Master artist Imran Qureshi explains the concepts behind his mural installations at the National Cathedral D.C., the Islamabad National Airport, and the Shahi Hamam during the Lahore Biennale, as well as why his work fetches such a high price internationally

By Mahlia Lone

How did you get into art?

I’m from Hyderabad, Sind, where I grew up. I enjoyed art at school and was a favourite of my Art teacher who had attended Sir J. J. School of Art, Mumbai. But I had no idea I could take it up as a profession. My uncle suggested I attend the NCA (National College of Arts) for further studies. My father, the Principal of City College in Hyderabad, supported the idea and brought me to Lahore to see the institution for myself and decide if I’d be happy here.

At the NCA, I enrolled to study Miniature Painting in the Fine Arts department. I was fortunate to learn from Professors Quddus Mirza, Zahoor ul Akhlaq, Iqbal Hussain, Saeed Akhtar and Salima Hashmi. But in class I felt like a nobody. It was only when I turned in my work and got appreciated by these Master artists that I felt like a somebody. It was also at the NCA that I met Aisha (Khalid), now my wife, who was two years junior to me.

I graduated in 1993 and joined the faculty. I head the Miniature department now.

How did you, being a Muslim artist from Pakistan, get invited to put up an installation at the National Cathedral in D.C., the site of memorial services for top Americans, like U.S. Presidents and military leaders?

It’s not the first time I’ve been asked to put up an installation at a religious site. In 2006, I was asked by curator Sharmini Pereira to put up an installation in Singapore’s largest mosque for the Singapore Biennale. The mosque’s liberal clerics were apprehensive about how the Muslim community would receive an art work in the mosque, but my installation — a video plus painted work — got such a positive response that although initially it was to be put up only for a six month period, a part of the installation has become a permanent exhibit in the mosque.

Then, after seeing my work at the Sainte-Geneviève Library (Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, a public and university library) in Paris, I was asked by a British gallery owner to put up three installations in Cornwall, including one at the Truro Cathedral.

Virginia Shore, curator of Halcyon’s By The People (an international arts and dialogue festival in Washington D.C.) asked me to work on a site-specific art work for the National Cathedral in D.C.

I did not want to make a controversial piece but wanted to respect a place of worship and the religious belief of the worshippers there. Hence, I chose to paint water as a symbol of life and peace. Blue, which I’ve used a lot, is the colour of water, peace and a reflection of the sky. The blue spills out of the Cathedral’s main entrance and spreads around. The water has a life energy and flow to it. As life comes out of water, I painted green foliage coming out of the water. My work is a continuation of the mural frieze surrounding the doorway frame, which depicts the creation of humans.

The people who came to take a look really liked and appreciated my work.

How do you translate your miniature painting skills to large scale art works?

I shift the scale but use the same detailing, flow and stylization of miniature painting. Each scale has its challenges and comfort.

Explain the idea behind your largest mural painting to date Pages of Perfection at the new Islamabad International Airport.

I was asked by Nur Jehan Bilgrami who was curating to present a concept for the mural. Then PM Nawaz Sharif wanted a calligraphy. Neither did I want to use calligraphy as a decorative element link it in a conceptual way, nor randomly choose an ayat. We had a lot of meetings where we discussed the concept with the committee. This is my first public permanent installation in Pakistan. Mine is in the Domestic lounge and Aisha’s is in the International lounge, both lounges divided by a glass wall so you can see both simultaneously.

The mural is 12 feet by 200 feet, comprised of 100 canvases and took me eight to nine months to complete. It’s made to resemble unfolding pages of an Islamic manuscript. I chose Surah Qadar because it’s about the Night of Power when the Quran Sharif descended to the Prophet. It’s about sky, travel, movement and energy, so I thought it was appropriate. I used the colour palette of Mughal Islamic manuscripts: gold, turquoise, white. The mural is contemporary but the feel and ornamentation is inspired by Islamic manuscripts. My work is infused with my vocabulary .

There’s a lot of red depicting bloodshed and violence in your paintings. Do you think that using violence as a theme played a role in your international popularity?

No, I started using red to show blood when there were a lot of bomb blasts around the world. Before that when Pakistan tested its nuclear device, I was painting nuclear warheads so violence has always been a prevailing theme of my work. I’ve had an international art following for quite a while now irrespective of the theme.

Explain your gold and red installation at the Shahi Hamam for the Lahore Biennale this year.

In miniature painting, a lot of gold is used. Gold is a solid metal. I wanted to juxtapose it next to fluid and fragile blood and engage in a dialogue between the two.

Which awards are you most proud of?

So far, I am most proud of the Sharjah Biennale award I received as well as the U.S. State Department’s Medal of Art.

Which galleries sell your work?

For continental Europe, Thaddeus Ropac galleries in Paris and Salzburg and for the U.K. Cormivora in London.

Who are some of the collectors of your work?

My work has been bought by museums for their collections. I don’t like to name my private collectors. The galleries vet the buyers of my work to assess that they are serious collectors and not speculative buyers since the prices are high. There are more collectors of my work abroad than there are here.

Then tell us what kind of collector invests in your murals?

I can talk about Christian Louboutin since he’s a personal friend. He collects my art, I collect his shoes. (Indeed, Imran has a vast collection of Louboutin spikey loafers.)

What’s on your agenda next?

In the next one year, I am putting up installations in Al Ain, UAE, Washinton D.C., Paris and London. I can’t speak about these projects presently as they will all be officially announced.

Photography by Ali Agha

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