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Pictures of the End of the American Dream - Philip-Lorca diCorcia in the Schirn Kunsthalle
It's Only a Step from a Miracle to a Disaster - Visiting the 55th Biennale di Venezia
Theaster Gates: Inner City Blues
Music as an Art Form - A Conversation between Anri Sala and Ari Benjamin Meyers
Deutsche Bank Opening New KunstHalle in Berlin
Violence and Creation: Imran Qureshi in the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle
Why drawing? Three questions for Victoria Noorthoorn
Question of Faith: Is There a Return of the Religious in Contemporary Art?
Searching for Pakistan - How Imran Qureshi is being celebrated as "Artist of the Year" in Lahore
City in Sight - The Deutsche Bank Collection at the Dortmunder U
"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
Barometer of the Art Scene - Preview of Frieze New York and Art Basel Hong Kong


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Searching for Pakistan
How Imran Qureshi is being celebrated as "Artist of the Year" in Lahore

Imran 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 me.”

Picture gallery Imran Qureshi in Berlin
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 such categorizations.

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 here.

Picture gallery Imran Qureshi in Lahore
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.

Since 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.

But 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.

In 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.

The 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.

First, 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.”

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