Past Tradition is not an exhibition celebrating the traditions of days past, but rather presenting the works of forward thinking artists from the MENASA (Middle East, North Africa, South Asia) region who but push past the expectations, stereotypes, and perceived limitations that “being traditional” often implies. This exhibition is a detour from recent exhibitions that group artists together based on traditional techniques such as miniature painting. It looks beyond technique and nationality and into the complex relationship between tradition and identity in the twenty-first century, encouraging multiple ways of looking beyond the surface.

Tradition and nationalism are often interlinked, and New York based artist of Iranian origin Kamrooz Aram (b. 1978, Shiraz) looks at nationalism as “hallucination somewhere between destruction and celebration.” In his acclaimed series 7,000 Years of History, Aram takes apart pages from mid-Century exhibition catalogs that depict artefacts of Iran’s “7,000 Years of History,” a nostalgic phrased used by Iranians to describe their magnificent historical past, perhaps as a way of coming to terms with the nation’s relatively dismal present. These collages draw connections between Western Modernist veneration for geometry and that of traditional Iranian arts, posing questions about the complicated relationship between Modernism and non-Western Art. Frank Stella and Persian carpets have more in common than you would think.

The New York based Iranian Artist Afruz Amighi (b. 1974, Tehran) also explores this duality using traditional motifs from Persian architecture. Amighi creates delicate sculptures with aluminium chains that evoke duality of the cage that Nationalism can often create, but also the beauty and solace that nationalistic ideology can promise to those that look blindly. These forms also aptly resemble weapons.

New York based Pakistani artist Shahzia Sikander (b. 1969, Lahore) was the first of many Pakistani artists to bring the technique of miniature painting into contemporary art, removing temporal anchors and launching a major resurgence in the Miniature Painting department in the nineties at the National College of Arts in Lahore. Her work inspired many others such as Imran Qureshi (who was her student) to examine the miniature tradition. Over the years, she has pioneered an interpretive and critically charged approach to the anachronistic genre of miniature painting while examining cultural and political boundaries as a space for discussion and intervention. Sikander uses motifs of miniature painting in her drawing, print, and video practice, adding new dimensions of motion and scale to the technique and breaking past its wasli paper boundaries.

Lahore based Waqas Khan (b. 1982, Akhtarabad) is often wrongly absorbed into the world of miniature painting, when the only real connection to it, is the wasli paper on which the artist meticulously draws with the finest of modern-day pens (which are used primarily by architects) and permanent ink. Khan, originally trained as a printmaker, is inspired by Sufi spiritual traditions and the delicate and meditative work draws the viewer into the infinite energy of the cosmos. Jeddah based calligrapher Nasser al Salem (b. 1984, Mecca) takes the ancient art of calligraphy into the realm of op-art and sculpture, transforming the meaning of religious words and texts into forms that evoke their meaning. The work remains devotional, but the concepts venture far outside calligraphy’s traditional box of contents, earning his work a place in the permanent collections of LACMA and the British Museum.

Also inspired by religious traditions in art, Nepalese painter Tsherin Sherpa (b. 1968, Kathmandu) studied thangka painting from the age of 12 under the master guidance of his father. Sherpa takes the protector deities from the thangka tradition and abstracts the deities into secular space, imagining their journey from Nepal to his current life in California. The artist debuted his multiple protector series at the Dhaka Art Summit and he is unveiling the third work in this acclaimed series in this exhibition.

Following his collage series presented at the entrance of this exhibition, Kamrooz Aram’s paintings from the Black Painting series look at the way that we place value on images, and questions how we categorize images as iconic decoration in one frame, and high art in another. Baku based artist Faig Ahmed (b. 1982, Baku) also looks at the traditional idea of the carpet as a space for dreams and storytelling, and injects surrealism into ancient traditional weaving techniques from Azerbaijan, earning him acclaim as a finalist for the Jameel Prize at the V&A in London and a place as one of Azerbaijain’s most successful contemporary artists.

Just as carpets can be used as a symbol for migration, so can ghungroos, as the form originated from seeds strung together as anklets by nomadic tribes in India. When we forget the roots of traditional objects, we also forget the spirit behind them and focus on the rules they impose. Looking at how tradition can both free and stifle individuals, Delhi based Vibha Galhotra (b. 1978, Kaithal) transforms ghungroos into a floating sculpture that connects modern day interpretations of tradition with their natural and tribal histories that are often forgotten as civilization migrates further and further away from its natural origins. This sort of migration (tied with urban development) in the present day is also linked to disease and infections, and in this very personal work Between, the artist uses the ghungroo as a stand in for growths that that can take over the body, whether algae in a body of water, or disease like cancer.

--Diana Campbell Betancourt