Searching for Pakistan
How Imran Qureshi is being celebrated as "Artist of the Year" in Lahore
Qureshi is a globally active artist whose work is deeply rooted in his
home country Pakistan. Recently, the "Artist of the Year"
was celebrated in Lahore. Kolja Reichert accompanied him, and Qureshi
promised him that “You will get to know a completely different side of
Picture gallery "Imran Qureshi in Berlin"
Imran Qureshi works in his socks, almost silently. But what
he contrived during the Berlin winter, on the floor of his Kreuzberg
studio, is like an explosion in slow motion. On a gold ground, whose
shimmering reflections are reminiscent of film material, red petals
sprout in quick lines, tapering to a point, like flickering flames. An
ornamental pattern spreads out across the canvas, which seems to be
endangered due to its lavish splendor. This impression is heightened by
the red blots of paint, which the artist subsequently disperses from a
cup, like wounds in a fragile structure.
The large oval formats that Qureshi is preparing for his exhibition at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle
allude to the pictorial forms of miniature painting. He copied such
forms during his studies, in weeks of work sitting cross-legged,
applying paint mixed in mussel shells with the finest squirrelhair
brushes, dabbing drop after drop on wasli paper he made himself by
pasting together several sheets. This kind of eye-catching workmanship
alone has made miniature painting of interest to the globalized art
trade, coupled with a certain exoticism. Forty years after Edward Said’s
critique of Orientalism, the Western mind still characterizes the
Orient in an artificial way. The art market is partially to blame,
reducing artists to their places of origin, but Qureshi’s art defies
Once, when Qureshi was talking about his
plans for the exhibition, he uttered the word “incident” instead of
“installation,” a slip of the tongue, but after I spent a week with the
artist in Lahore (compared to which the multiethnic district of
Kreuzberg seems like a peaceful winter village), Irealized how fitting
this term was in connection with his work.
Water sprays up
onto the sides of the motorcycle rickshaw. We speed between colorfully
painted trucks, handcarts, and families on mopeds. Horns and the rattle
of twostroke engines form the acoustic texture of the city, mingling
with the clatter of donkey and horse hooves. In the historic Walled
City district of Lahore, where Qureshi shows us the restoration project
sponsored by the Aga Khan Trust, traffic noses forward like a line of refugees. At the Wazir Khan Mosque,
with its centuries-old floral frescoes, he pays the attendant a
generous entrance fee so that we can climb up the minaret. At the top,
noises blend from a hundred restless, narrow streets. Flocks of birds
circle above slaughterhouses, the goldsmith’s bazaar, and sheets of
fabric hung out to bleach in the sun. Many centuries come together
Picture gallery "Imran Qureshi in Lahore"
In the Mogul Empire,
Lahore was a bastion of miniature painting. Small sheets of paper,
usually bound into books, captured furnishings, clothing, and courtly
customs in as much detail as photographs. Sometimes you can even see
breadcrumbs on people’s lips. Miniatures were not only an expression of
individual bravura, they were veritable documents, full of so much
information they were allegedly used for espionage. It was only the
onset of photography during British rule that spelled the downfall of
the centuries-old art form.
In the last twenty years, miniature
painting has experienced a renaissance in Lahore, thanks to artists
like Imran Qureshi, Deutsche Bank’s Artist of the Year 2013. Qureshi (who was born in 1972), together with contemporaries such as Shahzia Sikander, Rashid Rana, and the somewhat younger Hamra Abbas,
began using the age-old tradition as a foil for sculptural and
conceptual gestures. In doing so, these artists drew international
attention to contemporary Pakistani art. All of them studied in Lahore
at the National College of Arts (NCA), whose first director, in 1871, was John Lockwood Kipling, father of The Jungle Book author, Rudyard Kipling. Tomorrow a celebration for Qureshi as the Artist of the Year
will take place at the NCA, which is situated in the middle of this
megalopolis near the Indian border. Lahore abounds in art and
architectural treasures, yet hardly a tourist visits.
While other successful Pakistani artists have moved abroad, Qureshi and his wife, painter Aisha Khalid,
still live in Lahore. Most of his students at the NCA only know
international contemporary art from newspapers, books, and the
Internet. Qureshi encourages them to use traditional tools as well as
current artistic techniques. His work as a teacher and as an artist
springs from a deep, emotional connection to his home country.
the military campaigns began against the Taliban and the Afghan border
was closed, Pakistan has found itself in a downward spiral. “For the
wealthy, Lahore used to be the best place in the world. You could enjoy
Eastern values and Western freedom at the same time,” says Qudsia
Rahim, director of the NCA’s gallery. But since opposition leader Benazir Bhutto
was assassinated in 2007, society has increasingly drifted apart. Half
of the population is illiterate, policymaking is in the hands of
families who own large amounts of land, religious people are becoming
more and more radical, the poor are getting poorer, and the rich are
moving into guarded neighborhoods.
Lahore, a city of creative
people, including artists, designers, and filmmakers, is still one of
the safest places in Pakistan. Within this haven, the National College
of Arts, in turn, is an extraordinary place of exchange. Thanks to a
quota system, students come from all parts of the country, and
government grants ensure that the NCA is not reserved solely for the
children of the affluent, as is the case at other universities.
even the NCA had to close temporarily due to bomb threats and had to
remove its logos from the university bus. The whole society is
permeated by a profound feeling of powerlessness. Perpetrators are not
accused; victims are not identified. When it comes to collective wounds
and collective understanding, it seems as though the most important
ingredient thereof, a common language, is missing. Qureshi tends to
fall silent when the conversation turns to politics but he is
struggling to achieve just such a language in his art.
First, he had to win his own freedom. His then teacher Bashir Ahmed
persuaded the promising painter from Hyderabad to switch to the
miniature painting class in 1991, after he completed his basic studies.
After a short time, Qureshi was no longer satisfied with copying motifs
from the Persian, Rajput, and Pahari schools. He experimented with the
contrast between lapis lazuli and gold leaf. He painted clothing and
left out the people. He pushed the abstract floral ornaments from the
edge of the picture to the surface. He added sheets from used
schoolbooks and instruction manuals, as well as newspaper clippings, to
the wasli paper he glued together in several layers, and drew scissors or rockets on them, bearing testimony to societal realities.
2001, Qureshi began transferring the ornament into real
three-dimensional space, in courtyards, mosques, and museums. This led
to breathtaking installations such as “Blessings Upon the Land of My
Love” at the Sharjah Biennial in 2011.
Qureshi poured and sprayed red paint onto the pavement of a courtyard,
creating something that looked like the traces of a massacre. In the
red splotches, he drew gentle patterns with white paint, petals which
spoke of the subtlety, vulnerability, and indifference of nature.
work was triggered by terror attacks on two mosques in Lahore in May
2010. “Soldiers were standing nearby, but didn’t intervene,” says
Qureshi. He gave the helplessness and sudden shock he experienced a
constant and abstract form—the afterimage of a trauma whose physical
presence and obsessive beauty had a physical impact on the viewer.
Qureshi had created a space in which different shocking experiences
echoed and could be shared.
Qureshi’s floral ornaments cover
canvases and penetrate spaces like vines. They reflect the permeability
that borders, spaces, and bodies experience in the wake of new
communications and military technologies. An example of this is the
drone war which is keeping citizens of West Pakistan in a permanent
state of alarm. The ornament is not only a metaphor for societal
structures, but directly interacts with the nervous system. His works
conjure up the vulnerability of the body as well as the social
membrane. They show identity and safety as fleeting, borrowed, in
constant jeopardy, along with the society they stem from.
When Qureshi received the jury prize in Sharjah,
it marked his international breakthrough. In April 2013, the Deutsche
Bank KunstHalle in Berlin will open with an exhibition of his work. In
May, he will realize an installation on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In June, works by the artist will be on view in the central pavilion of the Venice Biennale.
though, he has to finish the installation he conceived for his
exhibition at the NCA on the occasion of his receiving the award from
Deutsche Bank. Elements of the Sharjah work are reproduced here on
18,000 sheets of paper, wadded up and heaped into a huge mound filling
the exhibition space. Those who enter the installation tramp through
traces of flesh and blood.
The title, “And They Still Seek the Traces of Blood,” is taken from a poem by the Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz,
whose lyrics Qureshi heard on the radio as a child. “It’s about people
who are buried without being honored, or without the circumstances of
their death being investigated.” Qureshi is not talking about political
victims. When I delicately attempt to draw parallels between the 1970s
and today, and between his art and Faiz’s poems criticizing the system,
he is evasive. It’s well past midnight and we’re sitting in the NCA
auditorium. Over in the exhibition hall, friends and former students
have been crumpling up sheets of paper for hours, while Qureshi
examines the stage set for tomorrow’s performance. “You’ll get to know
a completely different side of me,” he promises.
Old companions of the artist travel to the celebration from all parts of the country. The architect Muhammad Attique
has come from Islamabad, he is a boyhood friend with whom Qureshi
performed puppet and street theater. The two have written a new play
that satirizes colleagues from the college and will be performed by
students and teachers. There is uproarious laughter, and when the mood
is at it’s peak, the prizewinner himself suddenly glides across the
dance floor to one of the many music pieces played. As the audience
breaks into thunderous applause, it becomes apparent how important this
prize is for the Pakistani art scene. Granted, Qureshi might not have
renewed contemporary Pakistani art, but he has given fresh impetus to
art instruction and the interaction between artists in a milieu that is
becoming ever more competitive. “Imran has created a culture of sharing
that didn’t exist previously,” says a gallery owner. It seems as though
there is a seamless transition between Qureshi’s shaping of surfaces,
spaces, and social relationships. Many of his works require physical
participation on the part of the viewer, whether to complete a
painting-by-dots picture or to enter and leave traces in an
installation. In this way, he avoids the trap of creating products that
are given the stamp “Made in Pakistan,” for an art market pervaded by
exoticism. Traditional and contemporary means join forces to
destabilize clear boundaries and his works remind viewers of their own
wounds and their own place in the world.
The morning after the
party we head north, out of the city. The sun is shining on the
elephant-like, domed buildings in the expansive parks around the
mausoleum of the alcoholic ruler Jahangir.
Except for birdsong, there is not a sound in the park, and we exchange
few words. “When the exhibitions are over and I can teach again,” says
Qureshi, “I should come here to draw with the miniature class.”