We talk to Imran Qureshi about his work, his Barbican exhibition and his use of Winsor & Newton’s Perylene Maroon.
You’re famous for your use of blood-red paint. That might sound sensational to someone new to your work, but you deal with powerful, emotive themes. Can you tell us about the ideas that inform your practice?
My work, whether on a conceptual level or formal level, always deals with two opposite things. Formally, I always try to blend my abstractly painted marks with carefully drawn images. On a conceptual level, it’s about the idea or life and death or hope and violence.
For me these two opposite things always work very well and make a strong dialogue.
You often paint in the style of the miniaturists who worked for the Mughal court. What first inspired you to do this?
Yes, I was trained as a miniature painter at the National College of Arts, Lahore (1990-1993), and did my specialisation in the traditional technique of miniature painting. NCA was the only institution in the world that was offering a four-year-long undergraduate programme in the subject.
There was a common idea that miniature painting was only about reproducing old traditional / historical paintings – that there was no margin for creativity in it. I took that as a challenge and thought (a) I can only learn this centuries-old traditional technique from that institution, and (b) there is so much freedom and possibility to use this traditional technique creatively and prove yourself as an independent artist.
This was one of the very rare or only art movements from Pakistan.
Do you use any of the same paints and pigments that would have been used in the Mughal court?
Not exactly! I have used a few of those pigments a couple of times, but I mainly use Winsor & Newton Watercolour in cake form and mix it with hand-processed gouache to make the watercolours opaque. I’m still doing it for my miniatures.
For your new exhibition, Where the Shadows are so Deep, at the Barbican’s Curve gallery, you’ve created a series of miniature paintings and explored the theme of the curve in this tradition. Could you tell us a bit more about what inspired the collection and the journey you want to take your audience on?
When I visited my site for the first time, I was totally blown away with the scale of the curved wall. Everyone at the museum expected I would create a huge, site-specific monumental kind of floor or wall painting with splashes of bloody red paint. But at the time, I thought I should take this space as a challenge, not just in terms of scale but also in creating something which is completely opposite to it. So I came up with this idea of producing a body of work consisting of 35 miniature paintings, each depicting an idea of the presence of “curve” in traditional, miniature painting landscapes.
My exhibition is a series of miniatures which are installed in an ongoing kind of narrative. From a distance, these miniatures look very decorative and beautiful, but when you come close to them, there’s something which makes viewers quite uncomfortable. I’ve played with the scale of “curved” space by moving completely opposite to that through my miniatures.
Finally, I can’t resist mentioning Winsor & Newton Perylene Maroon. How long did it take you to find a paint that perfectly mimics the colour of blood, and why is it important?
I think, interestingly, I found the Winsor & Newton Perylene Maroon colour first and the idea of blood in my work came later. Apart from other inspirations from my surroundings and whole political scenario, this colour also helped me in enhancing my ideas, concepts and subject matter due to its vibrant hue and intensity.
I tried to find some colour tones in other brands too, but those were not so close to the colour of blood and not so full of life as Perylene Maroon!