Erotic, humorous or violent, Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi takes the beautiful, gold leafed miniature paintings which flourished hundreds of years ago in South Asia as his subject.
Confined to their neatly drawn borders, these small works look like heavily embellished pages of an illustrated book, and they need you to get very close. When you do, you’ll be rewarded with detailed images of kings and courtiers, gurning demons, smiling gods or warriors at battle.
Imran Qureshi’s new installation in the Barbican’s ‘Curve’ Gallery tests the boundaries of this ancient art form. Qureshi trained specifically in miniature painting in Lahore, where the National College of Arts is the only institution in the world practising a degree in the craft.Where the Shadows are so Deep consists of an expansive series of his lilliputian, hand-painted pictures of landscapes, framed and dramatically spot lit on deep grey walls as though in a solemn museum display. As the viewer takes in each of his innocent little glowing pictures, a story of destruction, violence and rebirth unfolds like a fairy tale. The traditional-looking framed paintings slowly mutate and take on a life of their own. They begin to break out from their tidy borders, spewing blood red Indian ink from their pages and out onto the gallery’s floor and walls.
Many of the pictures are hung in clusters, each one showing a different perspective and panning out slowly from a landscape to show golden heavens, dragonflies, plants and the disquieting blotchy red stains which become a motif running throughout the installation.
Other pictures, hanging just inches off the ground as if cowering away from the viewer, give the impression of hiding parts of the tale, a secrecy. By the end of the exhibition, the solemn museum looks more like the scene of a bloody massacre, as you find yourself surrounded by messy pools and smears of congealed scarlet ink.Getting up close and personal is probably one of the most likely ways you’d normally engage with a tiny work of art. But it isn’t the case here. I didn’t want to go too near to the bloody splatters which become more and more present as you continue through the show – even though Qureshi adds subtle white outlines of petals to soften or disguise them. This was partly because the scene felt far too real, reminding me of traumatic images I’ve encountered in the news showing acts of mass violence or terrorism around the world.
But sometimes the most effective art, like Lucian Freud’s beautifully chilling bug-eyed portraits or Hieronymus Bosch’s surreal and creepy Garden of Earthly Delights, can seduce and repel all at once.
I experienced how Imran Qureshi’s humble ink-and-paper works could deliver a weighty, emotional punch. Most importantly, it was extremely refreshing – even if a little terrifying at times.
Alex Fynn O’Neill.