THE ASIA CONVERSATIONS:
Imran Qureshi with Simone Krug
Simone Krug: Your large-scale installation piece that recently closed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art roof garden, And How Many Rains Must Fall Before the Stains Are Washed Clean (2013), mirrored the work you presented at the 2011 Sharjah Biennial courtyard, Blessings Upon the Land of My Love (2011). Both outdoor spaces were filled with red and white painted foliage motifs reminiscent of sprayed blood. How did each space architecturally and geographically inform the work?
Imran Qureshi: The space and the context for the Sharjah Biennial and the Metropolitan Museum were very different, but you saw the same foliage and the same imagery in both spaces. You didn’t see an immediate difference. Usually people do not think they are site-specific, but they are. The Sharjah installation was in an enclosed space, very much like the architecture from that region, the Arab world. It worked well at that time [editor's note: 2011]. In that courtyard there was a privacy in the act, because you didn’t see it from the outside. You were exposed to a contained space within boundaries. There was a surprise element to that, whereas the New York installation was very open, it was like just being in the sky. At the Met, I created a sharp line. The idea came just a week before the Boston Marathon bombing happened. There was this word, “finish line.” Somehow the idea of a finish line, or a line, was stuck in my mind, so I created that line, which disturbed the symmetry of the rhythm of the tiles. That line was not in alignment with the tiles, it was slightly removed, so it disrupted the symmetry of the surface. When a viewer walked on that part of the installation, that became uncomfortable spatially. Viewers wondered why that part was left, why it wasn’t painted as the rest of the floor. This was completely different in Sharjah. In New York it was like something superficially placed on the roof. Seen from the other corner, you could see that you could peel everything off—it looked like a carpet that could be removed easily. I was playing with that attitude we are so used to, where we read news about everyday violence, we read something for a month, or a few days, and we feel uncomfortable. I think it was something New York brought into my work. It was subtle in its site-specificity.
SK: Your works are both figurative, as in the tightly coiled floral motifs, and abstract, as in the red paint splotches and drips. In accordance with your classical training, you begin each piece with a grid, mapping space. Your work has Western abstract and minimalist roots. How is your work also Asian or Pakistani?
IQ: Well, people read my work as having Western roots. Society everywhere is so inspired by Western culture. Like we wear jeans everyday; we don’t wear shalwar kameez. Jeans have become a very traditional thing here in Lahore. Everybody wears this, so no one notices that it might be strange. We are so exposed to Western art and ways of looking. But interestingly, in my work, this kind of abstract mark-making and the drawing quality derive from traditional miniature painting. When we made traditional miniature paintings in school, we copied different old traditional historical miniatures, where there are many things happening in the frame. There is the main painting, but at the edge of the paper, we would test different colors in one corner. These are all abstract images. Later on these would be painted over, hidden behind the mounts so you wouldn’t see the dirty things around the work. For me, however, those things were more beautiful than the painted imagery, so I brought those things into the frame of my work, and I showed that to the public. That’s how this kind of abstract imagery in my miniature paintings took shape.
SK: I recall you are a professor of art at the National College of Arts in Lahore. How does your students’ work differ from the work that was being produced when you were at the school? Is training still as meticulous as it once was?
IQ: When I was in school my teacher was very traditional. He is still here, and he has a strong point of view, still very traditionalist. There was an apprenticeship tradition and we worked in his studio. He explained how to make the colors very slowly, like a master who had secrets. We really gave respect to the special techniques that we struggled to learn. As a teacher I am different because I give all kinds of liberties. I ask the students to discuss their work with other visual artists and professors at the school.
My students make videos, do installations—they are free to do whatever they want. They also have more exposure to contemporary miniature painting right now, because when I was a student, there were just no examples. We had to fight to break that frame. Now there are so many different possibilities of exploring this traditional genre. It’s a different kind of environment, with more discussions, tutorials, etc.
SK: Half-open scissors appear in many of your paintings. Unlike the blood and floral motifs, this object seems inherently Qureshi. How does this object assume particular iconographic significance for you?
IQ: Around the time of 9/11, I would go to an old paper shop at the flea market in Lahore where I found a catalog of medical surgery tools. The illustrations in it were drawings that I used in my work. I took images of long beards, details of the beards, and those are like beautiful drawings. I saw that beard in detail, and I put scissors next to the beard. If the Taliban would become cleanshaven or not was a discussion at that time. This work was a comment on that. And for me the surgical tool became a symbol of a weapon. The scissors eventually replaced the surgical tools. When I placed it with my foliage, there was a very obvious relationship, about, again, the idea about the life and the destruction of life, like in my installations at Sharjah and at the Metropolitan.
SK: Are you exploring new objects, subjects, or media now?
IQ: I am planning to do a couple of videos in the near future. I did one video in 2006 for the Singapore Biennale, but now I’m doing a few more. I also just finished a commissioned drawing for the London underground tube pocket map for December 2013 that will be in the tube stations for about six months. I used the colors of the trains—red, blue, green, black, grey. There are so many colors. Usually my work is primarily red, but this new work will be colorful.