Imran Qureshi

The seeming endless path of memory

30 JANUARY 2017,
Imran Qureshi at work in S.Gimignano
Imran Qureshi at work in S.Gimignano

Imran Qureshi is a Pakistani artist who for many years has studied the complex techniques of traditional Pakistani miniature painting developed by Mughal masters of the 16th Century and re-interpreting it with a contemporary approach.

Qureshi achieved international fame with his site specific installation Blessings Upon the Land of My Love at the 2011 Sharjah Biennial in the United Arab Emirates. The work had great emotional and artistic impact. Qureshi covered the floor surface of the entire museum courtyard with a dense dark red decorative floral design that attests to the technical skill of the artist. Splattered with paint the color of dried blood - at first glance they look like a crime scene; upon closer inspection the viewer finds the spillage has been delicately altered; with deft white and red brush strokes Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi has worked into the messy raw paint a pattern suggestive of lotus flowers; an ornamental style used in Indian and Persian miniature painting.

But looking at the work from the top floor of the museum the eye of the viewer did not perceive the meticulous decoration and the dark red stains reminiscent of blood - meant to do us reflecting upon the revolutions of that year in North Africa. Since then Qureshi has brought his projects around the world from the Metropolitan Museum in New York to the Barbican Centre in London until arriving at Siena as a guest of the Siena Art Institute. Imran Qureshi has already exhibited in Italy at Macro in Rome a few years ago when he was selected by Deutsche Bank as the best artist of 2013 and thereafter he brought his particularity around the world. In this case instead, upon the Siena Art Institute's invitation he has created a site-specific work in San Gimignano. "Anyone who comes to San Gimignano will be awed by the skyward reaching towers, buildings so tall and imposing and with a strong symbolic value.” - says the visual artist Imran Qureshi - "The first time I came here, accompanied by the director of the Siena Art Institute, I was struck because the tower is a symbolic object, represented in many traditional miniatures of Pakistan: they are beautiful and glorious, but also they reflect the importance of authority and power and the need for defense and security in the violent world in which they were built." So until January 31st at the Museum of San Gimignano in Torre Grossa, you can admire interesting and beautiful artworks resulting from the comparison between two lands of ancient traditions: Siena and Tuscany on the one hand and Pakistan on the other. I talked with Imran Qureshi, Miriam Grottanelli (SART director) and Manuel Bertin (SART PR) on the occasion of the opening asking them some questions.

When did you conceive this project and how did you develop it?

Imran Qureshi: The first time we started talking about Siena was when the Siena Art Institute emailed me a few years ago. They really loved my work and were writing me to look into the possibility of inviting me to do a project in Siena or Tuscany. So it was in 2013, when I was exhibiting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, that I first met the Associate Director of the Siena Art Institute: Jane South. We talked about possible projects in Siena and finally last year I came to visit the site and met the Director Miriam (Grottanelli de Santi) and we started brainstorming. The Siena Art Institute was very open to have me pick any available location in Tuscany and we spent a lot of time looking at different spaces. I really loved the tower in San Gimignano and the Civic Museum. It is the biggest tower in the town, and it fascinated me because of its history and how it connected with the formal approach of miniature painting because also in miniature there is this idea of making different portraits of people in different sizes according to their position in the society: the king would be painted taller and bigger than common people and ministers; and ministers were painted smaller than the king but really bigger than common people.

So I learnt that this tower was also a status symbol, symbolizing who was rich at that time, who had more power. But at the same time it was also a defence structure and this is the whole idea why you can find this big large painted tower in this beautiful landscape. You can see a lot of miniatures where the king is standing in the landscape, and no people around him and yet those people are also related to the tower and its creation. So I decided I wanted to show this hidden information by offering a different kind of approach to my art practice. The installation begins with crumpled painted paper, inserted in the niches of the tower, that reminds the viewer of pieces of raw meat and blood, but when you come close you see the kind of texture similar to the Sharjah floor painting. Blood and flowers are together. This is the first thing the visitor notices once inside the tower. I would like visitors to think about how many people probably sacrificed their life by building this huge, monumental and historical tower. No one talks about their contribution and what is highlighted is the monumental nature and grandness of this historical structure. So I wanted to give tribute for those people. They are inlaid in this building. Their lives are inlaid in this building.

Then the second element is miniature. I made some paintings on paper. Those are scholar-like paintings which are hanging in that space and then there are some perform miniature paintings to catch the eye on the last paper that is a very small miniature painting. In miniature paintings I painted the tower with beautifully and very decorative details and I introduced some moments of violence around this tower to induce the idea of power. So you can see a lot of blood, a lot of power in my miniatures. When you come onto the roof of the tower you find yourself immediately inside those miniatures: on the roof of the tower there is a floor painting like that you saw in Sharjah. When you climb up there, there are no walls, no doors, the space is open under the sky, surrounded by very open landscape. And yet it is private too. It is hidden. And it is the stage of a seriously violent act which happened over there. The way I have painted those miniatures is connected to the way I painted the roof top. So when you are standing on the roof of the tower you come to understand you are a part of those miniatures and you are actually walking inside those paintings. So this is the whole narrative and it is one of the perspectives you got everywhere when you go out of the tower.

Often in your artworks there is an action of deconstruction and reconstruction of stereotypical images. In the case of Siena and San Gimignano about what stereotypes did you work?

IQ: We are talking about human lives in this beautiful architecture. Because I was not supposed to move anything in the building, not to put a single nail in the building, I had to do everything working there. Then nobody was talking about human lives when I was working. Nobody was aware about how many people had been killed or worked at the tower construction. So it was quite interesting for me that everybody was talking about the building, building, building and nobody was talking about people who were working inside the building. This is what I was telling myself in my heart and I found there to be an interesting connection: everyone was talking about the building and the architecture and the history of construction and yet the lives connected with that building were not respected. I don't know in what sense you are talking about stereotypes. I think this is also about stereotypes. My miniatures are very typical formal paintings of Tuscany or of the towers in San Gimignano but I have my own interpretation of this tower as you can see. I drew my idea from the stereotype of the tower. I have pushed people to think of it in a different way.

In your works there is always the combination of images reminiscent of violence and others more poetic that recall an idea of rebirth. For you can art have a regenerative function of human behaviors?

IQ: Definitely. I will give you a very simple example connected to this purpose. You were in Sharjah where I painted the museum courtyard. It was really a very emotional kind of work. Then I didn't realize how people would respond to it. It was amazing and I was lucky enough to withness how art can have a powerful impact: people would start crying while others were sitting in a corner also crying. Everyone had their own interpretation about the work. They all had their personal dialogue with. Some people saw in it the violence that was happening all around there, others looked at it from a religious standpoint, and others still perceived a sort of connection with the world. So it worked at many different levels. I saw a Japanese lady who was crying and I asked why she was crying and she said she was thinking about tsunami and connecting the work with this. Indonesian people had a different interpretation related to wars, conflicts. American and Russian people had an other outlook. Everybody has their own meaning connected to their perspective in that place. So there is no a single meaning or perspective. So this is my real experience about how art can affect people.

Despite the other International institutions present in Tuscany and always related to the Western world (USA and United Kingdom), why is your institute looking East?

Miriam Grottanelli: It is inscribed in our mission to be as internationally diverse as possible. The present political and cultural trends in Asia and the Middle East make this an historically important time to engage in creative dialogue with artists from those areas. Our desire is to invite artists from all regions of the world to come here and create work geared specifically toward local sites that are particularly meaningful for the Tuscan community. We ask them to choose a local site or venue and then artistically express their perspective on current issues with the site as inspiration and backdrop. We’re interested in artists who a have an original perspective, something very different from what we’re used to hearing here in Siena.

Imran’s work is really dealing with the duality and contrast of violence/hope, violence/peace. There is no more important message at this time than what he’s conveying to us in his work, and it’s significant that he’s broadcasting that message from within this tower in San Gimignano, Torre Grossa, which is both a medieval status symbol and a structure built as a defense. I hope that with our relationship with Imran we’ve opened the door for an ongoing exchange between the Siena Art Institute and the city of Lahore and the National Art Academy, where he teaches. We also hope to have many other Pakistani artists and students from Lahore who will work on projects here in Siena. Next semester we will have 3 of Imran’s students here from the NCA. This will be very enriching for the school because the students will work, study and live with us for four months, joining a group of students who come from both Europe and the United States. At the same time, we want this process to be highly accessible to the people of Siena and Tuscany so that they may reflect on their own land and situation through works of art.

Do the invited artists interact with local people and students in addition to creating their site-specific project? With reference to this last exhibition did you organize any public events?

MG: Yes, there are many different opportunities for this. We consider that the work of art is not just the end product but the entire process of making the installation, from start to finish. The interaction with Siena begins right from the moment the artist chooses a site for his/her work. This of course intensifies once they come and live here to work on the project. But of course there are also more formal occasions of interaction with the city, and the local Tuscan community: Imran presented his work two weeks before the opening of the project, and many people had the opportunity to meet him and see his work even before he started on the San Gimignano project. He also was very generous with our students when he was asked to participate in some critiques of their work. And of course they assisted Imran in the actual installation of his work in the tower. With Imran’s direction, they crumpled the paper and stuffed it into the many niches along the interior staircase of the tower. Bringing an artist of Imran Qureshi’s stature to Siena is, we believe, a kind of resource and learning experience for the city of Siena at large. The artist encounters the city often on his own terms and not just during those select moments when the Siena Art Institute introduces him and his work to the community in a formal way. On the way to his studio, every morning, he may stop for a coffee at a bar and have a chat with the bar tender. All of these moments are significant. They are the project being formed.