One of the hugely positive outcomes of efforts by museums to reach broader audiences is the opportunity this creates to develop exciting new exhibitions, as venues dig deeper to find engaging subjects to explore.
Beyond the Page: South Asian Miniature Painting and Britain, 1600 to Now opened this month (until 28 January 2024) at the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes.
The exhibition, which will move to The Box in Plymouth next year, explores how contemporary art has engaged with the tradition of miniature painting, an artform dating back to the 9th century.
It is estimated that there are about 100,000 South Asian miniatures held in UK museum, gallery and library collections.
Despite this, the subject has been marginalised, according to the curators of Beyond the Page, with the British art establishment not prepared to categorise the genre as fine art and instead considering the works on a par with drawings and illustrated books.
Seeing the exceptional beauty of these works up close, and understanding the technical skill needed to create them, makes you realise that this is nonsense.
And more broadly, like many stories related to empire, this rich topic has been largely hidden from public view because of a reluctance in the cultural sector to tackle subjects related to the UK’s colonial legacy.
Visiting the exhibition makes you realise what a travesty this is, with the displays revealing a remarkable number of connections between artists, artworks, countries and museums themselves that speak to historic and contemporary global ties.
Beyond the Page features more than 180 works by artists from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Australia, Netherlands and the UK. It includes items from a wide range of institutions, including the Royal Collection, Tate, Ashmolean Museum, National Museums Scotland and the British Museum. Many of the works are being displayed in public for the first time.
Two of the artists featured, Zahoor ul Akhlaq (1941-1999) and Gulammohammed Sheik (b.1937) were inspired by their in-depth studies of the unrivalled collections of Indian miniature painting held by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
For more than 400 years, miniatures have arrived in Britain after being bought, gifted, exchanged and sometimes looted. This points to one of the key themes of the exhibition – questions of culture and power and how they relate to empire and globalisation.
In the early 20th century, miniature painting began to represent a strand of cultural resistance to colonial rule. And as the century progressed, artists continued to find contemporary relevance in the possibilities offered by miniatures, including its capacity to challenge tradition western approaches to art.
There is a series of works in the exhibition that sums up its interconnected nature. Karkahana is a collaboration between six artists who studied at NCA, a school renowned for teaching miniature painting in Lahore, Pakistan.
The project was initiated by Imran Qureshi, a Lahore-based artist born in 1972 who was inspired by historic miniature painting workshops that brought together groups of painters.
Qureshi invited each artist to begin two paintings and then send them on to the next artist who would continue adding, subtracting and adapting layers and imagery.
The artists were based in five cities across three continents and 12 works were created from the collaboration.
One of the catalysts for the project was the artists based in Pakistan communicating with those who had moved abroad, discussing the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001 and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan that followed.
The curators of Beyond the Page, Hammad Nassar and Anthony Spira, with advice from Emily Hannam, have done a brilliant job in creating an exhibition that reflects the complex and histories that underpin the development of miniature painting.
The result is a show that combines an in-depth exploration of an under-appreciated artform with contemporary relevance that should appeal to a broad range of audiences.