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From Small Things

A Tajikistani couple work to keep the art of miniature painting alive in a country where it once flourished.

by Jamila Sujud 14 April 2014

DUSHANBE | Visiting Olim Kamalov and Sarvinoz Khojaeva is a bit like stepping into medieval Tajikistan. Aside from a piano and a modern table and chairs, everything in and around their home is designed and decorated in the fashion of an urban Tajik abode of the late Middle Ages – even the sheds and patio furniture. Traditional embroidery (suzany, literally translated as “needlework”) adorns tables and walls, from which also hang traditional outfits from most parts of the Tajik lands.


That one of Dushanbe's leading artistic couples surround themselves with reminders of the region’s distant past should come as no surprise. Kamalov is Tajikistan's only master of the ancient art of painting miniatures.


A miniature chess set painted on wood by Olim Kamalov in 2006. Photo from Kamalov's website.


Their dwelling is also home to the Mino Art Center, launched in 2009 as an extension of Kamalov's studio and gallery. His work lines the walls of the space where orphaned and low-income children from Tajikistan’s capital take classes in drawing, graphics, and painting, including the centuries-old style Kamalov and Khojaeva are working to preserve.


On a winter day, students in one of Mino’s classrooms are fully involved in their painting projects. Kamalov hovers among the pupils, offering advice. He counsels a student on more careful and accurate representations and cautions another not to be in too much of a rush.


Bonu Kamalova, the elder of the couple’s two daughters, also teaches here. A 28-year-old graduate of Dushanbe’s Olimov State Art College and the Russian-Tajik Slavonic University, she is well-versed in various painting styles, embroiders in silk and bead, and freelances as an artist-illustrator for a local publishing company. At Mino she teaches computer graphics.


When Kamalov won a prize at the International Cultural Festival of Illumination and Miniature in Algeria last year, Kamalova was inspired to take up her father’s favorite genre as well. She has since produced five miniature works.


But few other artists, if any, are following in Kamalov's footsteps. Popular and widely practiced across Persia and Central Asia in the 15th and 16th centuries, miniature painting depicted daily lives and customs and spiritual themes in complex, delicately detailed strokes on ceramic or wooden plates, or in illustrated manuscripts. Its greatest practitioner, Kamoliddin Bekhzod, was born in the mid-15th century in Herat, in present-day Afghanistan. His influence spread across the region, with major schools of miniature taking root in the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, now part of Uzbekistan.


Tajiks developed their own distinctive miniature scenes, centered in the cities of Hisor and Khujand, says Larisa Dodhudoeva, an ethnographer at Tajikistan’s National Academy of Sciences. The form was passed down through the system of usto-shogird (master-pupil), with each generation of artists training the next.


But even at its late-medieval peak, experts say, miniature’s influence on local painting and decoration was limited. The illustrated books that spread the form were created for wealthy patrons, making miniature largely the province of the rich, according to Francis Richard, a specialist in Eastern manuscripts at the French National Library of Languages and Civilizations in Paris. Dodhudoeva notes that miniature was part of urban culture; among the general populace, folk-art styles prevailed, and still do today.


So while Tajikistan’s first state museum, opened in 1934, was named for Bekhzod, the painting style that made him a cultural icon was already fading out in the then-Soviet country.


“Some masters try to keep [elements of] the miniature style in their works, but there is not a specialized school, no systematic study of this art,” Dodhudoeva says. “Young people aren’t interested in learning miniature.”




When Khojaeva and Kamalov opened the Mino Art Center five years ago, reviving miniature in Tajikistan was one of their main goals. Though Kamalov’s work has received international recognition, promoting miniature at home has been difficult.


“After the Soviet Union collapsed, ties with colleagues, artists from Samarkand and Bukhara, were broken,” says Khojaeva, who hosted a television arts program before starting Mino. “There aren’t any other miniature art centers or followers of famous artists in Tajikistan, except our center.”


Kamalov instructs local students in the painstaking art after a selection process that includes a competition. Photo by Jamila Sujud.


“I never thought that one day I would own such a school, although I was always advocating for the miniature arts,” Kamalov says. “If you really like your job, you get fully involved in it.”


After graduating from the Olimov Art College in 1979, Kamalov went to work at a plant in Dushanbe that produced traditional souvenirs, such as ceramic animals and metal bijouterie. There he was trained by the artist Klara Son in the Russian Palekh style of miniature painting on lacquered papier-mâché items, such as trays and salvers. He rose to become the plant’s chief artist, then left in 1985 for a similar position at a cooperative that also produced traditional gifts.


That plant closed in the early 1990s after Tajikistan gained independence, and Kamalov began teaching painting while pursuing an independent art career. He taught himself the classic techniques by copying works by Bekhzod and other masters. Eventually he began producing original miniatures, applying ancient Central Asian traditions to new pieces on ceramics, wood, and canvas.


“Miniature attracted me by its antiquity. This is our native art – beautiful and original. There isn’t any art like it,” Kamalov says. His goal, he adds, is to “work like an ancient artist.”


And that takes time. “Even in a very small item you can describe a whole world,” Kamalov says. “But as it’s a small item you need to put in the time and the more difficult effort on it.”


The artist had his first exhibition in 2004 at the Swiss Cooperation Office in Dushanbe, followed in 2005 by a show supported by the Tajikistan branch of the Open Society Institute and another in 2006 at the Turkish Embassy. Inspired by such progress, he expanded his studio/gallery in 2008 and opened Mino with Khojaeva the following year.


His career and the center have continued to gain wider attention. Kamalov says his works – along with miniatures, he creates intricately painted wooden chess sets – have been exhibited in Russia, the United States, the UK, France, Finland, and elsewhere. In September 2011, Mino was granted status as a UNESCO Club. Numbering about 4,000 worldwide, these local organizations and volunteer groups serve as grass-roots activists for UNESCO’s ideals in education, culture, public policy, and other areas.


“It was the highest compliment to our center and to Olim Kamalov’s works,” Khojaeva says of the designation.


The center’s other chief focus is art education for needy children, drawing pupils aged 5 to 18 from the surrounding neighborhood and a local boarding school for orphans. Students selected for the Mino program (through master classes and an art contest) attend weekly classes for 2½ years, learning the basics of drawing, graphic design, computer skills, and painting, including miniature. Art critics give lectures on art history; there are field trips to museums and theaters, and to paint in areas of natural beauty.


Kamalov says Mino students have won art competitions across Central Asia and in the United States. Several of his pupils have gone on to study at the Olimov Art College. The school does not offer any instruction in miniature – a far cry from the Middle Ages, Kamalov notes, when “Tajiks had various schools” devoted to the form.


Art education in general is not a priority in Tajikistan, the couple say. “Only students at the art college study the history of Tajik art, and only for one year,” Kamalov says. “Why isn’t there an opportunity to learn art history in secondary schools? … Miniature art isn’t popular because the population isn’t informed about it.”


But he hopes his students who continue their art studies also continue to work in his favorite style – one that might not last much longer if he remains its only master.


“I don’t know who from these teenagers will be good enough to continue working on miniatures. All of them are talented and like drawing,” Kamalov says. “What I know for sure is that miniature has to strike out on its own in the development of Tajik art.”

Jamila Sujud is a journalist with the Central Asia Online news website. To learn more about Olim Kamalov’s art and the history of miniature painting, visit his website (in English).

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