Imran Qureshi @ Barbican

Splatters of violent red paint have been thrown along the walls of Barbican’s Curve gallery, disrupting the exhibition of unassuming miniature paintings that are gently dotted around the space. This red paint however, transforms upon closure inspection, and is just what is so brilliant about the newly commissioned work by Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi that is currently on display.

The red paint that I have mentioned looks like blood. It is startling and it is everywhere, floor and walls. Despite the dim lighting of the exhibition space there is no way of ignoring it and at first it is a little alarming. After the initial shock reaction, these spatters of blood turn into beautiful red flowers that have drawn out petals and flecks of white, perhaps to indicate light and life. It seems that red paint has been thrown around the gallery space and then flowers have been formed quickly while the paint dries. This natural imagery is reflected in the miniature paintings that adorn the walls; these have been illuminated with some kind of backlights, giving a magical and mystic feeling to the work.

Qureshi’s miniatures are also natural in nature; most are full of trees and dragonflies. It all sounds quite sweet. However, this is not the case, just like the bloody flowers that have attacked the floor, much of the nature in Qureshi’s images have been disturbed. Red roots wrap themselves around modest trees and some have even fallen over, with insects attacking them in giant swarms. The series begins with a pale colour scheme then ends with the incorporation of black ink. The images seem to follow some sort of narrative, which works well with the curved nature of the gallery, not knowing what may lie behind the bend.

Some critics have suggested that the trees in Qureshi’s paintings are like characters. This is interesting as the artist has stated that he is influenced with everything that is around him, thus, we cannot ignore the violence that is present in his homeland, Pakistan, where he still resides. That being said, it is clear that the artist has a deep love and respect for his country of origin. Each of the miniatures, which he began only in November, follows a 500-year-old Mughal tradition. Unlike most contemporary art that we are accustomed to today, every step in Qureshi’s process is handmade. This suggests a deep love for the craft and history; this is echoed in the name given to the ground of multiple layers of handmade paper that has been glued together called ‘wasli.’ This term ‘wasli’ has come from the term ‘wasil’ which means the moment where you meet your beloved. The beloved is this adorned with tiny brushstrokes of paint using a squirrel-hair brush. Many of the miniatures have been given gold borders that also suggest a sense of significance and fragile beauty.

The miniatures have been hung at various levels. Some are hung along the average viewer’s eye line, yet many lie close to the floor while others look like they would only be visible by giants. Thus at times you are forced to crouch to the ground while at others you are jumping on the top of your toes. I suppose this would make the show accessible to both a toddler and a colossus. Perhaps the hang could be reflecting a horizon line, as the images seem to curve up and down like the curve of the gallery space. This would seem to make sense, as traditionally a curve was used as a horizon line in historical miniature paintings.

Qureshi’s Barbican display is a stimulating experience of delicate nature and shock violence. It is mysterious yet alluring at the same time and simply has to be experienced.

Imran Qureshi: Where the Shadows are so Deep is on display at The Curve, Barbican until 10 July

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer with a special interest in contemporary Middle Eastern Art. She has a BA in Art History and an MA in Contemporary Art and Art Theory of Asia and Africa from the School of Oriental and African Studies. She runs the Gallery Girl blog and also writes for After Nyne, Ibraaz and Reorient.

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