunities to earn real cash.”

Thus a drop of sap hardened in the hot African sun is plucked, sorted, bagged, shipped, ground into powder and added to a product you purchase, improving its qualities. Also “improved” are the farmer who owns the trees, the laborer who collected the gum and the women who sorted it—a chain of beneficiaries that has existed for at least two millennia, ever since Arab traders first introduced gum arabic to the western world.

Charles O. Cecil After 35 years in the United States Foreign Service, Charles O. Cecil retired to devote himself to photography and writing. He first became interested in gum arabic while serving as ambassador to Niger, where local businessmen are working to increase gum-arabic exports. Cecil can be reached atcecilimages@comcast.net.

This article appeared on pages 36-39 of the March/April 2005 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Infinite Possibility: Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian Portugal’s Serralves Museum offers a retrospective on the work of an Iranian artist feted by New York’s glitterati but whose geometric designs are inspired by Islamic art

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When a 20-year old Iranian art student moved to New York in 1944 from her hometown, the ancient city of Qazvin, she soon found herself mixing with the brightest players on the city’s art scene including Willem de Kooning and Andy Warhol. John Cage crowned her “that beautiful Persian girl”.

But the work of Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian had a different source, not in Warhol’s Factory or Manhattan’s Studio 54 nightclub but beneath the crystalline high-domed hall of the Shah Cheragh mosque in Shiraz, southern Iran. There, she had experienced in 1966 a transformative encounter she compared to “walking into a diamond in the centre of the sun”.

The first museum survey of Farmanfarmaian’s work isolates the past 40 years from an illustrious and lustrous career. Not only does it showcase a wealth of material, it highlights recent forays into moving sculpture and painterly works on paper that suggest fresh potential in an artist who is now 90.

Infinite Possibility – Mirror Works and Drawings 1974-2014 is presented at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto this winter. Curated by the museum’s director, Suzanne Cotter, the period of her career covered by the show reflects Farmanfarmaian’s complete adoption of abstract geometry, a genre she made her own in the 1970s by translating it into three dimensions via mirrored sculptures and reliefs.

The show presents the artist, who signs her works simply as “Monir”, as a prolific and interdisciplinary figure. Passing visitors to Serralves will be drawn in by the aesthetic majesty of the riches on display; on the surface alone, the dazzling lustre of this period of Monir’s work is hard to resist. But beyond the glittering surface lies grit: in her practice as an abstract artist, Farmanfarmaian was and remains a pioneer both as an Iranian and as a woman – the most celebrated, and perhaps the only, contemporary artist working in mirror mosaic.

Seeing Farmanfarmaian’s work exhibited at Doha’s The Third Line gallery in 2013 prompted Cotter to bring both Monir’s sculptures and sketches to Porto. The artist later thanked Cotter in an interview with Artforum, the international magazine, for “being the first to notice that my drawings were something different and deserved a special focus”. Cotter wants the sketches to be seen as abstract compositions in their own right, not merely as preparation for three-dimensional works.

Most of the material included in Infinite Possibility comes from Monir’s personal collection and has not been previously shown in public. As with many artists of her time, both she and her work were marked by Iran’s political circumstances and a swathe of her oeuvre was lost in the throes of the 1979 Iranian revolution. Indeed, the works on paper were originally born out of necessity while the artist was deprived of her Tehran studio for a decade after leaving once again for New York when the revolution broke out.

In her dedicated workshop, which reopened in Tehran in 2004, Monir works alongside artisans and craftsmen trained in traditional Persian decorative arts and construction including aineh-kari (mirror mosaics) and khatam-kari (inlaid marquetry). After some initial persuasion of the artisans in the 1970s, with some reluctant to take orders from a woman, many of the original craftsmen are dedicated to Monir and remain in her atelier today.

In many senses, Monir works in the spirit of old masters. Her Tehran workshop recalls the studios of 17th-century European painters, but also that of the collaborative Persian kitabkhana, which defined the artistic output of the early modern period in Iran. The kitabkhana (literally, ‘the house of books’) was the atelier of artists and craftsmen working in the service of the Persian court in the 1600s. Designs on paper were circulated around craftsmen from different disciplines, including potters, architects, and illuminators working on the borders of manuscripts – so that the same patterns appeared in different media. As with the kitabkhana, Monir’s designs on paper have also informed textiles, sculpture and interior design throughout her career.

Monir also has taken both sculptural and architectural commissions from a dedicated pool of patrons. Her large-scale mirror mosaics have iced everything from the Senate building in Tehran to the Dag Hammarskjöld tower in New York. An early version of one of her Mirror Ball (1974) spheres sat on Warhol’s desk: its sparkling siblings are lined up at Serralves in a silent disco.

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Monir in her salon, Tehran 1975, as seen in the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art catalogue. Photograph: The Third Line, Dubai/The Third Line, Dubai
Within Infinite Possibility is an example of her geometric vision in a domestic context. At the end of the exhibition are double doors of frosted glass that she originally fashioned for her New York apartment in the 1980s. A glowing portal, they throw the grey light onto the surrounding walls through interconnected shapes scattered on their translucent surface.

Monir’s work fuses the heritage of traditional Iranian craft, particularly that of architectural decoration, with the western philosophies of minimalism and abstraction that informed her friends and contemporaries like Frank Stella and Robert Morris. Geometric, pattern-based abstraction has appeared in Islamic art for thousands of years. A similar aesthetic boomed in Western art during the 1960s, as geometric minimalism became a popular art movement as a measured, rational cousin to the volatility and physicality of abstract expressionism.

In both instances, geometric art retains a connection with a scientific and mathematic thought, be it the late ninth-century Persian polymath Omar Khayyam or the modern geometer. The axiomatic coordinates of Farmanfarmaian’s sculptures allows them to tessellate into the “infinite possibilities” that she envisages. An animation in Bahman Kiarostami’s Monir, a documentary film about the artist which had its premier at the Serravles exhibition, shows the six elements of her Convertible Series (Group 8) from 2010, splitting and re-connecting into a kaleidoscopic myriad of combinations.

Although Monir’s work resonates with this global dialogue of sixties’ minimalism, her mirror sculptures are not only dimensional but also display a unique animate quality. It was an idea sparked from watching the changing hues play across the glass interior of the Shah Cheragh mosque as people circulated within. Surfaces of her Families (2011-2013) – groups of up to six variations on a single shape, grandly showcased in the second half of Infinite Possibility – are similarly faceted so that “every colour moves”, as the artist explains in the Kirostami documentary: the experience changes each time a visitor is reflected in the work’s surface. The monumental, rotating Square (2014) signals a move into kinetics, where twisting quadrangles are stacked on top of each other, their surface reduced from the signature scattering of mirrored pieces into a single veneer of polished steel.

Considerations of Monir’s oeuvre have often searched for spiritual symbolism. This results not just from her connections with traditional craft but from the influence of religious architecture seen in the mosque niches of her grand Murquanas (2012) or the origami-esque Nomadic Tent Design (1978). And with the mathematical foundations of repetition and progression, many have deconstructed her works to find a connection to Sufi numerology. But the artist shakes off such claims in Kirostami’s Monir, where she describes her motivation as purely secular and formalistic. There are no attempts to calculate the infinities of existence, she says: “It is just the hexagon and line, [there is] no philosophy behind it.”

Her method of working is simultaneously intuitive and calculated. In another scene from Monir, which takes place in her workshop, the artist grazes a ruler across a sheet of squared tracing paper, taking a pencil to shade in a grid of lozenges, whilst muttering a chant of “here, here, and here”. There are echoes of automatism in the impulsiveness of her drawing, at odds with the mathematical perfection of her sculpture. In her drawings, so generously laid out at Serralves, scribbled half circles are scattered like confetti over frames of geometric line. Within nets of triangles, rectangles and hexagons, Monir has inserted shards of mirrored glass, working across mediums whilst still employing her artistic vocabulary and compositional principles.

Within the Serralves retrospective, Monir’s work begins to occupy a third space, the intersection of an imagined Venn diagram between spheres of sculpture, architecture, painting and draughtsmanship. Works mounted on the walls take their cue from her education as a fine artist on canvass under the tutelage of the American modernist painter Milton Avery in the 1950s. In her most recent drawings, delicate petals and blooms have begun to creep in, making flowerbeds within her famous hexagons and undulating semi-circles. These motifs mark a return to softer elements plucked from the beginning of her artistic career, where she created still lives of flowers, department store illustrations and monotype prints – an endeavour which won her a medal at the 1958 Venice Biennale.

Her always untitled sketches provide a greater scope for her experimentally. As the fine, calligraphic line used to conjure the blossoms increasingly intermingles with the graphic solidity of shape, the designs on paper would present a sculptural impracticality. One begins to realise that these drawings are, as Cotter says, more than potential brainstorms for large-scale works; they are drawings for drawing’s sake. The textures within her works on paper explore the infinite possibilities that drive her practice even further than before, and are shown in compelling independence at this exhibition.

After having made art for more than 70 years, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian is still very much a practitioner. After Porto, the exhibition will be travelling to Monir’s second home, with a showing at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York opening in March.

The author’s visit to the exhibit was supported by the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art. Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian: Infinite Possibility – Mirror Works and Drawings 1974-2014 is showing at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto, Portugal through 11 January

Natasha Morris for Tehran Bureau

http://www.theguardian.com/world/iran-blog/2014/dec/27/-sp-monir-shahroudy-farmanfarmaian-iran-infinite-possibility