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Waseem Ahmed – Dahlem Karkhana / Positions

The Intricacy of Realistic Details

For seven weeks Waseem Ahmed worked in the Museum für Asiatische Kunst in a miniature workshop set up especially for him. Concentrated, in solitude, without daylight. It was a good time, says the artist: he is a night person anyway, and for inspiration there were the Central Asian murals from the Buddhist era in the collection next door.
Interview: Sarah Khan

Waseem Ahmed, the Dahlem Museums are in the midst of a bourgeois neighborhood. What did you think about this working environment when you arrived?

I brought a lot of materials with me from Lahore, so it soon looked a lot like my atelier at home. I am used to working in different places and have had several artist residencies.

You grew up in Hyderabad?

Yes. My father was a blacksmith, my mother a housewife; both are illiterate, they never went to school. But we children received an education: one brother became a physiotherapist, one sister a radiologist and I became an artist. My father was very skeptical about my job; 20 years ago there was practically not a single gallery in Pakistan and in Hyderabad no one was an artist. My father was very concerned about my choice of career and didn't speak a single word to me throughout my entire studies at the National College of Arts (NCA). I lived in a hostel; we were housed like animals. I had no financial support and could hardly pay my bills. Only after my studies could I sell my art, and after that things improved. That's why I always tell myself I am a lucky fellow: I have seen and lived through all kinds of conditions.

How did you experience Berlin?

My schedule was very busy, so I was mainly working, but I could learn quite a bit about Berlin’s history. Yesterday we were at the celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall. That was very moving for me. I have had very positive experiences with the museum staff. I did not just live like a prisoner in the museum.

But a little bit like a prisoner?

A prisoner of my schedule. There were a lot of meetings and a film was made with me.

The film was surprising; they filmed you cooking. A Pakistani who cooks, one automatically expects a special dish, a fantastic curry. But we see you cooking a simple omelet.

It was the first time I had cooked anything. I didn't know how. My wife explained it to me beforehand over the phone. 

You spent time concentrating on the collection of Asian art in Dahlem. In the archive there are 25,000 artifacts. Which objects interested you most?

The frescoes, Central Asian murals from the Buddhist period.

The region of present-day Pakistan has a multi-religious history, defined mainly by Buddhism and Hinduism. Now, Pakistan is a theocracy, based on Islam. Miniature painting, on the other hand, uses the imagery of an opulent Moghul era, a flowering of Islamic culture. Is that one reason to concern oneself with miniature painting: because it confers a positive energy to help deal with the troubled times of the modern day? Does that explain the popularity of miniature painting?

When I began studying those were different times. Everything was very calm, there were no mobile phones, no internet, you hardly had any contact to the outside world. During that time I studied oil painting according to the western ideal. I grew my hair long and tried to paint in a wild way. French painters were my role models, above all Manet, whose colors fascinated me. My teacher had quite a few books about him, and I would look at them. But I was a bad painter, my teachers criticized that I filled the canvases with far too much detail. Only after six years of painting did I discover miniature painting as a minor subject at the National College of Arts. I realized straight away that I loved the wealth of detail and the intricacy of the details, I could simply immerse myself in them. That has nothing to do with a fashion. Nowadays many students want to study miniature painting, the courses are in demand and numbers of students are restricted, because at least now there is an international market for it.

Let’s talk about the European paintings that you deal with in your work. You reference for example Edouard Manet’s “Olympia”. The painting unleashed a scandal in its time because it dealt with the topic of prostitution in a new way. What connection does that have with Pakistani miniature painting?

In Old Lahore there is the prostitution district Heera Mandi, it has been there since Moghul times. Heera Mandi means diamond market, which actually means woman market. Prostitution was always illegal but still went on. When Zia-ul-Haq came to power in the 1970s Heera Mundi was shut down, but that only meant that prostitution was spread all over the other districts.

How did you utilize the Manet painting in your own work?

I painted the figure of a woman with a transparent burka. That is a big difference. It is not about prostitution, it is about the thoughts that all men have when they see a woman in a burka. They ask themselves, what kind of body does the woman have beneath, what does she look like naked.

The Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin owns several Manets. Did you see them?

Yes, I saw the Manets, and above all the Rembrandt in the Gemäldegalerie, “Man in a Golden Helmet.” I was completely thrilled to see the painting of the soldier here; I sat in front of it for hours. I have had a strong connection to the painting for a long time, because the director of the Institute for Miniature Painting at the NCA had the poster in his office, and I saw it there every day. He bought it in Berlin during a restoration workshop.

The painting you made in reaction to it in the Dahlem Karkhana is called “Golden Bullets.” In the upper picture segment there are bullets to be seen. Gold and silver bullets are a reoccurring motif in your paintings.

They represent the Taliban’s propensity to violence. Sadly it has gone so far that the people turn themselves into weapons. By imbuing violence with a halo of glory. The shine of the golden helmet has rubbed off onto the modern bullets. Where I grew up everyone had weapons, even young kids. I was also offered weapons, but I refused. I don't like guns.

You use gold leaf and silver leaf overlays. Is that part of the miniature painting tradition?

Yes, the material was also used traditionally. You can see it in the paintings in Lahore Museum, but on the old paintings the silver has turned black.

By coincidence I know your gold leaf and silver leaf supplier at the Old Bazaar in Lahore, he sells gold leaf mainly for celebratory décor materials, for sweet desserts and spices. He believes that eating it is good for you. Many well-known Pakistani artists are his customers, but he is not particularly interested in art is he?

Yes, he is not easy to impress (laughs). He always tries to persuade me to eat powdered gold and silver for my health, but each time I tell him I don't believe in it.

I almost have the impression that quite a few Pakistani miniature paintings use gold leaf to impress; they use it a bit too lavishly, as though you were at the jewelers.

During the Dahlem Karkhana I only used gold leaf for one picture: for the bullets. Usually I use gold and silver leaf rarely. I prefer to use gold as a color, painting with it. I don't want to impress anyone with it: “See here, I am rich.” No.

You've been working in the Dahlem Karkhana for two months, in a museum room without daylight. How did you manage?

I’m a night owl. In Pakistan I prefer to work at night, so I am used to working with artificial lighting. I know about the problem that the colors are different when you work under white lights. There are sometimes mistakes when it comes to the white and yellow tones and all the light colors. But I had special daylight lamps installed by a light specialist for the workshop. The walls were painted white beforehand to avoid distracting reflections. They were good working conditions.

How did the miniature painting workshop with the Berlin participants go?

It was a very nice experience. At first the participants were nervous: on the first day they had to paint squares and fill them in with fine lines. Initially I thought they would all run away as they kept looking at their watches. Only drawing squares and lines until 12 o’ clock? But then they noticed that it wasn't that easy and time flew by. Afterward they didn't want to leave…  Even after 5pm.

How do you feel about seeing Asian cultural heritage here in Berlin? What is your opinion on restitution?

I think the artifacts are better taken care of here. If they were with us, half of them would have been long gone by now. In the Lahore Museum water runs down the walls, because there isn’t enough money to repair the roof. The artifacts are sold to private collectors or are simply destroyed.

Would it be important for more Pakistani artists to come here to see their cultural heritage? 

For me it was important to see the sculptures and frescoes. Other things however, that are displayed in the ethnological museums, like clothing and household objects, are of course not so important for us as we see them in everyday life. But to discover the old art would certainly be valuable for other artists.

The last question may be a little premature, but what significance will this Berlin residency have in terms of your biography, do you think? Have you learned something for your life or for your art?

I have learned how to use a map, read a timetable and travel by bus and subway. That is a very important experience, even for an artist (laughs).

Sarah Khan is a freelance journalist living and working in Berlin.

The interview was held on November 10, 2014 in Berlin-Dahlem.


The anthropologist and art historian Virginia Whiles on the potential of interdisciplinary dialog between art and anthropology, illustrated by case studies from her practical work in teaching and curating contemporary art.

My shift from art history towards anthropology has been a gradual one. I have taught both Western and Asian art history for over forty years in Europe and South Asia, but fifteen years ago I introduced a seminar called "Ethnography as a Tool" for Artists into my teaching in art schools in the UK, France, India and Pakistan.

I had experienced mild yet confirmed prejudices throughout my teaching and curating of non-Western art in both France and England. Despite the new perspectives brought into art history from semiotics, psychoanalysis and feminist film studies there remained a huge gap in critical art history in the West, it had quite simply left out ‘the rest’: African, Asian and Amerindian cultures. Postmodernism had scarcely affected the modernist ethnocentric concept of ‘Internationalism’, still based on political, economic and cultural alliances between Europe and North America, as the artist and curator of "The Other Story" (1989), Rasheed Araeen, asked “Why has the history of art of the 20th century remained a white monopoly?”

Angered by this absence and enthused by my encounters with South Asian culture in the sixties (when I first travelled overland to India), I chose to run a course on non-Western art history in my first teaching post. A significant point here is that whereas the textile department saw this step as important, the Fine Art department viewed it as an unnecessary ‘option’... Shades of the hegemonic structuring of colonialist art education, as witnessed by the art institutions set up under the Raj in South Asia, dividing and ruling by imposing westernised Fine Art over ‘indigenous’ art, re-classed as craft. The indifference on the part of the institutions towards such problems of ethnocentricity was not reflected in the student body whose increasingly multicultural formation was in demand of changes in the curriculum.

Western art’s avant-garde in the early 20th century extended the orientalist ‘self-othering’ through its mode for ‘neo-primitivism’. It entered, more or less consciously, into a relationship with both anthropology and psychoanalysis: the two fields described by Foucault as “the most privileged of modern discourses”. With increasing globalization there have been various Western postmodern efforts to ‘curate the world’, the Third World in particular, as described by Gerardo Mosquera, the Cuban art critic: “The world is practically divided between curating cultures and curated cultures”.

I turned towards anthropology in the hope of finding in its critique of ethnocentrism a means of developing a ‘de-orientalised’ understanding of how different modes of representation relate to their cultural context, to show how ethnographic theory and practice can explore ways of understanding diverse cultural formations. The seminar has proven to be both popular and useful to the multicultural student body due to the changing dynamics of cultural production and the diasporic shifts in cultural identity. Since Western cultural discourse has dominated and manipulated the processes and marketing by which cultural values are produced, the need to challenge such processes is sensed by art students everywhere who feel the crucial need for a postcolonial critique of globalization.

The context of the current art world is described as global yet the production is always local and scarce attention is paid to indigenous cultural histories. Citing art practice within a particular social field shows how ethnography can be a tool towards an understanding of ‘other’ art stories: those which disturb the ethnocentric narrative of Western art history. Ethnography denotes an empirical description of specific cultures. In my experience, this focus on context and agency motivates the self-reflexivity critical for the study and practice of art as a social fact. The initial reflection on the ‘anthropological turn’ was written by Hal Foster in his text "The Artist as Ethnographer" (The Return of the Real, 1996), a text that inspired my own ‘turn’. The issues arising from the exhibitions I have curated and the consequent debates have fed into the seminar where various topics are discussed.

Recent art has revealed a number of practices which apply ethnographical modes, in particular participant observation, but also sociological mapping and documentation. Artists apply these methods, often through in-situ installation. The important questions posed by Foster refer to the oft discussed problem of the ‘authoritarian’ role, either ethnographic or academic. The issue of ‘specialisation’ throws up the fine line between specific and general, particular and universal, so the question is how to integrate such methodology into critical art practice in ways that can subvert the threat of post-colonial theory to “re-inscribe the West’s cultural authority” (Aijaz Ahmad, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures, 1992). One positive side I believe is that ethnographic fieldwork and its recent pressure on self-reflexivity may help reduce the generalized assumptions often witnessed in writings on the art of diverse cultures by Western art critics.

Ironically one example of the risk of authoritarianism is illustrated by the curatorial tendency, ever since the critiques of the shows Primitivism at MoMA (New York, 1989) and Magiciens de la Terre at the Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris, 1989), to frame works from ‘other’ cultures within an ethnographic discourse. Sally Price warns that this fails because its aim to ‘legitimize’ or academically contextualize the exhibition is nevertheless based on a selection framed by Western aesthetics particularly on account of the fascination with the ‘primitive’ or ‘exotic’ manifested by certain curators. Jean-Hubert Martin once stated that since any object is ‘decontextualised’ by being placed in a museum, the question as to its derivation is irrelevant. He later reversed this attitude with his exhibition Partage d’Exotismes (Lyon, 2000), by inviting anthropologists to select ritual artefacts that were placed alongside Western artworks. However, the focus on visual affinities between art works and artefacts all but cancelled out the cultural and historical differences. Nancy Sullivan wrote that although works appear contemporary by sharing the site of display, “it is the lack of shared history that produces ‘authenticity’, the less history shared the more genuine the outsider”.

It is curious indeed just how little serious attention is paid by anthropologists towards contemporary art, far more space is given to material culture and its focus on artefacts and craft production. As Everlyne Nicodemus, African artist and former anthropologist, wrote: “Surviving ritual image-making and folkloric artefacts, with no bearing on the time we live in, have been raised to the status of authentic cultural expression.” This is the bugbear for any movement that plays with ‘tradition’, as also my experience working with contemporary Pakistani miniature painting revealed. Their use of traditional technique is based on their recognition of its potential function as a signifier of genuine religious tolerance. This is argued through the reclamation of the Mughal context as one of eclecticism and cultural diversity: values threatened today by the instrumental politics of the 'Arabist shift'.

Dr. Virginia Whiles is an art historian and anthropologist. She has been working as a critic, curator and lecturer on art history and cultural studies in Great Britain, France and South Asia for more than 40 years. From 1999 to 2002 she developed and ran a master’s program in theoretical education at the National College of Art in Lahore.

The text is an edited version of the lecture “Wastelands: Between Art and Anthropology,” which she held on January 22, as part of “Waseem Ahmed - Dahlem Karkhana” exhibition at the Dahlem Museums.