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"These are not Sunday painters" - Sophie von Olfers on MACHT KUNST
Make Art - The KunstHalle invites all Berlin artists to take part in a 24-hour exhibition
75 International Highlights in 2013
Maha Maamoun - Against the touristic eye
Everything is Illuminated: An Interview with Shahzia Sikander
Carlfriedrich Claus - Speaking Utopia's Language
The "Artist of the Year," Imran Qureshi, in an interview


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"In difficult situations art can be really powerful"
The “Artist of the Year,” Imran Qureshi, in an interview

Spring 2013 marks the opening of the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle with a major solo show of the work of Imran Qureshi, one of the most important protagonists on the Pakistani art scene. In his works, Qureshi uses the centuries-old tradition of miniature painting to explore highly relevant current social themes. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf spoke with the Artist of the Year 2013 about the revival of miniature painting, politics, spirituality, and his plans for Berlin.

Oliver Koerner von Gustorf: When did you first decide to become an artist?

Imran Qureshi: I was really into art when I was a child, but it was more about creating different things at home. And I always enjoyed making art at school. The teacher was really happy with me. I was living in Hyderabad, and there were no art institutions in our city back then. One of my uncles told me to go to the National College of Art in Lahore and my father decided to take me there. This was when I was in the twelfth grade, and I was supposed to decide on the future of my education the following year in any case. And so my father took me all the way to Lahore, which was an 18-hour train ride away. There, as we stood in the hallway of the college, my father said: “Now you decide whether you want to be an artist or not.”

So your father was very supportive?

Yes, he was. My whole family was very supportive. There were no artists in my family at all, but they always appreciated performances, TV, film, art, culture in general.

Were you into miniature painting from the very beginning, or did you get introduced to it at the NCA?

The college is structured such that the first year consists of foundation courses where architects, designers, and fine artists all study together. In the second year they enter their individual departments, but have to do everything in turn for two or three months, for instance painting, sculpture, and miniature painting. So that's how we spend that year, and at the end we have to decide on one individual subject. I was a bit unsure at first. But finally I decided to choose painting. And then the teacher of miniature painting kept asking me to come into his class, because he thought I was very good at it. At first I passed by the studio now and again. But after a while, when he kept insisting that I should be his student, I thought there might be a reason behind it. I realized that painting is something I can do at any stage of my life, but miniature is something special that I can’t learn anywhere else. Then I decided to switch to miniature.

Were you familiar with it before that?

No, not at all. But when I started to get acquainted with it, I liked the process more than anything else — the quietness and the way the layers are built up. It’s a very slow process in which results come about gradually. My art practice and my personality are two very different things. I was so much into performance at college, into action, expressing myself. I was painting with different mediums and I experimented a lot. And then, in the miniature studio, you have to sit still for hours and hours to work on such a small scale. But the pleasure you get when you achieve something is really wonderful. And I think that was the main reason that kept me connected with it.

This was in the early ’90s?

Yes. It was a time when miniature painting was just being revived and people were getting into it. I think before my generation there were only one or two students in the department. But when I took miniature painting, there were 10 of us. It was the first time there were so many girls and boys in miniature painting.
It used to be that you didn’t have to be very creative for miniature painting. Traditionally, you’re basically making reproductions of old miniatures. As a traditional art form, it offers a very limited way of working without much opportunity to express yourself. But we changed that by expanding miniature painting and transforming it into a medium for self-expression, and it became really successful.

Would you say this was the first generation of young artists to adopt miniature painting as a contemporary medium?

Before us there was Shahzia Sikander. She was two years older than me. But she left Pakistan and went to the US. We were hearing that she was very successful, but we did not see her work. In these days the Internet was not as accessible as it is today in Pakistan.

In the 1990s, you started to transform miniature painting into larger formats and site-specific installations. How did this idea come about?

As I’ve mentioned, my nature is quite different from what miniature painting normally requires. I was into performance and doing puppetry on stage; I was involved in stage drama and writing theater on a school level. And I was also making large-scale paintings. Later on, I think, there was a kind of bridge between two different attitudes. It was quite balanced; at any rate, it balanced me. And about the big spaces: the work became larger immediately — it was not a planned thing at all.

So it was an impulsive decision to move to a bigger scale?

Yes, absolutely. I was doing a residency in India, at the Khoj Artists' Association in New Delhi, in 2001. They had chosen ten or twelve international artists and twelve from India for their program. We were all living together in an old farmhouse outside Delhi. All the artists were supposed to work there. I had arrived with my paper and equipment for miniature painting, planning to make more works on paper. But then the courtyard of the house drew my attention and fascinated me. I decided to try and transfer my imagery onto the entire yard, on a larger scale. And it worked well; it was one of the most successful works of the whole program. That, I believe, was the first time I tried to transfer miniature painting to a different scale.

Since then, the young Pakistani art scene has become much better known internationally. Why do you think it’s become so interesting in a global context?

I think for a long time the world was watching Pakistan mainly because of the effects of 9/11 and  the political developments. Lots of bad news were coming out of the country. At the same time, though, a new contemporary art scene was developing  in Pakistan. It didn’t become famous all of a sudden; it took some time. It was a slow process. Maybe it was a starting point for recognizing Pakistani art when Shahzia went to the USA. After that, other people started doing their own things Slowly, the international art world became attracted to it. If you provide an artist with a perfect environment and he or she is free to do anything they want, without any obstacles — it’s not necessarily the ideal situation for producing good art. I think the challenges, the difficulties, and the problems that you experience enable you to find your own ways of seeing things and expressing yourself. In these difficult situations art can be really powerful. They get emotionally charged, there’s a certain urgency... this is what has happened in Pakistan.

The installations you did for the 2011 Sharjah Biennial and the 2012 Sydney BiennialBlessings Upon the Land of my Love and They shimmer still, awaken associations to bombings and terrorist attacks in your homeland. Actually, they were inspired by a bombing that you experienced in your own neighborhood. At the same time, you always stress that the way you deal with violence and destruction in your work is fundamental. It not only reflects the situation in Pakistan, but violence in all kinds of political systems and religions and in every part of the world.

The ideas for my images obviously derive from my own surroundings. But then the scale of meaning becomes really large and broad. The installation at the Sharjah Biennial is one of the best examples for the different perspectives that my work can be seen from and all the different interpretations that arise around it. Visitors of the installation didn’t automatically associate the work with Pakistan. Instead, they related it to their own experiences. The Sharjah Biennial took place in the middle of the Arab Spring revolution, and so visitors from the Arab world drew completely different connections to my installation. And so did others, for instance a Japanese visitor started crying as she recalled the recent tsunami. And then people from America and Europe have a different point of view. Many Pakistanis not only related it to the current wave of violence, but to many different historical events or incidents as well. As all my other works, these installations are more about global politics.

In what way?

They deal with the idea of world politics after 9/11 and how the idea of mapping has radically changed. They deal with the division into different parts of the world, West and East and others. It's getting more and more complicated each day.

Do you consider your work to be political?

Yes, it is, inevitably. It is about things I observe every day around me, on TV, in the newspaper, everywhere. I live in this situation, and so I think it's obvious that my work is political. I never plan things like ”Now I should talk about politics in my work” or “I should talk about this” … I just keep on doing my work. Whatever comes up in it, just comes naturally. I try never to work strategically. I see so many artists who, every time they start a new work, think about something completely different than what they were doing previously. They might be successful in doing so, but I don't think I can work that way. I just keep working. If the work is going to change, it will change naturally. I think that's important. That gives strength to the work. When it is too planned, then maybe you’re lying somewhere.

Why do you think you’re lying when it’s too planned?

My heart is always in what I’m doing right now. Changing my ideas only because I want to follow the whims of the market or the needs or ideas of other people is not a good way to make art.
Yes, but there’s a huge market pressure on art, especially for artists from regions which are just becoming discovered by the international market. Western curators are flying all around the world to find new talents from the newly emerging art scenes in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

Luckily, I was never pressured by the market, buyers, or collectors. When somebody asks me to produce a certain kind of work or a series that might sell well at an art fair, I say “Okay, I’ll give it to you,” but it never happened. In the end, I gave them something completely different. By now most of them have realized that they never get what they ask for. I cannot produce art under pressure. I have done a couple of commissioned works a long time ago, but if they go with a lot of demands and restrictions, I simply cannot do them.  

Before we talk about your plans for the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, I would like to talk about the spiritual dimension in your work. Does religion play a role for you as an artist?

Religion has never stopped me from doing anything in my art. I never consider it as a barrier between myself and my art practice. I don’t know how exactly to define “religious.” I am Muslim, but I don’t practice properly every day. Still, though, I have a strong belief, and I think it shows in my work. You can see that the inclination is there. The best example for this spiritual aspect is Wuzu, the installation I did on the roof of the Sultan Mosque for the 2006 Singapore Biennial. I didn’t choose the location; they just gave me the space and said, “You should do something here.” I visited the site, liked it, and came up with an idea. There was this geometrical ornament of stars on the ceramic tiles on the floor. I tried to paint in my own vocabulary, using my own images of rounder trees and trying to fit them into this star ornament. The stars represent an Islamic kind of image. And my own vocabulary was very personal and I tried to work that in, but it was large and didn’t really fit.

Your ornaments also have some something subversive about them. Very often, your floral ornaments react to geometric structures or grids. They fill and cover these rigid forms organically and soften them.

Yes, there was a kind of tension between two things that came together. And then there were these stains from the rain and the pipes that run along the rooftop. I let my foliage flow out of these stains and pipes like turquoise water. The title of the work, Wuzu, means evolution. It refers to the act of ablution that a Muslim performs to cleanse himself, the ritual washing and cleansing with water. Before praying you have to wash yourself step by step in a certain way. I was clearly imagining this to be water coming from people performing Wuzu to purify themselve. And everything is just blooming.

Where do the motifs of your foliage come from?

My inspiration came from the landscapes in Kangra painting, an Indian school of miniature painting. The works have a lot of foliage in them. But I am not exactly copying the foliage; I’m doing my own personalized version. It is presenting life and nature…
For me it’s like life. And then I paint the opposite of it — the stains that look like blood represent violence; they function like a violent act against the carefully painted foliage. So life and its destruction unite in a single image. That was the idea.

What are your plans for the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle?

I would like to explain the overall idea for the show in broad way. I divide my art practice into three major groups. One consists of traditionally painted miniature paintings, small in size. The subject matter is contemporary, but the way I paint them is very, very traditional. Then there are abstract works that came about by breaking the boundaries of traditional painting. They are more open. I play with scale and the mark and introduce other gestures and things. And I do site-specific projects on a tremendously large scale. I am going to show these three sides of my art practice in one space. Let's see how it goes.

This means that you’ll be addressing the architectural space of the KunstHalle.

Yes. There will be a body of traditionally painted work. I am also making site-specific works that don’t particularly address the scale, but I’ll also be making larger-sized canvasses, which I am doing for the first time for a show.

One very last question: what advice would you give to your students as a teacher?

I think they should be totally themselves. This is a problem — young people today are under so much pressure from the global art scene. And curators press them and try to form them and their artistic vision. Young artists are looking for foreign galleries in different countries, but are not thinking about the local scene. Yet it’s so important for them to have a strong basis in their own country first. And then they can go ahead. I think without this connection to the local, the work will be a temporary thing. I’ve seen it happen with so many people. They were really good when they were studying, but the day they graduated they began following other rules. Artists should think about themselves in their art practice. The rest will be resolved in time. They shouldn't worry about anything else. If the work is good, nobody can stop you from moving ahead.

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