The fall gallery openings will soon spill into the streets, BUT Saira Wasim won’t be included in the revelry despite international accolades heaped upon her. After moving here in 2003, the Pakistani painter tried, exhaustively, to interest local galleries in her diminutive scenarios, which have attracted international exhibitions, a New York art dealer, and five-figure price tags. As the 33-year-old shyly explains, “I went to nearly every gallery in the city with my slides and told them about my shows, but perhaps my approach wasn’t correct. No one even called me back.”
The Byzantine process of local gallery representation may elude her, but considering Wasim’s trajectory from her hometown, Lahore, to suburban Lombard, she’s obviously no stranger to life’s ironies or struggles. Against astounding odds, Wasim has made a name for herself as part of the New Miniaturist movement, a resurrection of a labor-intensive painting technique that flourished between the 16th and 19th centuries in
Persia and India. The Mughal miniature—all but wiped out by British colonialism—typically focused on scenes of court life, battles, and portraits of rulers. In the hands of Wasim and her colleagues—all grads of Pakistan’s prestigious National College of Arts—the technique has evolved for a postmodern 21st-century audience.
It is both audacious and dangerous for a young Muslim woman to take on such taboo subjects as Pakistan’s political leaders, Islamic mullahs, and horrific “honor” killings of Muslim women. George Bush, his cabinet, and many others on the world stage are all subject to Wasim’s satirical approach, with elements gleaned from pop culture, Bollywood movies, classic opera, and Greek mythology, fused in a historical genre that packs an epic wallop into an intricate 10-by-12-inch painting.
“Pakistani art has traditionally been male dominated, very conventional, and without such direct, obvious political commentary,” explains Madhuvanti Ghose, Alsdorf Associate Curator of Indian, Southeast Asian, Himalayan, and Islamic Art at the Art Institute of Chicago. “And while there are many artists training in Pakistan, with more female artists now, very few have been able to create a name for themselves as Saira has done.”
Last year, Ghose, familiar with Wasim’s work, borrowed one of the artist’s signature creations (owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London) for an image on an invitation to the Art Institute’s Indian and Pakistani independence festivities. Only then did he discover that she was living just 20 miles away in Lombard. “Here, where the contemporary art scene is buzzing, she is ignored. It’s amazing."
Wasim’s mother—herself a stifled artist—had been adamantly opposed to her daughter’s career choice and even resorted to beating her with a specially contrived stick as punishment when her crea-tive, headstrong daughter was caught drawing as an adolescent. Eventually, a bargain was struck, with Wasim agreeing to pursue an undergraduate degree first, attending art school afterward. “My mother came from a time when making art was considered un-Islamic, and she wanted me to have a safe job, where I could support myself,” says Wasim, whose family now wholeheartedly endorses her vocation. “Art school is not considered very respectable, so few girls get permission to go. Even to do our research, we had to go around the city with a brother or male relative.”
Wasim graduated from the arts college in 1999 and soon began to exhibit her works internationally. In 2003, she was included in a groundbreaking show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. That same year, Wasim immigrated to the West, stopping first to complete a residency at the Vermont Studio Center and then traveling on to Illinois to set up house with her new husband, Haroon. The two had met in Lahore four months earlier—on the day of their arranged marriage—and Haroon, then still a graduate student at DePaul, did not quite comprehend the intensity of his new wife’s artistic proclivities. “He thought I’d just gotten a degree in something I liked as a hobby,” muses Wasim. “When we began talking by phone, after we got engaged, I started sending him examples of my paintings, and he was certainly shocked.”
Even at the college, miniature painting was thought of as a moribund art form, far from anyone’s idea of mainstream. But the laborious practice, essentially unchanged for centuries, appealed to Wasim specifically because of its rich history. In the second bedroom of her Lombard apartment, she still adheres to an almost ritualistic process: On a typical day, Wasim sits on a floor cushion to work for eight hours, a parking-lot view out the window where she mixes her own pigments in small seashell containers. She periodically boils up flour-based glue for the five-layered “wasli” paper she fashions, which takes days to dry and must be burnished repeatedly with a conch shell to achieve smooth perfection. “You have to remove all the air bubbles or an entire painting will be destroyed,” points out Wasim, who is nevertheless forced to cut some corners since moving here. For instance, there’s no more stalking of squirrels for their soft tail hairs used in the tiny brushes that the artist still orders from Pakistan. “We didn’t kill the squirrels, but would make them unconscious with apples injected with medicine to make them sleep. Then we’d steal some of their hairs, and they’d awaken!”
Now a permanent resident of the United States, Wasim had hoped to return with her family to Pakistan one day, but as part of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, it’s unlikely. This 19th-century sect is a brutally persecuted “heretical” minority in some Islamic countries, closely watched by Amnesty International, its members imprisoned or killed, and its mosques burned. “Being Ahmadi has been central to her development as an artist,” says Anna Sloan, an Islamic art history scholar at the University of Michigan. “Saira has had relatives who’ve been killed, and it must affect your psyche. Her artistic voice is so distinct and strong, and yet she’s incredibly demure and pious.”
For now, Wasim leads an isolated life, focusing on her husband and young daughter and sending every new painting to the Ameringer and Yohe Fine Art gallery in Manhattan, which approached her in 2006. “They were very respectful, so I joined them,” says Wasim, who has never tried again for a Chicago outlet. “It’s true I’m not comfortable telling people about myself. I prefer to just keep working, and waiting. Here, I am like any other South Asian housewife, totally unknown.” But, perhaps, not for long.
Photograph: Anna Knott