“And How Many Rains Must Fall” | Art Review

Mar 2014

Issue 6  Art Review

HASHMI_Beware the Buyers. 1999

The New York skyline enveloped the scene, with the green foliage of Central Park framing the rooftop from behind. Imran Qureshi had painted ornamental leaves and patterns of thick foliage on the floor in red acrylic, the color of blood, evoking scenes of violence from the Pakistan of his time, and the glorious Mughal gardens of the past.

Qureshi’s installation ran from May 14 to November 3 _ last year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to major acclaim. Qureshi is trained in the miniature style of a glorious Mughal age holding all the connotations of a once golden era–a history that still thrives in the imaginary of present-day Pakistan. The Mughal aesthetic serves as a simulacrum of Pakistan, that is, the identical copy for which no original may have ever existed, in the sense that it is necessarily an imagined past. Through this vision of a golden past emerges dystopic renderings of a country that was once on to a path of progress but then fell into disarray–a narrative especially prominent among a certain type of liberal who looks nostalgically to the decades of the 50’s and the 60’s. Qureshi was inspired by Pakistan’s Marxist poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, when he picked the title of his piece, “And How Many Rains Must Fall Before The Stains Are Washed Away”. The title is a verse from one of Faiz’s poem’s, where he issues a compelling commentary on Pakistan’s independence.

This pockmarked daybreak
Dawn gripped by night
This is not that much awaited light

یہ داغ داغ اُجالا، یہ شب گزیدہ سحر
وہ انتظار تھا جس کا، یہ وہ سحر تو نہیں

These verses, like his installation, communicate disappointment, but not loss. This view is grounded in the present and looking towards the future; the past is a referent only within individualized memory, and not steeped in an imaginary of past glory. Such words are important to keep in mind when the image of Pakistan as fallen from glory begins to obfuscate a complex reality of the political present.


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Qureshi explained that the piece had originally emerged in response to a bomb blast at a market in his neighborhood in Lahore–the paint he washed off his brush evoked the blood of his street. When it was first exhibited–in the courtyard of a 19th century building in Sharjah, a trading port in the UAE–many viewers responded strongly and viscerally to the violence he had painted.In an interview, Qureshi explains that the Sharjah Biennial took place in the middle of the Arab Spring revolution, and so visitors from the Arab world drew completely different connections to the installation from where it had originally emerged. Earlier, he had set up his installation at a site of incarceration, at a penal colony in Sydney, Australia, for the purpose of recalling past violence. Qureshi referenced the global nature of political violence, and the responses it evoked in people coming from very different backgrounds. In an interview, in response to my question on the installation’s immediate context, Qureshi described the effects of the Boston marathon bombing on his process of painting at the rooftop. He said he had heard a recurrent trope in the media commentary after the incident, of the ‘finish line’, and this filtered into his painting. The line between where the painting ends and the green foliage of central park begins, visible form the rooftop, echoed the finishing line of the bombing for him.

Qureshi discussed the significance of such shifting landscapes. Referring to Pakistan, he talked about how one could become accustomed to instability, and the uneasiness felt in the absence of an event.  Hence as the installation emerges from Pakistan, that is not the only kind of violence that it seeks to represent. Qureshi spoke about the global, not to mention inter-connected, nature of the violence that he sought to represent. He also mentioned that since the exhibit closed he had received a number of emails from those who had felt resonance with the piece due to a variety of reasons. He named a family member of someone who had died in the 9/11 attacks as someone whom he remembered the piece having affected in particular.

In an introductory video playing on a screen at the entrance of the roof top garden, Qureshi describes how the imagery of the foliage has a dual function: it highlights sites of violence, but also represents their potential for regrowth and rejuvenation. He argues for a multiplicity of interpretations in the installation. “It is not only about one incident, [and] it is not just because I am a Pakistani [… that] I am depicting the bomb blasts in Pakistan… One can relate to it on so many different levels.. You don’t immediately want to walk on it, [but] slowly you get comfortable.”

However, watching the scene after listening to Qureshi suggests something other than the discomfort and unease that he refers to. Just like Qureshi says, there is no single emotion that the roof- top installation is intended to evoke. It emerges from Pakistan, that but seeks to represent other kinds of violence.

At the same time, there was dissonance between the object of representation and its viewers.  It was clear that a multitude of contexts were not only at play but also, necessarily, did not always cohere to produce a singular meaning or affect. For example, A New York Times review describes a man lying face down on the painted floor pretending to be a bomb victim while his family photographs him. The interaction between the installation and the audience has an air of quick consumption. “What has happened is that aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally”, says Frederic Jameson. When I visited the installation, there were two scenes in place simultaneously. The scene on the ground, of splattered blood, made brutally proximate a far off violence. At the same time, it was cocktail hour at the met rooftop – the context did not prevent engagement, but it certainly did enhance the possibilities for disengagement. And so even without intending to, Qureshi’s poignant representation of a related (to the context of post 9/11 New York) violence was consumed in the social milieu of busy lives, speed- socializing and furtive evaluations. Qureshi described how people initially felt uncomfortable walking on the splatters of painted blood, but then slowly became more accustomed. This process of ‘getting used to’ is inevitable and holds the potential to provoke sustainable engagement. However, it also marks the necessary disassociation with the arresting quality of a violent situation.

Qureshi’s installations, especially his miniatures, do not aestheticize violence for the purpose of commodification. On the contrary, through his emphasis on material and texture—for one miniature painting he uses pages from a tailor’s manual for stitching military uniforms in place of the traditional wasli—he gestures towards the multifarious reality of living under a complex set of conditions in Pakistan. Yet, beyond artistic intention, the exhibit necessarily encounters structural constraints, namely the consumer-capitalist world that conditions the space for art and much else. However, past the relationship of financing, it is the particular nature of the commodity that artistic production takes in late capitalism, at times not immediately visible, that became immediately apparent in the roof top exhibit due to the jarring contradiction between content and context. This was perhaps too neatly epitomized in the form of the straight line of prosperous New Yorkers, waiting in a queue for the bar at one end of the roof top, break through the irregular patterns of foliage that suggest splatters of blood.


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Qureshi’s art both confronts and echoes the ongoing endeavor that is the political project of Pakistan, continually contested and re-written. Simultaneously, as art extends beyond artistic intention and even material production, transformed in a world centered on the commodity and its consumption, Qureshi’s installation also provokes the question of the political possibility of critical art in our times. His current work is continues to focus on the imagery of violence, and yet the idea of landscape is continually changing, he says. His next exhibition will be open on May 15th in Hong Kong.

Imran Qureshi is teaching miniature painting at the National College of Lahore. Solo exhibitions of his work have been held at the Rohtas gallery Lahore (2010), Chawkandi Art, Karachi (2010), Corvi Mora gallery, London (2007) Modern Art Oxford (2007), Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi (2006), Admit One Gallery, New York (2001), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2013). His works have been collected by the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Fukuoka, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Queensland Art Galleries and Museums, Brisbane, Harris Museum, Preston, and National Art Gallery, Islamabad.

Zehra Hashmi studied Anthropology and History at Columbia University. She is interested in electronic news media and spatial politics in urban Pakistan. At present, she is a sub-editor at The Express Tribune.

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One Response to “And How Many Rains Must Fall” | Art Review

  1. Issue 6: Mobs and Movements | Tanqeed on Mar 2014 at 10:34 AM

    […] to think about riot violence in South Asia outside narratives of primordial hatreds. Zehra Hashmi reviews Imran Qureshi’s exploration of Pakistan’s bloody […]