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Portfolio: Of light and shadows

Portfolio: Of light and shadows

Over the last few years, Imran Qureshi has received incredible international acclaim — from the Deutsche Bank Award for ‘Artist of the year’ to prestigious commissions at Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Roof Garden and Aga Khan Museum. For these public exhibits, he has also come to be recognised for tackling large and open spaces, covering them with splashes of paint, often red and blood-like that turn into intricate foliage as you come closer.

Temporary in nature, the paint is intended to wash away over time, referencing the famous verse by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Khoon ke dhabbe dhulenge kitni barsaaton ke baad (And how many rains must fall before the stains of blood are washed clean).

In this sense, his recent show at Barbican Centre’s Curve Gallery, London, could be seen as a departure from his current practice. Again, referring to Faiz, the show is titled Where the Shadows are so Deep. One enters a dimly lit, dark space. The semi-circular wall is decorated with illuminated paintings that almost lead to a pathway. Displayed at various heights, the works invite the viewer to explore the images more intimately. From a distance, what seem like beautifully lit jewels revealed as you get closer a more macabre narrative.

Traditionally, miniature paintings have centred on figure. However, these works are lacking any character. Instead, these are landscapes that are deserted. Formally, Qureshi pushes the boundaries of what a miniature painting can and cannot be. The blotchy edges of the precious, gold-leafed pictures are exposed. Some images are framed as pages from books, like illustrations from a larger Shahnameh. The characteristic blood-like splashes make an appearance throughout the space, on the walls, around and on the paintings, as well as the floor. However, this time they seem to be in dialogue with the painted images, as if an expansion of pictorial space, blurring the boundary between pictures and the gallery space.

At the end of the visual experience, once free of the charm and captivation of the spectacle, one is possessed by an uncomfortable feeling that makes me question what does depiction of conflict at home in a foreign context mean? As a Pakistani, it makes me uneasy that the narrative emerging from my country is that of showcasing violence and devastation. One questions, is drawing attention to a tragedy (often far away) through painting sufficient? Where suffering is commodified, yet, nothing is done by the beneficiaries to change that at home? Perhaps this expectation from art is an unfair one, as explained by the Oscar-nominated filmmaker, Rithy Pahn, at a conference, “Art is not able to change the world, but art can show the future and the past.”

In most parts globally, artists have sought inspiration from what is around them. In conflict zones, political and social unrest, many have also used their expression as a means to voice surrounding injustices. Tracing the history of this in Pakistan, it would be fair to observe that post 9/11 representation of conflict, violence, and oppression, have formed strong metaphors within our visual culture. From artists like Rashid Rana, Faiza Butt and Aisha Khalid to the recent NCA graduates such as Sajid Khan, Zahid Mayo and Shakila Haider, all have at some point addressed forms of brutality in their work.

The veteran art educationist, Salima Hashmi, traces the origins of a shift in this during the Zia regime. Reflecting, she says, “All forms of expression were banned, there was nowhere to go. As well as going out on the street, this led to a knee-jerk reaction where artists felt the need to face the regime, its restrictions and censorship face-on … As women, when they were silencing our voices; we quite literally chose to use our bodies as resistance.”

In this regard, when we re-visit Qureshi’s practice, violence as a motif is exhausted. This is no longer about resistance, or drawing attention to conflict. Rather, this is now about challenging disciplinary boundaries. This can be seen as exciting, and a way forward. Drawing on the traditional history of Mughal miniature painting, Qureshi expands the field in the footsteps of Shahzia Sikander. Perhaps, this marks a new age for contemporary art in Pakistan. It is one that can confidently move past the immediate social and political history and start forging links with broader traditions of art making in Pakistan and beyond.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 19th, 2016

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