Pakistani miniatures artist gets the bigger picture
Miniatures artist Imran Qureshi addresses the politics of violence in his work, writes Payal Uttam
It is almost noon and Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi is struggling to hold back yet another yawn. Jetlagged and unshaven, he apologises and explains that he has been painting non-stop for his show at Pao Galleries in Wan Chai, which ended on Friday. "Usually when I work, I work madly. Sometimes I don't sleep for two days," he says. Judging by the exquisitely detailed works around us, it's been a while since he has had a decent night's rest.
Known for his installations of blood-like paint splattered across everything from an old courtyard in Sharjah to a slipway in Sydney, Qureshi is one of Pakistan's leading artists. Originally trained in the art of classical miniature painting, he is recognised for pushing the boundaries of the discipline. His Hong Kong show, with his wife Aisha Khalid, unveiled his new jewel-like miniatures, abstract drawings and canvases of blood-stained landscapes.
"They look very seductive, very exotic, but then there is something disturbing happening which makes them uncomfortable," says Qureshi, pointing to rivulets of red paint. "The idea of landscape has changed. They are supposed to be very peaceful but not now due to all this global violence."
Born in 1972 in the city of Hyderabad, Qureshi has been fascinated by politics and world affairs since he was a child. "First thing in the morning when I got out of bed, I would just grab the newspaper from the door and read the main headlines," he says. Aged nine, he began submitting creative stories to the newspaper: "No one asked me to do it. I was into such things, but I didn't have any idea that I could complete my studies in art and make it my profession."
At the suggestion of his uncle, Qureshi moved to Lahore when he was 18 to pursue a degree at the National College of Arts, but never imagined he would become a miniaturist. "I was so much into theatre, puppetry and hanging out," he says, laughing. "Miniature painting wasn't my cup of tea, but my teacher was always asking me to do it." Swayed by his professor's persistence, Qureshi conceded and was surprised to find he enjoyed it: "I never thought that I could sit like that with so much patience."
Qureshi spent two years creating replicas of ancient miniatures, making his own wasli paper and paintbrushes from squirrel's hair. But he felt stifled. Not content to continue making copies, he defied his professor and began to experiment. "It was hard," he says. "I was challenging his notions in front of him. I was not daring generally, but I was when it came to my work."
Veering away from traditional miniatures depicting religious narratives or scenes from courtly life, Qureshi started exploring political and social issues affecting present-day Pakistan. Scavenging in old bookstores, he found colonial-era tailoring manuals and tore out pages, integrating the text into his paintings. "I found them so relevant and loaded with political meaning. There was a section on 'How to cut the front of a burqa', and one on 'How to cut an artillery pantaloon where the military pantaloon has more pockets than the civilian one'," he says, incredulously.
His first major breakthrough came in 2001 when he was living in a farmhouse outside Delhi doing a residency at Khoj Artists' Association. Standing in the courtyard one day, he had an epiphany. "I was looking at the geometric tiles and Aisha was using a lot of geometry in her work. She was in Amsterdam at that time so it reminded me of her." He began to paint directly on the ground, transferring his miniature techniques off paper.
One of his most impressive site-specific experiments was a 2008 installation in the Queen's Palace in Kabul. Struck by the sunlight streaming into the palace, he traced outlines of different shadows of windows on the floor and covered them in delicately painted blue foliage. "Being in Afghanistan, there was a feeling of fear in the air and a strange sadness. Looking at the painted imagery on the floor, it seemed as if the window had a stained-glass image, but actually there was nothing there," he says.
"My work was about the illusions of something which doesn't exist. [Similarly] even though people were saying 'America is here, everything is changing', it didn't work that way."
Blood red seeped into Qureshi's work after Lahore became a target for al-Qaeda in Pakistan in 2010. "Lahore was very peaceful, but then they started attacking. There was a series of bomb blasts almost every week. When I was looking at images on TV, I realised how a place full of life could be transformed into a bloody landscape within seconds."
Reflecting on the violence engulfing his country, he turned an entire courtyard into what appeared to be a crime scene ominously smeared with red paint at the 2011 Sharjah Biennale. For a positive spin, he painted lush foliage sprouting from the blood-like pool as a signal of hope. Following his success at Sharjah, Deutsche Bank selected him as its artist of the year in 2013. That year, he also did a similar installation for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where he splashed red paint, Pollock-style, onto the rooftop garden.
Qureshi's newest paintings in Hong Kong reverse the ideas from his previous installations. "In my other work, you see blood then you realise there is foliage coming out of it. But here I feel the blood comes later, when you look at them they look like flowers first. Then you realise it's something else, it's more violent," he says of his delicate drawings of paint-splattered flowers.
When his show at the New York Met opened, the Boston bombings had just taken place; in Sharjah, his installation coincided with the Arab Spring uprising.
Asked if he has deliberately toned down his work for the relatively peaceful city of Hong Kong, Qureshi shakes his head. "Violence is not an unfamiliar thing. Directly or indirectly, it's affecting all societies, all cultures, even if you don't have bomb blasts."