In review - Art

How artist Imran Qureshi transforms pain into pleasure

Updated Apr 20, 2017 02:47pm

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Acrylic and emulsion paint on canvas by Imran Qureshi | Photo courtesy: Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac
Acrylic and emulsion paint on canvas by Imran Qureshi | Photo courtesy: Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac

Artist Imran Qureshi’s solo show opened on April 7, 2017 at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in Salzburg, Austria. The title of the show “…and that is how we loved this too — this land...” is borrowed from a poem written by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, whose lyrics Qureshi used to hear on the radio as a child.

Qureshi garnered international recognition from his installation at the Sharjah Biennial, titled Blessing Upon the Land of My Love, in 2011. In 2013, he created another site-specific work at the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He was a part of the 55th Venice Biennale, The Encyclopedic Palace, which happened in the same year, leading to him being selected for the Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year Award.

In 2016, his show Where the Shadows are so Deep became the most-attended commission ever exhibited at The Curve, Barbican Art Centre in London. In January 2017, he was awarded the Medal of Arts Award by Deputy US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, in Washington DC. In April 2017, the National Art Gallery in Islamabad, Pakistan, hosted a survey exhibition Two Wings to Fly, Not One of Qureshi and his wife Aisha Khalid’s work.

Qureshi’s practice evolved as a response to the exponential rise in terrorism the world over in the aftermath of 9/11. His work bears witness to the devastating effects it had on society, around the world, and especially in Lahore, his adopted hometown. Though, an important thing to keep in mind concerning his work is that it is apolitical, that is, his concern is not a certain type of violence, but the very notion of violence and its inherent presence in the human psyche.

He does not label a certain segment of world population either as the culprit or as the sufferer. His work simply proposes an ethic. His surfaces mourn for humanity itself, and not for a particular race, ethnicity, religion or gender. His work demands that responsibility be felt for each death, and each death be mourned. But, before certain deaths that have been denied representation in dominant forms of representation are mourned, they have to be represented in a form that can allow us to apprehend the frailty and precariousness of life. Qureshi provides that space through his paintings and installations.

His new series of paintings displayed at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac are a reaction to a specific event that he witnessed in a recent viral video he accidently saw online showing the shooting of a dancer in Bathinda, India.

He told me, “... this was such a sad and extremely terrible incident which I saw accidentally in that viral video ... and I think this new work is somehow a reaction to that … .” While talking to me at another time he added: “Violence is all around us. I recently saw a video of a pregnant dancer getting shot in a wedding in Bathinda, India. When I saw the marks left by the dancer’s body that was dragged off the stage, it dawned on me that the marks left in the aftermath of a carnage are not simply drips of blood, but also include impressions of the body. That is why my recent work includes marks of hands too.”

Photo courtesy: Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac
Photo courtesy: Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac

Qureshi’s work moves between two extremes, and it is in the viewer’s mind that these two extremes meet. On the one hand, his paintings appear as sites of carnage covered with blood stains; on the other, the surfaces are adorned with flower patterns. Oscillating between violence and beauty, these two impressions engender both despair and hope in the viewer. When the two extremes meet, a threshold is created. The viewer touches this threshold, this limit, and moves toward another realm that lies beyond perception. This is the ‘sublime’ quality of an artwork. If this immobile movement towards and beyond this threshold is the sublime, then it is no coincidence that the word ‘sublime’ itself is derived from the Latin limen which means ‘threshold’.

Nothing reminds one of boundaries and limits more than standing on a beach, peering over the vast ocean does. The eye stretches into the distance and meets the horizon — the boundary where the sky meets the ocean. Waves kiss the sand — the same sand that cuddles the feet in a wet embrace. A boundary marks the meeting point of two entities — rivers meeting banks, mountains meeting planes, rain meeting parched earth. But why talk about boundaries when what is in question is art?

One reason is that art has everything to do with boundaries or meeting places. Even a simple gesture of mark making starts from where the artist’s hand meets the mark-making tool, which creates a mark when it meets the surface; the marks meet each other to create an impression. A discourse around the boundary as a meeting place is all the more fruitful in our case, since in his recent paintings Qureshi has removed the mark-making tool that once acted as a bridge between him and his paintings and has proceeded with using his own body to transfer impressions onto the canvas, thus blurring the lines between the artist and his surface.

What is more correct? That the body has painted over the canvas or that the canvas has painted over the body? Since both are embracing each other it becomes impossible to distinguish between the two. The artist and his art literally become one.

But why does he do it? Qureshi making works of art as a response to the shooting of the pregnant dancer will not bring her back, or give solace to her family, or punish the culprit or prevent similar incidents from happening in the future. Then why paint?

To find an answer we have to first conclude what painting itself is: painting is skin — the surface that bears, like human skin, the marks of violence. This violence does not represent itself in the paintings but, simply, is. This violence is not the violence depicted in painting but the violence of painting.

When an artist’s (Qureshi’s in this case) heart is stigmatised by witnessing the violence inflicted on others, they bear witness to the same emotion through the act of painting. Qureshi relives that pain by flagellating the surface of canvas with violent painterly gestures. He, then, makes amends by healing the surface through painting flower patterns over the still wet red paint.

Acrylic and emulsion paint on canvas | Photo courtesy: Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac
Acrylic and emulsion paint on canvas | Photo courtesy: Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac

So far, we have discussed Qureshi’s process of painting and how his emotional suffering translates into the very act of painting. Now, let us turn our attention to the psychological transformation that such a process can entail for the one involved in it: catharsis through art is the purgation of emotion brought about by poetic expression.

Aristotle, in Poetics (335 BCE), describes the effect of a tragic play (the highest form of poetry according to him) on the audience as “cathartic” (tragic pleasure) induced through an emotion of fear and pity. Catharsis brought about by ritual mourning or relived trauma also forms the basis of Christian and Shia traditions. Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy (1886), describes the Greek tragedy as an art form that transcended the meaninglessness of life and allowed the spectators to face the tragic human condition and affirm their own existence through it. William Shakespeare and Richard Wagner are two examples of playwrights who strategically build up narratives leading to cathartic moments. Walter Benjamin again draws attention to the importance of catharsis through expression in The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1925) in which he traces the history of the German trauerspiel or “mourning play”.

On the surface, no link can be found between Qureshi’s paintings and the tragic play. A connection, however, can be built by considering his process. His painting, more than a mimetic exercise, is a happening. Qureshi almost enters a “zone” that is the space between the painting and the painter.

Paint lies between the two. Paint is the arena where a purgation of emotion is brought about. It is the stage where the cathartic play is acted out. This is the playful space between two bodies in dialogue. This space is magical and full of possibility — a space of transition and transformation. The transitional space opened up between two bodies (in this case, that of the painter and the painting) proves indispensable.

The emotional centre of the psyche can be tricked into allowing the reliving of trauma in this “playful” space. The dripped puddles or streaks of red paint fight for dominance on the surface of the canvas. They mix, submerge, cover or are covered. These forms are literally placeholders for emotions that surface and recede during the process of making. By physically converting the stains of blood into flower beds, Qureshi is actually able to transform pain into pleasure.


The writer is Lahore-based artist who has written for several publications such as Art Now Pakistan, Libas International Magazine and artist catalogs.

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