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Artists in the GTA: Tazeen Qayyum's miniatures tell bigger political stories

Using a paintbrush made of a single chipmunk hair affixed to a quill on the end of a stick, Tazeen Qayyum has made a vast, indelible mark -- both nationally and internationally. Her practice of incorporating ancient miniature painting into her work has underscored brazen political statements and told the stories of the unheard. Although she has evolved to include sculpture and performance work, she maintains true to her practice as a contemporary miniature painter.
Born in Karachi, Pakistan, in 1973, Qayyum attended the prestigious National College of Arts in Lahore. The school is the only one to offer a four-year degree program in the ancient practice of miniature painting
"After partition, the art of miniature painting died," says Qayyum. "It was seen more as a traditional craft process." The intricately drawn floral motifs and symbolic imagery were extensively co-opted as a tourist gimmick, with vendors churning out cheap replicas of 18th century paintings to sell on roadsides to tourists.
She chose miniature painting because she wanted to develop patience and discipline, virtues inherent to the practice. Her studio is set up to follow the traditional methods. The unforgiving medium of miniature painting involves preparing papers, paints and brushes, many of which cannot be purchased at art stores here, and a process that is meticulous.
"It's not a very spontaneous painting. There is no margin for error at all. You need to know what you’re going to do and what in the end it’s going to look like." She doesn’t keep an ordinary sketchbook per se, but writes down ideas on slips of paper. They often come to her after she has put her eight-year-old daughter to bed and has some time to herself.
Qayyum and her husband, Faisal Anwar (a digital media artist), moved to Canada in 2003. Qayyum has been attracting the attention of the art community here ever since. She has been supported by the Ontario Arts Council throughout her career, receiving both 'emerging' and 'mid-career' project grants, and exhibition grants. She received another grant this year to assist in developing new work.
As a woman who has practiced art in Pakistan and Canada, Qayyum has observed the challenges unique to each country. She contends that artists in Pakistan find the political situation difficult, if not impossible, to excise from their work. "It’s impossible not to paint what you are facing every day in your life. Your country is at war. You wake up, you pick up the newspaper, you see 10 people died going to work, how can you not be affected?"
On the flipside, Canada is not without issues. "Women don’t have it easier here either. It’s a different set of challenges. Women here have a lot going on and are managing a lot. They’re expected to do a lot in a given set of days. Because they’re not just managing the house and the family like back home [80 per cent of the women there don’t work professionally, though this number is decreasing]. Women here are multi-tasking a lot and its not easy."
Her work was staunchly altered by 9-11 and the immediate crackdown with the war on terror. "At that particular time, I was still in Pakistan, and then within a few months I was here. In a strange way, we experienced stories from both angles. I was seeing the reactions in Pakistan, and I moved here and saw the media portrayals here as well."  She saw the media’s machinations to influence popular opinion about who was to blame for the war, manipulating people into picking sides.
"I guess my political statement is in some ways very direct, but I’m not completely taking sides on it. My commentary initially has been how war is equivalent to destruction in every way. It’s not about saying; 'everybody on that end is innocent, and everybody on this end is not.' It’s more about how what comes out of war is never positive." In 2003, she started painting dead cockroaches, and continued to paint them for ten years. They served as an evolving metaphor for loss of human life on both sides.
The resulting exhibit May Irritate Eyes (2007) was influenced by the images of naked Iraqi men stacked up in Abu Ghraib prison. "In a way, I placed the cockroaches in the same arrangement." The accompanying tag says "article three." It is lifted from Article 3 of the Geneva Convention, which talks about treatment of POW’s. By repeating the image of the bug, "the personality or individuality of the bug is removed; they’re just numbers." They evoke how individual human lives can be redefined and made disposable by war.
In the piece Test on a Small Area Before Use (2007) she took it a step further and started mimicking entomological displays in museums. "This old museum practice of archiving -- I found it related very well to what I’m trying to say. In the end, it all depends on how the story is presented. When you go to a museum, you are led to believe or read things. Those labels that are next to the bugs (or anything else) describing the display, become the point where your understanding is supposed to be. And that’s the role of how I feel the political propaganda works."
Her artwork has also taken her outside of the political sphere and into the personal. Her piece Our Bodies our Gardens is an installation depicting the personal stories of 25 ordinary women who sent her their own hot water bottles (and their accompanying stories). The water bottle is used as shorthand for the female body; something that you hold for comfort and warmth, something to soothe pain. Women sent stories of using the water bottle through illness, divorce, and death. Some bottles are torn, others delicately painted with flower motifs symbolizing beauty and power. One woman emailed her to say that her mother lived in India and "whenever my mother visits me, she uses my hot water bottle. And although I have grown children of my own, I feel that my mother’s smell is in that bottle now." Qayyum recreated the bottle, covering it with a pink carnation (symbolic of mother’s day and mother’s love) and filled the inside with soft velvet. 
For her most recent show, last year's Coule dans les Veines (Flows in the Veins), she was approached by French book publisher, Gervais Jassaud of ‘Collectif Generation’ in France. The project was to do a collaborative series of books with Italian poet Nanni Balestrini. Qayyum incorporated calligraphic elements of miniature painting overtop of pesticide sprayers and other destructive imagery, interspersed with Balestrini's poems. 
The show culminated in a performance work where she wrote a phrase from Balestrini’s poem over and over in her native Urdu: “We do not know who we are where we go.” It may very well sum up Qayyum’s work: a journey whose profundity may not be realized, even as it has already arrived. 

Tiffy Thompson is a writer and illustrator who lives in Toronto. She is drawn to the quirky and eclectic stories of those that live and work here. 
Photos 1, 2, 4 & 5 by Faisal Answar. Photo 3 by Jill Kitchener.
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