Imran Qureshi is Red

Suljuk Mustansar Tarar explains how the miniature artist's work has acquired a new global significance

Imran Qureshi is Red
Imran Qureshi has recently been awarded the Arts in Embassies (AIE) medal by the US

State Department. The medal is given to US and international artists of repute who significantly contribute to promoting culture and understanding. It follows many other recognitions that Qureshi has received in the last few years, including Deutsche Bank’s 2013 ‘Artist of the year’ award and the Sharjah Biennale 2011 Prize.

Imran Qureshi is a leading contemporary painters and is among the pioneers of the neo-miniature movement that took root in Pakistan. Trained at the National College of Arts, Lahore, by Ustad Bashir Ahmad, Qureshi is a miniature painter and a visual artist who artfully uses the centuries-old rules of miniature painting to convey contemporary contradictions and tensions between tradition and modernity - and the violence in society.

'Fragmented' - 2016 - 2 x 4 feet - Acrylic paint on canvas
'Fragmented' - 2016 - 2 x 4 feet - Acrylic paint on canvas

Like Pamuk's description of the split caused by Renaissance techniques amongst Ottoman miniature masters, at NCA too, a similar debate took place

Qureshi’s claim to fame these days is his use of red colour: he paints a mix of delicate foliage and blood stains symbolising blood spilt as a result of terrorist attacks and the eternal human hope. He started using the red colour in 2011, his artistic expression seeking to capture the horrifying violence of terrorist attacks at home and the response given by the resilient Pakistani people. Qureshi’s practice, bordering on fear and hope, captured the sentiments of many and quickly found global recognition.

In a sequence of installations done in the past few years in different parts of the world, the imagery around the red colour captivated his audience and became his oeuvre. Reflecting on the use of red, Qureshi explains how he as an artist experiments with using the colour through different painting techniques and creates an impact by splashing it from varying distances. For him art is a two-way dialogue and any change in practice or topic has to be incremental. His fascination and interest in playing with red - more precisely the perylene maroon shade of Winsor and Newton - is continuously evolving. His installations at the Sharjah Biennale (2011), the Sydney Biennale (2012), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2013), Nuit Blanche, Paris (2014), Siena Art Institute and San Gimignano, Italy (2016) and others are meant to communicate just that.

'Going deep' - 2015 - 30 x 84 inches - Acrylic paint and gold leaf on canvas
'Going deep' - 2015 - 30 x 84 inches - Acrylic paint and gold leaf on canvas

Initially his work might have been considered a local representation by his global audience. Tragically though, increased terrorism and violence around the world have given Qureshi’s work a global identity. And the exotic miniature took a much deeper meaning and symbolism. When Qureshi came to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Arts in May 2013 for the prestigious roof top commission, his flat red foliage and red blots suspended in the massive green of Central Park - with New York skyscrapers piercing in the background - assumed a different meaning in the context of 9/11 tragedy and the then recent Boston marathon bombing. Similarly his installations in London, Berlin and Paris around the same theme followed or preceded some tragic terrorist incidents.

Qureshi has used this pattern for his paintings and exhibitions. His latest exhibition “Where the shadows are so deep”, like his other recent ones, at the Barbican Curve Gallery, had his paintings exhibited with foliage and red blots flowing on the walls and floor of the gallery.

Qureshi's main strength is his humility

Qureshi has mentioned how his work is inspired by Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s classic poem on the separation of East Pakistan. However, his work for me additionally overlaps with famous Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s classic novel My Name is Red, which is a mystery about the murder of miniature artists working on a majestic miniature album for the sixteenth-century Ottoman emperor Sultan Murat III and the conspiracies of the royal karkhaha (miniature painting workshop). The reason for the name ‘Red’ never becomes clear and the reader associates it with various events or characters in the novel. Much of the symbolism from My Name is Red has been taken forward subconsciously by Qureshi’s work. Beyond the colour red, the book unfolds at a time when European painting is influencing the aesthetics of patrons, the miniature painters are split between using Western techniques in their centuries-old discipline, and the tension between a nascent modernity and tradition is a major undercurrent in the Istanbul of that era.

Qureshi’s characters - like his self-portraits, or his vernacular characters using modern tools or a wrestler in modern settings - communicate some of the tensions that Pamuk has addressed through his fictional characters. Through a series of paintings done using pages taken from an old tailoring manual in the Urdu language as the final layer on top of wasli (handmade paper for miniature painting) and by painting his own imagery, Qureshi gave a different connotation to the description in the manual - this was his commentary on the gap between tradition and modernity.

'Midnight Garden' - 2014
'Midnight Garden' - 2014

Like Pamuk’s depiction of the split caused by European Renaissance painting techniques and the debates amongst Ottoman miniature masters, at NCA too, as the miniature was being revived when Qureshi and I were studying there, a similar debate about the utility of learning such a tedious traditional craft took place. Was it only to imitate the glorious works of the past that miniature students should be working so hard or is there something more for them to create? Qureshi thinks that this debate partially sparked experimentation among miniature students in the 1990’s, which resulted in the contemporary form of Pakistan-rooted miniature painting.

Interestingly, Pamuk used six miniature paintings from the Turkish Museum collection as his muse for writing the novel. Qureshi uses some of the classic miniature works to paint them in a contemporary light. Last month when Qureshi invited me to join him for his AIE medal ceremony in Washington D.C., we also went to see the Freer|Sackler Gallery’s exquisite miniature collection, especially shown to us by the Gallery’s Chief Curator and Curator of Islamic Art Massumeh Farhad and the Assistant Curator Dr. Simon Rettig. Both shared stories behind the rich collection and the tales that those paintings contain. The collection included the classic early seventeenth-century miniature by painter Abu’l Hassan - “Jehangir’s dream of embracing Shah Abbas.” In the painting both are standing atop a globe with a lion and lamb sitting next to each other. Qureshi had used it for inspiration to paint his “Beware the buyer” (loose translation of the Urdu phrase “mushtri hushyar baash”), which was displayed at the MET, New York. Qureshi thus addresses the present with centuries-old discussions.

With Qureshi’s success, there has been criticism leveled at him for over-selling the red colour and “making gains” out of human suffering. Pakistan’s leading art teacher and painter Salima Hashmi responds to such criticism by calling it “redundant because artists go through various periods (Picasso’s blue period, rose period etc.) in response to the themes and moods that engage them which can be short lived or for a very long period of time. Whatever moves an artist; war, suppression, gender or any other sociopolitical issue is an important way of being a witness to their time.” Hashmi argues that “the world would be poorer without Picasso’s ‘Guernica’” and asks: “Did Picasso gain commercially? Who knows or cares?”

Hashmi emphasises that the important question is the purpose of art, poetry, film or any other creative endeavour and surely the artist must assume the responsibility to reflect and comment on the pain and injustice that he or she sees around the world. The artist becomes the voice of the people. And in this process “if they can earn a living also then it is a bonus and nothing to apologise for.”  She calls Imran Qureshi “a politically conscious artist and thank God for that.”

Simplicity has always been Qureshi’s strength: creatively analysing common things or connecting with simple messages and translating them into his artwork. His simple message in red has caught on and needs not an art critic or high-sounding words to decipher it. In addition, his exploration of red is evolving in a third dimension with the use of wrinkled red soaked paper mountains with his foliage and blots. At a Library installation in Paris last year, Qureshi created an ‘interactive public art’ experience, the local community came together for a night to create a mound of crumbled red soaked papers.

His shrubbery and blots have at times gone beyond the red. Last year at the Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Art, Toronto, he used tones of green and purple for the installation responding to the autumn season in the garden surrounding the museum. Similarly, at the newly renovated Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Denamrk - designed by the famous Finnish architect Alvar Aalto - he used shades of blues to depict the incident of water leakage in the museum. Qureshi believes that the site should determine the colours and in the case of the Aga Khan Museum and the Kunsten Museum, the colour scheme was dictated by the context of the site and not for sake of using red colour itself.

Qureshi’s main strength is his humility and his ability to identify with the everyday struggles of the common Pakistani and translate that into a creative process. This has helped him alter the status quo of miniature and depict violence and common man’s troubles across the world.

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