Published in the 2016 Summer Quarter of the Asian Art Newspaper.
Interview with Imran Qureshi where I discuss his recent show Where the Shadows are so Deep at the Barbican Centre in London. My review of the exhibition featured on this is tomorrow can be read here.
Imran Qureshi (b 1972 Hyderabad, Pakistan), creates details works on paper that he makes in the style of the miniaturists who worked in the Mughal period in India (1526–1857). Using this traditional discipline, Qureshi continues to find remarkable room to experiment and uses the media to convey complex political references, often with violent imagery, within the parameters of traditional miniature painting with its refined imagery and discipline. His exhibitions move his ideas from the restricted page to physcially spill out into the exhibition space. From around 2000, Qureshi began to use red acrylic in his installations in response to brutal bombings in Lahore. While many of the world’s citizens have become accustomed to almost daily attacks on their streets, such cruelty striking so close to home provoked a deep response in his work.
You trained in the Mughal miniature style of painting, an approach that has come to define your aesthetics as a visual artist. How do you make such a traditional painting technique address such contemporary socio-political concerns?
I was trained as a miniature painter from the NCA (National College of Art) and the training was very academic, very strict, and very disciplined in the beginning. Then we were asked to do our own work by using the same technique, the same vocabulary, but using it in our own style, in our own way of expressing our ideas. I have always been fascinated by the miniature painting technique because the general conception about the technique was that there is less margin for experimentation and expressing yourself as an artist. However, I never found it restrictive. I consider it to be a beautiful genre, with a lot of liberty and freedom within it. You can extend that boundary as much as you like. Even if you consider my art practice, it covers really small, tiny miniatures to large-scale rooftop installations. I never took it as a pressure on me.
I noticed people consider miniature to be some kind of burden on the shoulder of a miniature artist ‘since you are a miniature artist you have some kind of restrictions and you have to follow certain disciple and rules’. I think that if you really understand the vocabulary and sensitivity, then you do not need to be worried. At the end of the day, I am a visual artist in whatever I am doing – it is my art, it is my way of expressing my ideas and feelings through it. It connects to miniature paintings and it is a very natural kind of phenomenon.
In your series, Where the Shadows are so Deep, at the Barbican in London, the duality between life and death is a constant point of reference. Do you view violence and destruction as inseparable from life and creation?
From the beginning, my art practice addresses two opposing things, whether on a formal level or on a conceptual level. It is always about the two opposing entities – life or death, love or hate, beauty or violence. And then on a very formal level, you see very abstractly painted marks combined with very carefully and beautifully drawn images. I have always been fascinated by this idea and for me these opposing things work very well within my art practice.
In my recent practice, for example, there were a few incidents that happened in Pakistan. My work is not only about the violence in Pakistan, but it has a broader meaning. Everybody is immune to it, everyone is experiencing it and affected by it, whether directly or indirectly. Despite the brutality of acts happening in Pakistan, people were really willing to have a peaceful life and trying to raise their voices against it. Previously, people were not that open in raising their voices against such barbaric acts. Now, people are raising their voices against it, on so many public platforms: television and media. I think there is a kind of strength or life that comes out of this destructive act. I think they go together and that is why we are surviving it. Hope is all we need in order to survive it; otherwise it is all about death.
You have exhibited all over the world – at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and now the Barbican Centre in London. Is the violence you refer to in your work universal, or does it stem from a more personal socio-political predicament? How would a viewer in London or New York, relate to that violence?
The first time I used this kind of vocabulary in a site-specific installation was at the Sharjah Biennale in 2011. It was a work called Blessings Upon the Land of my Love. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I used the same vocabulary, but the context was completely different. In Sharjah, people were relating to it at a different level, relating it to the Arab Spring movement and other acts of violence happening in the Middle East.
At the Met, people had a different kind of relationship with it because of the post the 9/11 calamity. I received many emails from visitors who visited the Met exhibition. There was a lady who wrote to me, whose son died on 9/11 and she saw my work at the Met and had a different kind of experience. People had very strong connections with this kind of vocabulary. At the Sharjah Biennale, people were really getting emotional while looking at my work. Some people were physically crying in front of the work. I was left wondering, had I done something wrong.
Asian people had different connections from Europeans and Americans, who were affected by the Second World War. There was this Japanese lady at the Sharjah Biennale who was crying. She related this work with the recent tsunami and earthquake that hit Japan in 2011. Some people also had a very religious kind of affiliation with the work, because of the importance of Karbala for Shia Muslims. So the work can be read on so many different levels, it is not just one incident.
One of the things that struck me about your work is how you manage to make something so gory and bloody into something so visually appealing, something that derives a lot from this formal aesthetic quality you impart to it. What effect do you think the aesthetisation of violence has on the viewer?
I think there is some element of tension between the work and the viewer. It attracts you, but at the same time repels you as well. This is the kind of response that I have been continuously getting. It feeds on the idea that violence is something that repels you, but then it raises another kind of voice against the same thing. Sometimes I feel like that we get used to it.
If you had seen the Metropolitan rooftop installation in 2013, you saw that it started at one point and ended just before the rooftop ended. So it did not completely touch the periphery and I created a very sharp, abrupt ending. When I was about to fly to New York to create this installation, the Boston bomb blast had just happened. In the news they were continuously using the word ‘finishing line’. Somehow that word stuck to mind when I was working there and it became manifested in my work. So that’s why I created this sharp finishing line. The idea was that when you first enter this installation, you feel uncomfortable, but slowly people get used to it. They start walking and looking at the flowers and when they reach the unpainted part, they once again get uncomfortable because they wonder why this part was not painted. The idea was that when there were so many blasts that we have experienced, then the lack of an attack of violence causes people to wonder and become uncomfortable. I think this is another kind of psychological effect. You get used to it, but in a very different way.
Your exhibition was unique because of the space it was in. How did the architecture of the Curve aid the conceptualisation of your exhibition?
I think all my site-specific installations make a strong dialogue with the architecture of the space. My work has a strong connection with the space, be it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Sharjah Biennale, or the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford (2007).
When I came to Barbican, they were prepared that I would do something very large-scale with the space. I hadn’t seen the space before. They expected me to do something quite similar to the Metropolitan rooftop. When I visited the space, I thought maybe if I address that scale by going complete opposite to it, then that would also enhance the massiveness of the whole architectural space. I visualised what would happen if there was a small miniature painting hanging on the wall. When I proposed this idea to them, they were not expecting that. They were very cooperative, but it was a very new thing for them as well. I was very excited and thought that maybe I should not do anything else, but just create a group of tiny miniatures and see what happens.
So if you see all the miniature works, they are dealing with the idea of the curve. Each work has the presence of the curve in it. It is a very common element in old traditional miniatures; the horizon line was represented through the curve. And if you notice the entire space, it is also about the curve. By adding the splashes in the space, I had created this illusion that you are not only looking at a landscape, but you are actually also a part of the landscape. So that was another kind of strong connection to the space.
I started with a lighter green, then a greyish green and then the very dark space. So the idea was that you don’t feel like the idea of walking in a landscape stops at one point. It gives the illusion that it is continuous and that it disappears in the darkness. The palette of the paintings also changes when you reach the end.
The meticulous lighting in your exhibition has a particularly psychological role to play in the reception of your exhibition. How did you achieve that?
The lighting was done when carefully; people did not realise that they were entering a darker space. I did not want people to notice the jumps in the light. So it was blended very well, so that you do not feel it. I was at the opening and a lot of people did not realise how dark it was. When they went back to the beginning of the installation, they were wondering if someone had turned on the light. They had become so used to the darkness.
In the exhibition, some miniature paintings abandon and break away from the intricacies associated with the tradition. For instance, in one painting, black, a colour rarely used in Mughal miniature paintings, occupies three quarters of a frame; one painting is roughly marked with a pen; and one painting is painted off-center. As an artist so equipped with this tradition, what do you seek to incite by challenging this tradition?
As I said earlier, the training was quite strict and I did copy works where I reproduced the old traditional miniatures. When we used to make the miniatures, there were so many things that happened in the process. There is a tool called liner; when we draw the edges of the painting with a straight line, we use that tool. But before applying it on the final painting, we check it on the edge of the paper. While we make different colors, we check it at the edge or corner of the paper. Our teacher used to ask us to hide all these dirty things, so that people do not see these kinds of messy marks around the beautiful painting.
I was always interested in that kind of abstraction in this decorative, traditional kind of art form. So I started using that kind of mark making as part of my imagery slowly. And as I told you earlier, I am always interested in these two opposite things. So the marks that you are talking about, the lines, actually these are the marks that happen usually at the edge of the paper. I was deliberately doing it at the top of my finished paintings, because it does have a strong connection with the whole tradition.
The idea is that people take miniature to be a very exotic thing and something that is meant to be only in museums and has nothing to do with daily life. I feel like it is just like the other objects, other art forms. I do not know why people consider it to be so precious. I do not like that idea. So the way I paint miniature is very spontaneous, but at the same time very deliberate.
I also do another thing that may be interesting for you to know. Traditionally, they make the whole layout of the painting – they draw the images, then they apply all the colours. Then they keep finishing the painting over a long period of time. But for me, it was quite boring because it leads to no surprises to explore further. However, the way I created these paintings is that I started with simple colour tones – flat colours. And then I kept adding images, drawing images directly on the paint, without using any pencil or any drawing. So I create the narratives slowly. So these things look very challenging, but at the same time they are very fascinating. They add all kinds of excitement to my works, these kinds of intervention. Otherwise it becomes slightly boring.
Until 10 July, Where the Shadows are so Deep at Barbican, London, www.barbican.org.uk. Catalogue available, £9.95