By Nadia Kurd
Trained as a miniature painter from the National College of Art (NCA) in Lahore, Pakistan, artist Tazeen Qayyum points to her mother’s encouragement as the source of her success. “She constantly encouraged me, drove across town every evening after her tiring job to take me to after-school art lessons” reflects Qayyum. Such foundational encouragement prompted Qayyum to have confidence in her own voice and to pursue her art in Pakistan.
This encouragement soon paid off and Qayyum’s time at NCA during the 1990s solidified her practice. Much of her work critically draws on the long illustrative tradition of Central Asia, South Asia, and Iran. The practice of miniature painting — the brilliantly coloured miniaturized folio images—emerged in the Islamic lands during the 8th century with the introduction of paper from China. Commonly referred to as karkhana or ‘the painting workshop’, numerous medical manuscripts, legal treaties as well as the histories of rulers and most importantly, the holy Quran, were part of the elevated art practices amongst Ottoman, Persian and Mughal empires.
The practice of miniature painting is an arduous one. Students training in the karkhana will sit on the floor for hours, focused on mark-making on handmade paper. The paper is often mounted on a takhti or ‘tablet’, which the student keeps propped up on their lap. The brush and paints are also skillfully handmade during the student training. The technique consists of “minute, repetitive brushstrokes render delicate figures in a painstaking technique called pardakht, a kind of linear pointillisme.” While this finite yet vibrant practice serves the basis of Qayyum’s past and present work, she has continuously pushed the genre both conceptually and formally.
For example, in the work “Thee Only Do I Love” (2010) the floral designs commonly found in traditional miniature works are transformed by the ice bags canvases upon which they are painted on. Moreover, the phallic nature of “Thee Only Do I Love” pushes the boundaries of accepted norms regarding sexuality and modesty within Muslim and South Asian cultures. The flowers depicted on the ice bags also represent fidelity and loyalty in Western culture.
Since 2002, one of the most enduring themes in Qayyum’s work has been the cockroach motif. The symbolism of the cockroach – a hardy insect that has long adapted to human life – is one that Qayyum uses because it elicits fear and has often been used as a metaphor for immigrants and those considered as outsiders. In her 2011 work “Incubate” depicts a series of small paintings of cockroaches encased in Lucite (acrylic). In the 2013 work “A Holding Pattern”, installed at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, the cockroach pattern features prominently throughout the backdrop and furniture of the work and is made of painted pieces of acrylic. These pieces are meticulously arranged in a grid pattern that mimics the wood lattice room dividers commonly found in Islamic architecture. The installation references the airport transit terminology for continuous routing loops when planes are unable to land, which serves as an apt metaphor for the various socio-political (often life or death) conundrums faced by refugees today.
This repetitive patterning common in her cockroach themed work has evolved and informed her performance work. For example, in her recent performances such as “We Do not Know Who We Are Where We Go” (2012 and 2014-15), Qayyum centers herself on the drawing surface and begins to write in her native Urdu language using Perso-Arabic script in concentric circles. The repetitive, trance-like process of creating these works can span several hours. For Qayyum, the process to create these works allows the audiences of the performance to see how her body fully becomes the instrument, melded with the paintbrush, to create the cursive lines of script.
“I am confident to say that I have always prioritized my home and being a mother over my professional life,” reflects Qayyum. This has often meant passing on opportunities that may have propelled her into the limelight, however, this has not lessened the potency of Qayyum’s artistic output. Instead, her work continues to be driven by “what my narrative is, what is it that I want to investigate or say, what has moved me enough that I need to express my feelings, and then comes the ‘how.’”
Qayyum’s work continues to push the limits of modern miniature painting. Her latest project, a series of multidisciplinary works called “Cover The Same Ground” (2020—), has been “created as worksheets of learning to draw a dead cockroach, breaking it down as fictional letters and language.” Here, Qayyum continues to evaluate and piece together visual imagery to challenge the conceptions long shaped by colonialism and white supremacy in the imagining of the ‘Other’. Indeed, the ability to address the misuse of knowledge and its translation “into acts of bigotry and brutality through misrepresentations of socio-political and religious ideologies” features prominently in Qayyum’s art.” In her work, Tazeen Qayyum brings these issues to the forefront using and expanding the established vocabulary of traditional miniature painting. “Fear is no longer a mute condition” Qayyum points out, “I believe we are infinitely connected through thoughts, words, and actions, and I want my work to convey that as well.”
Nadia Kurd (she/her) is an art historian and curator based in Amiskwacîwâskahikan (Edmonton, Alberta). Her work can be found on http://www.nadiakurd.com
 Tazeen Qayyum, interview by author, Edmonton, AB, May 16, 2020.
 Jonathan Bloom and Shelia Blair, Islamic Arts (New York: Phaidon Press Inc. 2006), 220.
 Louis Werner, “Reinventing the Miniature Painting”, (accessed May 20,2020).
 Artist interview with Author.