Everyone is quick to avow that style and content are indissoluble, that the strongly individual style of each writer is an organic aspect of his work and never something merely ‘decorative’ — Susan Sontag
The above statement made in the context of literature can be applied to the world of visual art, particularly to Imran Qureshi whose large-scale installation (And They Still Seek Traces of Blood) at the National Art Gallery Islamabad (NAG) affirms this.
Made out of 30,000 sheets of offset posters printed with the image of spilled, splattered and stained blood red colour, crumpled and piled on top of each other, it looks like a mini mountain. Placed in the centre of the main hall, it bleeds into other rooms of the gallery, signifying the impossible separation of an idea from its execution.
This work along with several others are part of Two Wings to Fly, Not One, an exhibition of Imran Qureshi and Aisha Khalid, that includes 62 works of both from various periods and is being held from April 15-May 31, 2017. Curated by Zahra Khan, the show provides a rare opportunity to view the works of two individuals who have exhibited at various important and prestigious venues in the world.
The exhibition offers comprehensive information on Imran Qureshi’s art practice. From his earlier works, for instance a crumpled miniature (West is West, 2001, shown at ‘Around the Miniature’, Canvas Gallery, 2002) to his latest works, the large- scale pieces with blood (red paint) splashed on green backgrounds, the artist’s approach in addressing multiple issues, both pictorial and political, becomes clear and connected.
Qureshi’s art mainly refers to violence and here too, along with a few other works that deal with more formal concerns, the main exhibits are variations on the theme of violence. However, the artist employs separate strategies to denote his subject. The display offers an interesting occasion to compare all of these in order to realise how his form has never been different from his content. From his earlier paintings of a bearded man taking off his kurta (Moderate Enlightenment, 2009) to marks of hands and feet in red hues, scissors and patterns of army uniform to foliage ruptured by marks of aerial targets to the spread of red paint at the amphitheatre of the NAG (Come Then, Its Time to Come Back Home Now, 2017), the artist is referring to the bloodshed and destruction in our surroundings. Both the state machinery and militant organisations are engaged in a ‘bloody’ war with casualties on both sides, mostly of innocent humans.
The element of violence — a subtext and indirectly approached in his previous works — has become a major motif, a forte of Qureshi’s art. Perhaps, one can trace the genealogy of his current vocabulary from Qureshi’s solo show (All are the Colour of My Heart, 2010) at Rohtas 2, Lahore, in which the artist displayed works on paper, with imprints of hands, feet and limbs in red and strokes of red paint that covered the surfaces. That body of work, important in shaping his aesthetics, led to other art pieces executed not on paper, but in actual locations, for example the award winning installation Blessings Upon the Land of My Love at Sharjah Biennial 2011, and How Many Rains Must Fall before at the Stains Are Washed Clean, the rooftop commissioned project at Metropolitan Museum of Art (2013), and the Garden Within at the Agha Khan Museum, Toronto (2014).
Except the last one, which was executed in shades of greens, all the previous site-specific works were created in red. Yet, when a story of grief is narrated too often, it loses it essential strength and honesty and turns into a motif; it turns into a pattern, a routine, which in a way helps to cope with immense pain, and deflates grief. In a sense, Qureshi’s continuation of red marks of violence with bits of reference to the foliage of traditional miniature painting has a pattern. Just as terror returns, his installation of red marks about violence also recurs albeit at different venues.
Aisha Khalid also revealed her link with a pattern but the pattern becomes a symbol and metaphor for a number of other narratives. From her earlier paintings of women submerging in burka and dissolving into backgrounds to her recent pieces in which needles instead of weaving a motif, become part of the pattern, the artist celebrates the act of pattern making (embroidery) by altering its meaning, appearance, method, material and function.
From her ‘Conversation’ (2002) the double screen video installation to her ‘I am I am not’ performance in the auditorium of NAG, Khalid is carrying out this task. However, if in the video piece, the artist alludes to a range of ideas and issues (East-West divide, cycle of life and death), in the performance piece the making of motifs turns into a ritual for its own sake. This approach is one, if not the major, factor in limiting the interpretation and effect of the piece.
On the other hand, the works on paper and other mediums reflect Khalid’s use of this element as a means to create a kind of spatial ambiance. Geometry in Islamic art is not a decorative device but contains a range of symbolism, including references to divinity. But if one moves away momentarily from the popular spiritualism (Rumi, Forty Rules of Love, etc.), the patterns in the art of Khalid are not about mysticism only.
Her earlier works indicate that the artist has been using the language of design in a political and social context. The pattern could be read as a comment on a particular social section which keeps women concealed. In a previous work, Infinite Justice (2001) needles with threads were stuck on a printed fabric to camouflage the cloth with outlines of an embroidered rose. With its political connotation that work connects to ‘You Set Me Apart’ (2017).
The exhibition at NAG, a sort of retrospective of two major artists of our time who were trained in the traditional discipline of miniature painting at the NCA, signifies how tradition can be extended to multiple formats. At the same time, it informs about the personal development of the two artists’ works and aesthetic choices.
Going through the galleries of NAG, one is able to see how the medium and method of spilling paint on a surface has taken over in the art of Imran Qureshi. The multiplication and manipulation of motifs to concoct a sense of immense space on a limited surface are the main concerns for Aisha Khalid. Yet, their works are open to other interpretations too. Perhaps a more structured, chronological and exciting order of display by the curator would have added to the power and permanence of these works as immense experiences.