The museum campus in the South Loop has a new addition: the South Asia Institute. The South Asia Institute (SAI), which opened its doors in 2019, strives to foster and present the art and culture of South Asia and its diaspora through curated exhibitions, educational initiatives and innovative programs.
The institute was founded by Afzal Ahmed, an ophthalmologist, and Shireen Ahmed, an anesthesiologist. The couple has been collecting art, mostly by South Asian artists whom they wanted to support, since 1971, when they married. About five years ago, they realized that they had accumulated an incredible collection and were concerned for its future well-being. The Ahmeds looked into selling or donating the collection to a museum. In the midst of navigating and further learning about the world of museums and collections, the Ahmeds realized the value and importance of the art they owned and ultimately decided to found the South Asia Institute. After a few years of careful planning, the couple bought the 1911 building, which was formerly the B.F. Goodrich showroom and is a registered landmark, to house the institute. The Ahmeds dedicated the space to exhibiting the South Asian heritage and diaspora which includes Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
The goal of SAI is not only to showcase South Asian heritage but to dispel the plethora of stereotypes that surround South Asians. “Managing a 7-Eleven, owning gas stations or being a taxi driver are all stereotypes that South Asians have faced in Western societies. The major contributions South Asians have made to the United States and globally are rarely acknowledged,” says Shireen Ahmed.
“Due to the political climate, people do not always understand South Asians. One goal is to clear up misunderstandings and educate older and younger generations of our heritage,” says Afzal Ahmed. The institute will serve as a voice and platform for South Asian artists to break barriers and tell their narratives. In addition to this, the Ahmeds hope that SAI can educate audiences on different genres and types of South Asian art. “We also want to create unity, understanding across different segments of the society, and hope that this will bring South Asians together,” says Shireen Ahmed.
The current exhibition, “Old Traditions, New Narratives: South Asian Miniatures,” features artists who trained at the National College of Art in Lahore, Pakistan. The exhibition displays a grand collection of pieces by thirty-two artists who trained in traditional techniques with added contemporary styles for the more than eighty miniature paintings on view. Past and present artists, also known as miniaturists, used traditional techniques such as buta (repeated teardrop pattern similar to a Persian paisley) and par dokht (pointillism) techniques. Traditional techniques were done with brushes from squirrel hair and bamboo, natural pigments and purified gouache. Miniaturists used a special handmade multilayered paper called wasli, made by gluing many layers with flour impregnated with copper sulfate, which was an insecticide. When the wasli was ready, it was polished with sea shells or glass for a smooth appearance. Paintings often displayed black, white, red, green, blue, orange and yellow paints and gold and silver leafing. Miniature art featured meticulous detailing, abundant use of color and metallic leafing, and a combination of Indian and Persian elements.
Miniature paintings have existed in India since the ninth century but it was not until the Mughal Empire was established in the fifteenth century that miniature paintings thrived, owing to royal patronage. During the colonial times, the art form was denigrated but, fortunately, the advent of the Freedom Movement led to a revival. Today, many contemporary miniature artists maintain the traditional techniques but also focus on addressing contemporary subjects, personal narratives, sociopolitical injustices, and cultural and religious taboos.
Works by Imran Qureshi and Tazeen Qayuum are particularly noteworthy in the current exhibition. “Love Me, Love Me Not” by Qureshi is hard to miss upon entrance. The triptych from 2015 is twenty-eight-by-twenty-one-and-a-quarter inches with acrylic painted on gold leaf on paper. The paintings are entirely covered in gold leaf with red acrylic paint splashed on top of the gold leaf in different areas. The red paint turns into a stem with a flowerhead in bloom that signifies Qureshi’s hope for a better life, hope that beauty can form from bloodshed. A particular favorite, “Assembly Line,” by Qayuum is a ten-by-eleven-inch watercolor on wasli from 2009. The piece displays subway lines with a cockroach motif. Qayuum started using the cockroach motif in her work to present issues of racism and discrimination against immigrants who are considered “outsiders” in countries other than their own. It represents the fear of not knowing how to treat the cockroach because society lacks understanding of how to interact with immigrant groups.
Certain pieces display traditional techniques of drawing and painting while using bright contemporary colors. The exhibition focuses on art that is Persian, Mughal, Pahari, Kangra, Rajput and Sikh. The inaugural exhibition of the Institute in September 2019 was “South Asian Modern Masters.” Curated by Dr. Marcella Sirhandi, it featured paintings by artists from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka from the Ahmeds’ collection of South Asian art, also known as the Hundal Collection of Chicago. The exhibition also included the works of artists from the South Asia region that were created between the 1920s and 1980s.
The institute is not the typical white-cube gallery. The building is three floors and was designed by architect Christian Eckstrom; the Institute plans to make full use of the space it occupies. It is in the middle of finalizing its 2021-22 exhibitions, which will include a photography exhibition and two shows inspired by archaeological sites and objects from the Sindhu-Indus watershed and the other focusing on infrastructure and communities of the Chicago area, according to executive director Asad Ali Jafri.
With the virus ongoing, there is the possibility of delay for future exhibitions and in-person events, similar to other museums worldwide. The Institute has begun an online exhibition series, “SAI at Home” (#SAIAtHome), which features artists and creatives from the South Asian diaspora and live virtual programs that include music performances and book readings. SAI will also host a few in-person micro-events.
The Institute is also working on creating art-making and learning experiences in partnership with youth-based and educational organizations as well as adding a residency program for artists, curators and creatives. The building is home to a fully furnished apartment for an immersive residency program in the belief that it will lead to new and engaging work.There is much in store and a bright future ahead for the up-and-coming institute of South Asian art. (Hadia Shaikh)
“Old Traditions, New Narratives: South Asian Miniatures” South Asia Institute, 1925 South Michigan, through February 2021.