Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi’s intervention ‘Where the Shadows are so Deep’ gathers all the more impetus for its display at The Curve at the Barbican Centre in London. Qureshi’s 35 meticulous miniature paintings stand in sharp contrast to the gallery’s 90-metre curved expanse. The arc of the gallery is echoed in the paintings, which depict the horizon with a curvilinear line. The encompassing nature of the show requires a slow walkabout, emerging only to those who dare to enter its darkened crevices. The palpable sense of unease is augmented not only by the subject of the artist’s works but by the inability to visualise the entire show simultaneously.
As one walks into the space, the works obfuscate. The titular ‘shadows’, a reference to a Faiz Ahmed Faiz poem, work well in the cavernous space. Qureshi’s fascination for the Mughal miniature painting tradition is deeply embedded in his oeuvre. He confronts the long-standing tradition to make uncomfortable interventions; defiling it to produce works that are uncharacteristic – focusing on darker, more threatening and more political details, distorting the horizon or incorporating black, a colour barely used in traditional miniatures.
The splattered carmine red, peppered on the walls, floor and within the paintings give the exhibition a stylistic continuity. At a glance, the paint appears to be bloodlike, evoking images of violence and loss of life. It’s only when one peers closely at the ‘blood’ stains that immaculately intricate, floral patterns begin to unfurl. The underlying message connotes the continuity of life, even in death. The exhibition ties together paradoxical concepts of creation and destruction, to produce new possibilities of meaning.
Red carries symbolic weightage in contemporary urban lives, from both a universal and specific socio-cultural standpoint. Red has multiple associations – it is the betel juice stains on walls and roads of South Asian metropoles; it is bloodshed, violence, death, and destruction; it is the artist’s blood, seeping into his artwork, becoming an extension of himself. While these splattered floral stains function as works of art themselves, they also become unnervingly etched into our reality, our media screens, our living space. In one particular work, ‘blood’ trickles down the mounted glass of a painting. Its shadow creates a beaded pattern on the painting, becoming uncomfortably incorporated into it.
The exhibition doesn’t aim to provide a comfortable viewing experience. The graduating darkness along the length of the exhibition space creates an ominous air aligned with the political connotations of violence Qureshi sets up. The exhibition constantly startles the intimacy initially created. Some works, hung at eye-level, are meticulous in their detailing and command the viewer to engage with them, in a cozy tête-à-tête. This intimacy is broken by works positioned far above eye-level or at almost floor level, requiring the viewer to crouch or step back in order to take it all in. The works hung at varying positions ensure that one makes every bit of effort to partake in the viewing process; viewers squint to take in the details, crane their necks, squat to appreciate the visuality of the floor patterns.
Qureshi has played with scale and dimension to produce an exhibition that contests and furthers a traditional aesthetic tradition, imbuing it with contemporary relevance. Each painting, lit with an impeccable precision, channels an internal luminosity to beguile one into its hold. Unraveling through the catacombs of geopolitical turbulence, the exhibition opens up a Pandora’s box, commenting on the fragile lines between bloodshed, destruction and life.