Diaaalogue Editor Susan Acret spoke to Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi about miniature painting and his world view from his home in Lahore
Susan Acret: Looking back over your work from the last ten years, one can see you working both in the figurative tradition of the miniature and also in a more abstract vein. It seems, however, that you are moving increasingly towards the abstract. Can you tell me something about the genesis of these more abstract works?
Imran Qureshi: In fact from the beginning I was interested in investigating the possibilities of working with the traditional miniature painting using the vocabulary of a contemporary artform. From the time I graduated (in 1994) I tried to find the answer to the question, ‘What is a contemporary miniature painting’, so I started looking at the idea of single-figure compositions in miniature painting, and I created a lot of work around that theme and was looking at it from different angles. After some time I came to the conclusion that miniature painting is not only a formal arrangement of different objects with a narrative, but it is something beyond this, and this thing pushed me towards the abstraction in my own work, which was also very much connected to the traditional practice of miniature painting.
S.A: Can you also discuss the distinctive blue flower-like renderings that appear often in these ‘abstract’ works, and sometimes refer to ‘leakage’ in their titles.
I.Q: In most of my figurative works, I use landscapes inspired from Kangra Hills miniatures, and these blue-rendered foliage (which were not blue but red in the beginning) came from my own figurative works into abstract imagery. Due to the political and war-like circumstances at that time, I used the idea of life or nature, and the destruction of life/nature. I made a series of works on white surfaces with red and blue images (mostly foliage)—the colours of the American flag—along with lots of mark-making in a more destructive manner.
S.A: These patterned motifs have also appeared at sites such as mosques (Singapore Biennale 2006). Are we seeing you move away from the figurative secular to the abstract religious? And what kind of statement do these interventions make when they take place in a historical or religious site?
I.Q: In fact my first site-specific work, titled Coming Down to Earth, was made during the Khoj Artists workshop, in India in 2001. This was in an old farmhouse in a small town of Modi Nagar, and a very personal space. My work appeared with lots of personal intentions. But when the curators of the Singapore Biennale saw that work, they asked me to do something in the main mosque of Singapore (Sultan Mosque). I visited the space first and was very much inspired by the environment of that place, particularly the architecture. In contrast to the installation in India, Wuzu was made against the background of the current political situation between the West and the Muslim world. I think this situation has happened because we get so much information through the media everyday regarding the current political situation of the Islamic world.
My blue, rounded foliage forms attempted to fit into the Islamic star-like tile pattern on the floor and I tried to create a tension between the Islamic geometrical pattern and my own vocabulary. Parallel to this, that work also has a very personal narrative and my own belief in the religious side of that space. I think without that association, I wouldn’t be able to produce such work.
Apart from this, in my all site-specific installations I always try to make a dialogue between the architecture of that space and my own imagery, and for me that is a very important aspect of a site-specific work in any kind of space.
S.A: Pakistan has been through a turbulent and often violent few years. Have the recent political crises diverted you from your art, or provided new material for your work.
I.Q: It never stopped me from making art, even in the worst kind of situation. There is no such option and I really don’t want to do anything else but make art. In fact, even when I started my art education at the National College of Art. Lahore, in 1990, I was developing my work due the political situation of the country.
S.A: What kind of processes are involved in producing work?
I.Q: I was trained as a miniature painter with strict training based on the traditional, as well as the formal, practice of miniature painting, but after completing a four-year degree course with a specialization in miniature painting, I always enjoy going against the traditional process of making a miniature painting and breaking its boundaries.
S.A: What is your impression of the contemporary art scene in Pakistan at the moment? Are there many opportunities for artists locally, or do artists still have to look to international institutions for projects?
I.Q: I am very much positive about it. Things are changing now. Young contemporary artists are producing very exciting work. Local opportunities are not satisfactory, but at least have improved compared to the situation ten years ago.
S.A: The market for contemporary Asian art is very strong at the moment, but also quite arbitrary, in so far as only certain Asian countries are in the spotlight. Do you think of yourself as an ‘Asian’ artist'? And where do you think Pakistan fits on this market map?
I.Q: I think Pakistan is very new on the map of the art market for contemporary Asian art, but I must say that it is getting the attention of viewers and collectors very quickly, and they want to know more about it. Regarding myself, yes, I feel proud when people make my connection with my country, but I must say I also feel good when my work is selected with other international artists not on the basis of my geographical boundaries but purely on the basis of my work, and this has happened many times