Imran Qureshi That Kind of Sensibility

Morning And Night Sang A Duet Together For A Long Moment in the historic Al Jahili Fort in Al Ain United Arab Emirates or at least they will have done when Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi unveils his site-specific installation for Abu Dhabi Art’s Beyond: Artist Commissions. In the fort’s courtyard he had arranged thousands of black plastic rose buds in a square bed to evoke the alarming threat of global warming. “The title is borrowed from the poetry of Faiz Ahmed. The translation of his book was lying on my table and I found it so appropriate. It was really relating to my work.” However, the installation has not gone quite as planned. He has been urgently called to the site the evening before the opening to discover the buds seemed to have taken on a life of their own and started to bloom. The truth behind this unusual phenomenon is that the glue that kept the bud petals together dried in the sun and the buds turned into blossoms revealing a white egg-shaped foam interior.

“I always believe when an accident happens during the process of making an artwork, it always leads you to create something new,” says Qureshi. Besides, as a teacher, he deals with such problems every day. Therefore, he decides that the white foam eggs have to be removed, since the meaning of the piece gets distorted. And so, at sunset, together with his assistant, he reaches into the center of the artificial square field to gently pluck the eggs. “It’s like being in a field picking cotton.” Slowly the installation loses its highlights and turns black again. Content with the result, he decides to return again at dawn to make the final finishing touches.

When an accident happens during the process of making an artwork, it always leads you to create something new.

Imran Qureshi
Imran Qureshi working on the installation, Morning And Night Sang A Duet Together For A Long Moment, in Al Jahili Fort.

Inside the Fort, the earth colored galleries are decorated with Qureshi works of astonishing precision, his miniature paintings. Qureshi studied miniature painting at the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan, but was not immediately drawn to it. “The miniature department was very academic, very disciplined. You had to focus for hours and hours in small tiny areas, and I refused to do my specialization in miniature. I was very much into theater, socializing and enjoying the freedom of using different mediums.” But his teacher Bashir Ahmed kept insisting. “Then I thought, when a teacher insists that much, I should think about it, and I realized that this is something you can learn only from this institution. Rest of the things I can go to any other institution.” Taking up the challenge, he was captured by it. “It comes into your blood. Even if I am making video, it has that kind of sensibility.”

He outlines the particular craftsmanship involved. “The miniaturists make their own surfaces by joining leaves of papers in a specific way and gluing them together. Then they burnish the surface because the smoother it is, the less likely it is for the color to bleed.” Mussel shells are used as mixing bowls for their organic paints, made from raw materials like fruits and vegetables. The brushes are made with hairs from a squirrel’s tail and are of varying thickness; the single squirrel-hair brush is used for tracing the ultra-fine details. Miniature painters are trained to sit on the floor, as posture is essential to mastering the tiny brushstrokes. “Sitting on the floor is a tradition in that part of the world. All the schools were on the floor. It requires an extreme mental discipline. That’s the beauty.”

Imran Qureshi’s installation Morning And Night Sang A Duet Together For A Long Moment in Al Jahili Fort in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
The gallery in Al Jahili Fort displaying Qureshi’s miniatures.

Remarkable finesse with details grace his miniature paintings. One is a self-portrait. He is pictured in profile, on an oval yellow background with his palm facing upwards. What could be white flower petals form an aura around him. The portrait, delicate and unsettling, is heightened with gold leaf, fine floral patterns and staccato red lines.

Three other miniatures depict details from his large-scale site-specific installations a few kilometers away at the Al Ain Oasis. Just as Mughal court painters of the 16thand 17thcenturies documented history, Qureshi wishes to document his ephemeral interventions. “My site-specific work is on view for a very short time period and then it’s washed off. You can only witness the work in photographs. So, I wanted to document them in a miniature painting just to preserve them.”

At once an action painter and calligrapher

At once an action painter and calligrapher, Qureshi has become attuned to the idea of quickly shifting scale, from small to very large and the reverse. “I enjoy that shift. It’s not something that disturbs me. I think everything has its own challenges and everything has its own comfort zones. They work equally for me.”

Imran Qureshi in Al Ain Oasis, site of his large-scale installation.

At the Oasis, the large-scale installation has not yet washed away. Qureshi splashed the ancient irrigation system with paint. On top of those spatters he drew delicate white foliage very much inspired by foliage landscapes in Mughal paintings. For the channel that goes through a lush date palm tree garden, he chose blue paint.  The channel that travels through a drier landscape he splashed with red. “The space is telling me the color. You see it’s the same thing. Splash and the drawing of the leaves. But there is something new adding to it every time.”

Qureshi explains further his color responses by giving a few examples. For instance, he splashed the steps of the National Cathedral in Washington DC (2018) with blue paint creating the illusion of water flooding out of the Cathedral and spreading all over. “I didn’t want to use red, because that is a religious space and I always have respect for all religions. I wanted the whole thing to be read like a spiritual journey. And I thought it should be more about cleansing yourself spiritually when you are going to a religious building.”

Visitors walking inside the 3000 year old empty water channel.
Creating the illusion of a water stream.

He covered the 8,000 square foot rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2013) almost entirely with red splatters, creating a violent site. “At the time, there was this Boston bomb blast. Breaking news repeatedly used the word ‘finishing line.’ The words stuck to my mind. So, a few meters before the edge I stopped working and made a sharp line between my painted work and the clean part of the roof.”

Intrigued by the emotional effect that the artwork produces on the audience, Qureshi noticed that people hesitated in the beginning to walk on the spattered surface. After a while they started walking on it. Then they became comfortable and did not think about it. But, when they went towards the edge, they wondered why that part was clean.  “They were more comfortable with that violent area than the cleaner part.” For Qureshi the history of terrorist attacks in Pakistan is crucial to understanding why they were. “When something is not happening there for three or four months, people think, ‘No bomb blast? Strange.’ This is how everybody was thinking at the Met.”

Imran Qureshi photographed in Al Ain Oasis, site of his large-scale installation.

Qureshi’s work confronts history. “There is always a strong political statement. I feel that art has a strong impact on society and can work on such a strong level that can make people physically cry.” Despite the turmoil in his homeland, he is based in Lahore and wonders if he could live anywhere else.  He is comfortable in Pakistan. He loves to be there. He feels he must try to solve its problems by facing and living with them, not running away. “So I prefer to live there and it’s a lot of inspiration coming from there. As soon as I finish my work, I fly back to my country.

Abu Dhabi, 2018. All photos © Alexia Antsakli Vardinoyanni