Last week the Trump Administration bombed Syria without congressional approval. From the comfort of our living room we watch atrocities on T.V. but in the United States we are rarely touched directly. It was in this context that I came across the work of the Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi.
Trained in the tradition of Mughal Court miniaturists (1526-1857), Qureshi began making his signature blood splatter paintings and installations after he witnessed a severe bombing near his home in Lahore, Pakistan.
In his art installation work Qureshi starts with performance-like gestures, hurling red acrylic paint violently at the surrounding surfaces. He then uses the skills he acquired as a painter of miniatures to render detailed images of verdant growth – twisting foliage and blooming flowers. It’s as if the rivers of blood have sprouted and a fertile world has emerged. Of this work he says, “Yes, these forms stem from the effects of violence. They are mingled with the color of blood, but, at the same time, this is where a dialogue with life, with new beginnings and fresh hope starts.”
In addition to the site-specific installations discussed above Qureshi also makes large sculptural installations that overwhelm the space in which they are exhibited. In And They Still Seek the Traces of Blood, he has printed thousands of sheets of paper with images of his work. These are wadded up and used to build mountain-like piles of what appear to be bloodied rags. The sculptures become memorials for the lost and forgotten victims of violence.
I mentioned earlier that Qureshi was trained as a painter of Indian miniatures – in fact he teaches this at the National College of Arts in Lahore, the only school in the world with this specialty. The process is demanding, from the making of handmade paper and grinding of pigments, to the fabrication of fine squirrel hair brushes. The work is labor and time intensive.
While his installation work centers on violence and rebirth, in many of these small paintings Qureshi interrogates the role of Islam in the modern world. In these works he uses the traditional style found in Indian miniatures but he adds unexpected contemporary references to create a tension between our expectations and the realities (and possibilities) for modern muslims.
The paintings in his series Moderate Enlightenment (see above) balance the spiritual and the secular in an attempt to find a new path forward for contemporary followers of Islam. As discussed by Oliver Koerner von Gustorf in an exhibition catalog about these paintings “… ‘Moderate Enlightenment’ is also a term former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf coined in 2003 at a summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to describe the path the Islamic world must take to finally escape the dead-end of fundamentalism and anti-Western sentiment. In its complexity, however, Qureshi’s series puts both to the test: the rigidity of religious fundamentalism and the rigidity of western “enlightened” clichés of Islamic culture.”
When I began to read about Qureshi my first thought was that an investigation of his work could provide a curious student with insights into the use of the design element of color (symbolism) and the principles of scale/proportion, and motion and time. I encourage you to review the appropriate chapters in our book “Design: A Beginner’s Handbook” and then ask yourself how does Qureshi use these elements and principles to support the content of his art?
Pay particular attention to the principle of scale. Qureshi’s work ranges from huge installations to tiny paintings. How does the scale influence your response as a viewer? Notice that within his installations he balances their massive size with intimately scaled details that draw us near and that alter our interpretation of the large violent slashes of red. This same small scale when found in the miniature paintings sets up a conceptual tug-of-war between the intimate/personal, and the scale of the globalized world of today. What else do you see?