A Divine Comedy of Errors: Political Paintings by Saira Wasim
Paradoxes of Genre: the Epic Miniature
Teeming with figures captured in mid-action, paintings by Saira Wasim present grand narratives. If it weren’t for their petite size and two-dimensionality, they might be mistaken for Greek mythology, Baroque opera, epic film, or other monumental genres. Yet, these small paintings represent a singular creation, one that transcends any individual medium or genre. In Wasim’s hands, the centuries-old format of the miniature painting has been transformed into a stage for human drama, a jam-packed cinematic space that approaches the grandeur of Cecil B. DeMille and the glamour of Bollywood. Like the protagonists of such grand genres, Wasim’s characters gesticulate, prance, shoot, and fly in majestic style. They laugh and boast in hideous fashion, and morph into grotesque hybrid creatures that hint at transcendent themes of good and evil.
By conflating myriad genres, Wasim has invented a visual oxymoron: the epic miniature. The grace and power of this peculiar oeuvre rests in its capacity to embrace the extremes of scale, both literally and conceptually. For instance, within a given painting, ten centimeters may host a bustling crowd of characters, each depicted in fierce detail; and yet, those tiny elements suggest a whole universe beyond the picture’s frame. Tricks of scale render each element within the painting large and small at once. The human body, in particular, becomes both magnificent and trivial. Though Wasim may pose figures in statuesque gestures, or raise their bodies onto marble pedestals and celestial vehicles, she simultaneously grounds the body in mortal existence by carefully articulating the base elements of the flesh. Virtuoso details invite us to examine world leaders through close-up views of their nose hairs, fingernails, and sagging jowls.
Depicted thus, in all its grandeur and microcosmic frailty, the global condition begs for pathos rather than rage. While Wasim’s bravado color and dramatic imagery convey the gravity of our socio-political ills, her tiny caricatures solicit mercy for a world gone bad. Portraits of gluttonous power brokers, weak-willed political pawns, and hard-edged terrorists bear a humanist mark, as if violence, hubris, and greed were signs of deep human frailty. In the artist’s own soft-spoken words, her work sets forth a “humble plea” for social and political reform.
Wasim’s prolific use of allegory – the staple of her Mughal, Renaissance, and contemporary political sources – serves her work well, providing a weighty counterpart to the levity of brightly colored details and seemingly flippant caricatures. Concealed by the meticulous detailing and technical virtuosity of her pictures, allegorical imagery bears a myriad of darker truths.
It is these ironies – the devastating truths behind the celebratory veneers and fear mongering of the post-9/11 world – that Wasim presents for us in her tragic-comic paintings. The contradictions of scale intrinsic to her epic miniatures serve us well in a time of need, bearing witness to tragedies both personal and Dantean in scope. Her pictures chronicle our age, offering a spectrum of insights. If we look closely, they bear myriad gifts – not only tragedy and criticism, but also empathy, comic relief, and perhaps even hope.
Adkins, Jeremy, "Saira Wasim Interview" (2010). Asian American Art Oral History Project. 26.