I came away mesmerized. This truly is a show not to be missed. I tend to cringe when people describe exhibitions in this way, but today really was an exception. With a myriad of international exhibitions and awards under their belts, this was to be Aisha Khalid and Imran Qureshi’s first large-scale museum exhibition in Pakistan, and there has been much excitement in the air. The high expectations of the visitors were not only met; they were far surpassed in the best possible way. It was indeed heartening to see the National Gallery (PNCA) being put to such good use. The private view was buzzing with artists and art enthusiasts from all over Pakistan. Some had travelled all the way from Karachi. Many artists and professors had turned up from Lahore in support of the duo that has taken the art world by storm, internationally and of course locally. Amongst the many familiar faces were Salima Hashmi, Naazish Ataula, Noorjehan Bilgrami, Nageen Hyatt, Aasim Akhtar, Quddus Mirza, Asad Hayee and Qudsia Rahim.
I must add here that it was also encouraging to note that the art scene in Isloo has in fact, not yet, died a slow and painful death, and it just goes to show that if given the chance, it is very much alive and kicking! Sadly, all the serious and oldest art galleries of the capital – Rohtas, Khaas, Nomad and Tanzara – remain closed due to the CDA crackdown, something that I would like to urge all artists, curators, art critics, enthusiasts and collectors to write and talk about more so that we can overcome this hurdle. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see that the PNCA has been resuscitated under the direction of Jamal Shah and that the caliber of exhibitions has drastically improved, as has the use of the space. At the end of last year, renowned art critic, curator and art educator Aasim Akhtar, in collaboration with Kuch Khaas and the US Embassy, curated Open Field, the first of these significant exhibitions. In this current show, the gorgeous purpose-built museum, which was designed by acclaimed Pakistani Architect, Naeem Pasha, really shone through in Two Wings to Fly, Not One. An avid art collector and owner of Rohtas, the oldest gallery in Islamabad, his love of art is evident in the building’s chic design. Finally, at long last, the space is being used to its full capacity and in tandem with the purpose for which it was built.
As you enter the main gallery, a towering installation of crumpled pieces of what appears to be bloodstained paper confronts you and sprawls its way forward and into the next gallery. And They Still Seek Traces of Blood, 2017 echoes an exhibition Qureshi had at the National College of Arts, Lahore last year. Through this work, he addresses the constant debacle we face in our everyday lives, the violence and extremism, and also the blood on our own silent hands, for in silence we are in many ways complicit. Qureshi’s interactive piece strikes a deep chord, leaving one with an uncomfortable feeling but a much-needed probe. This discerning artist certainly knows how to leave the viewer with food for thought. His signature foliage motif can be spotted here, there, and everywhere rendered in great detail on a small wasli or splashed across a massive set of canvases such as the teal and crimson triptychs set behind the installation. The artist lets us in on a little secret – he loves to play with scale and detail – managing to balance both is what excites him.
Khalid made history in her stellar performance piece that was a real highlight of the evening. The auditorium was used to complement the ongoing exhibition, which I am fairly certain has never happened before. With the Fakirs from Bhitshah, Sindh, performing live on one side and Khalid meditatively slotting golden pins through a rich velvet fabric stretched on an adda and seated on the floor in the traditional style, the viewer becomes privy to her art making process. It is only at the end of the performance, I Am and I Am Not, 2017 that we realize she is actually crafting a piece called Ishq, the text of which is constructed with golden pins and displayed after the performance is over. Her choice of medium certainly captures the bittersweet feeling of love.
Both artists were born in 1972 and graduated together from NCA, Lahore in 1993. Both artists have done groundbreaking work and have paved the way for younger artists to experiment with and push the boundaries of contemporary miniature painting to become an all-encompassing genre. Amongst her countless achievements, Khalid was a Jameel Prize Finalist in 2011 and won the People’s Choice Award. I had the pleasure of viewing her works in person at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London and of course, voted for her work! Revisiting some of these pieces at the National Gallery in a different context was intriguing. She went on to win the Alice Award in the Artist’s Book category in 2012. Equally accomplished, Qureshi was named Deutsche Bank’s Artist of the Year, 2013 and commissioned to make his infamous installation at the MET’s rooftop garden in New York that same year. More recently, he was presented the US International Medal of the Arts 2017 by the US State Department. The only other Pakistani artist to have received this accolade was Shahzia Sikander in 2012.
Visibly pleased to be having a major show in Pakistan after ten years, Qureshi enthusiastically said that they “were both very excited about the show and had been working very hard for the last year to produce work.” He said, “It was a real treat to be able to do a show in a place like this – to play with such an impactful architectural space, and just the scale of it and the possibilities were something that we were both very eager to play around with.” He also mentioned how there were absolutely no restrictions on what they could do in the space, and that the museum was very cooperative in that they could transform and construct whatever they wanted, which is a huge privilege especially in a museum setting. They had an open field to play in, unlike their experience of museums internationally, where there are usually many constraints. He also added that “the huge walls and the way in which the PNCA has been designed are also unique, and it was a real treat to be able to exhibit and work in this space.”
The show successfully gives you a flavour of the prolific way in which both Khalid and Qureshi make art. There are tiny miniatures that need to be viewed intimately and there are enormous canvases and waslis, installations and videos that need to be engaged with in different ways – a showcase that felt somewhat like a retrospective. It would be impossible to talk about each piece; in fact it was so overwhelming to even take in everything that I plan to go back and view the work again at leisure. My all time favourite piece of Khalid’s is her iconic video Conversation (2002), which was displayed in Gallery I, where a pair of brown hands (her own) are embroidering a red rose on a white piece of cloth and a pair of white hands are undoing the stitches simultaneously. The act of undoing is politically loaded and the precision required in embroidering echoes that of traditional miniatures. I am also always partial to the tulip, having used the flower as a metaphor extensively in my own art practice, and was therefore quite taken by Khalid’s tulips. Spellbinding images such as All Is Gray When the Black Is Washed Away, 2015 and the rest of her works displayed nearby will certainly stay with the viewer.
Qureshi is no stranger to collaboration. He is responsible for conceiving the revolutionary Karkhana project that turned into an important publication and travelling exhibition, supported and curated by Hammad Nasar, founder of Green Cardamom, London. The exhibition commenced in Rochdale in 2003-04, then at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield in 2005-06, and finally at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco in 2006. In this trailblazing project, Qureshi’s dialogue with the past engaged six contemporary miniaturists including himself and Khalid, in which waslis were exchanged across the globe and worked on collaboratively. In the traditional Mughal Karkhana (atelier), artists had very little freedom of expression, whereas the body of work that developed in the modern version contained multiple meanings and political references.
Each artist (the others were Hasnat Mehmood, Nusra Latif Qureshi, Talha Rathore and Saira Wasim) brought their own personal idioms and concepts to the table. However, apart from this project in which the couple collaborated with four other artists, to date, they have not collaborated with one another, despite their longstanding partnership. I posed this question to them during a very lovely studio visit in October 2016, while American curator, Dr. Vicky Clark was touring Lahore with the Khaas Gallery and Kuch Khaas teams. During that conversation, they admitted that they had never felt the compulsion to collaborate with one another up till then, and hadn’t really thought about it much. Perhaps they began to consider the possibility seriously after that visit, or maybe it was already in the pipeline and they did not want to give away the surprise! Nevertheless, it was interesting to see them finally take the plunge and collaborate with one another as a couple in the title piece, Two Wings to Fly, Not One, 2017. Since their styles are markedly different and this is the first set of images they have exclusively worked on together, understandably, their method needs to be developed further and it will be exciting to see what they do next.
For me, Qureshi’s accordion piece really stood out. Each leaf is made in Siyah Qalam – monochromatic, detailed miniature drawings that take on the shape of a stunning artist’s book. The True Path, 2009, takes over the centre of Gallery III, and although extremely delicate and unassuming, this piece is really striking and needs to be viewed peacefully. To then discover that the work is about self-actualisation and the quest for spiritual enlightenment is quite fitting. Especially when viewed against the backdrop of And They Still Seek Traces of Blood, 2017, which spreads its way through the doorway, the struggle to find inner peace becomes very palpable.
I leave you with a final comment from Qureshi – when questioned by a foreign journalist about whether he finds it difficult to practice his art in the way that he wants to in Pakistan, he countered the question by saying that the west’s portrayal of our country is often misconstrued and the focus is always on the negative, the undesirable, which is almost always blown out of proportion. Isolated incidents do not make us who we are. People don’t see the good that is happening here because the western media is always quick to judge, and all the innovative, positive and wonderful things such as the literature festivals that take place every year in all three main cities, as well as the much anticipated biennale in Karachi later this year and the one in Lahore next year – cultural feats like this are never highlighted. When asked if they ever have issues regarding the content or concepts that they work with while displaying here, he states on the contrary, that he has never had any issues with freedom of expression in Pakistan, but has often faced censorship in museums and galleries internationally, because his imagery sometimes comes across as too violent for the audience there. The irony is that this is our reality, and something we have to face in our everyday lives as Pakistani citizens, and in real life, there’s no way of censoring it!
Through their art, Khalid and Qureshi both leave us with a feeling of hope. Their work is undoubtedly a reflection of the times and what we face around us as Pakistanis, but each of them, in their own signature style, somehow manages to depict both the good and the bad, the spontaneous and the deliberate, the intimate and the flamboyant, the dot and the splash. This is the biggest strength in their work – being able to balance the conceptual content as well as the visual play of detail and scale in their own distinctive way.
Note: Two Wings to Fly, Not One was inspired by a verse by Jalaluddin Rumi and was organized by Foundation Art Divvy and the PNCA. The exhibition continues through 31st May 2017.
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