Miniature Makeover


The Corvi-Mora Gallery in London is hosting Mohammad lmran Qureshis latest exhibition until April 17. After a quick perusal, it appears that Qureshi is dangerously close to repeating himself, as he wrestles to tame the visual language he has constructed for himself over the past five years. But closer inspection reveals that the seven paintings that comprise the exhibition, all dated 2004, are an inflection in Qureshis artistic journey. They record the beginning of a transitional phase which reflects both the apogee of his musings from the recent past and his first steps towards breaking free from what could have become self-imposed stylistic shackles.

Qureshis last show, held at Karachis Chawkandi Gallery in 2002, captured the angst of watching the war on terror unfold. In that show, he had completed the move from his humorous and much-feted treatment of missiles as Mughal emperors, to the artistically fertile ground of cartography. While individual pieces hinted at the hypocrisy inherent in the politics of power, the map-making theme brought attention to the cycle of imperial oppression and violent release which has led to the drawing of many of the worlds arbitrary boundaries.

The present show corresponds with the first anniversary of the American-led occupation of Iraq and it is not surprising that echoes of Qureshis last show still linger. This continuation of theme is only natural, especially as this is Qureshis first solo show in two years. Two new paintings (“To Be or Not to Be” and “Mapping Terrains”) even share titles with paintings from the earlier Chawkandi show and at least four paintings are executed in a similar style which could easily have been part of the last show.

This is not to say that Qureshis new work is redundant. His distinctive style is an eclectic composite of the rigorous discipline and sensitive aesthetics of the Mughal and Pahari miniature traditions, mixed with intuitive and painterly mark-making a la Cy Twombly. These influences are reflected in his choice of materials – watercolour and Letraset transfer on wasli. Those familiar with his past work will find no surprises in his trademark element of melding the exquisite and the mundane. Most prominent in the former category are his stylised spheres of blue and green foliage, tracing lineage to the highly decorative trees of paintings from Basohli and Kulu.

Through sheer persistence, Qureshi has managed to inject these spheres with a sense of contemporary purpose and belonging. In their latest incarnation, they are artistic renderings of neural networks and other elements of the structure of the brain, Thus Qureshis repeated depiction of an outline of a pair of scissors threatening to slice through the spheres of foliage invite a reading at two levels. First, a direct statement on violence against life, and second, a comment on the attack against what these neural networks represent collective memory, comprehension and intelligence.

ln addition to the theme, motifs and titles, another carry-over from the Chawkandi show is the dual-page format. In a throwback to the origins of the miniature painting as art of the book, Qureshi had structured earlier paintings as a double page resembling an open book. For his present show, he toys with this format by using it in four paintings but experimenting with scale, composition and technique. Two of the pieces are relatively gargantuan in size; one uses light colour washes and others present pages of contrasting density and colour.

One of the smaller pieces titled “U-Turns” is arguably among the strongest in this particular series dealing with the war on terror. The title both refers to and reinforces the central u-shaped mark that connects the two pages of the painting: a reference to the political manoeuvring and backtracking that followed the invasion of Iraq. The title is given extra potency by the recent thawing in the Pakistan-India relationship. The scissors in this painting, in a departure from the norm, are pointing away from the spheres of foliage. The hatched red lines suggest both a railway track and surgical stitches which invoke pain. The light blue wash covering one of the old, printed Urdu pages hints at subterfuge – the hiding of what has gone on before or an attempt to mask its effects. The dabs of bright orange paint make the composition whole by lifting the calming blue and calling what lies beneath into question.

That said, not all the works possess this freshness. “To Be or Not to Be” seems to share more than just a name with its previous incarnation and “Crossing Boundaries” seems somehow incomplete, as if it startled Qureshi by virtue of its size. Ultimately, it is the three remaining pieces -the two “Reshape” paintings and “Standing Figure in Camouflage Pantaloon” – that make for the most interesting viewing as they mark a departure for Qureshi and reaffirm the need for courage when moving beyond familiar ground.

The larger of the two “Reshape” paintings is about four times the size of the smaller piece. It is dominated by a central oval shape massed full of green leaves and positioned evenly between the two large pages of the painting, one of which is a page of Urdu text as a collage element and the other a Spartan white. Unlike the stylised foliage spheres, the leaves are individually and painstakingly drawn. Paradoxically, they lend the abstract shape both solidity and lightness. Though the shape remains nebulous, the contrast between the pages, the organic yet contradictory feel of the central shape and the scale of the piece work in unison to project an image of unusual power.

The smaller “Reshape” is arranged as a vertical narrative, with a rectangle of detailed leaves sandwiched between two versions of a form similar to that in the larger picture. A red, cartographic line traces the top shape and the bottom one is filled with the same green leaves as before. A line drawing of a plant in red emerging from the bottom hints at birth. Perhaps this yearning for an organic reshaping – through birth and growth -is an instance of art mirroring life for Qureshi became a father late last year.

This growth urge and the freedom to move forward is most evident in “Standing Figure in Camouflage Pantaloon”. The turquoise sky, the flying insects and the pose of the lone figure standing on a bed of leaves shares its looks and spirit with the work produced for the Mughal emperor Shah Jehan. The male figure, though consciously not a self-portrait, is nevertheless modelled on the artist. The camouflaged cargo pants hint at past troubles. But the gaze is open and forward- looking, reflecting the freedom of the insects that buzz around him. The simplicity of the composition and the mood of the figure suggest that this painting – the artists first figurative effort after several years – may be heralding a new phase in his work. And a promising starts at that.