Birmingham

Imran Qureshi, And they still seek traces of blood, 2013–14, lithoprints on paper. Installation view.

Imran Qureshi, And they still seek traces of blood, 2013–14, lithoprints on paper. Installation view.

Imran Qureshi

Ikon Gallery

Imran Qureshi, And they still seek traces of blood, 2013–14, lithoprints on paper. Installation view.

Ikon Gallery evoked the scene of a crime. Red stains spattered the floor and appeared to trickle down walls. Was this the aftermath of a murder, a riot, a war? Yet as visitors stepped gingerly over what looked like pools of dried blood, we were in for a small surprise: Treading on gore, we found ourselves tiptoeing alongside flowers. For while the splotches of paint may have resembled congealed blood from a distance, up close they revealed little crimson blossoms.

These bloody-beautiful blooms were Imran Qureshi’s site-specific offering I want you to stay with me, 2014, part of the Pakistani artist’s most comprehensive exhibition to date in the UK. Ikon’s two-story tribute boasted some forty artworks from 1999 onward—including very small format paintings and larger, abstract canvases (glittering with gold leaf) as well as videos and installations.

I want you to stay with me merges artistry with menace in more ways than one. Its pointy floral pattern evokes traditional Basohli miniatures, a style that surfaced in seventeenth-century Jammu and Kashmir (now the battleground between India and Pakistan). The rest of Qureshi’s display found the artist similarly preoccupied with dragging gilded images into troubled terrain. His tiny paintings, often with ornate borders, invariably sported unlikely protagonists, such as the paper missile that stars in Love Story, 1999.

Qureshi’s training in miniature painting at Lahore, Pakistan’s National College of Arts was evident here. Traditional miniatures—mini-paintings on handmade paper that accompanied illuminated manuscripts—originated in Persia, but they flourished in the Mogul courts of South Asia from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Qureshi’s tiny works on wasli paper allude to the courtly antecedents of his jewel-hued figuration. But they were imbued with a topical gloss. In Self-Portrait, 2009, a minute face ensconced in an egg-shaped halo emerges from a golden rectangle. It is in profile, the manner favored by Mogul monarchs, as seen, for instance, in silhouetted portraits of seventeenth-century emperor Shah Jahan. In Self-Portrait, however, it is Qureshi himself who reigns supreme, a hint of stubble belying his princely presentation.

While Lahore’s course in miniatures is notoriously rigid, Qureshi departs from its proscribed parameters. Art historian Virginia Whiles argues in the catalogue that Qureshi and others of his generation were inspired by the innovations of the late artist Zahoor-ul-Akhlaq. The college sets great store by the narrative and figurative elements of the craft, but Akhlaq’s paintings merged these with geometric motifs drawn from Islamic architecture. Qureshi opts instead for a playful cross-cultural merger with abstraction. Opening word of this new scripture, 2013, shows the artist studiously painting the floor of a stonewalled enclosure with maroon stains. These emerging squiggly splotches mimic the drippy gestures of Jackson Pollock while at the same time simulating the splashes of colored water thrown at the Hindu fertility festival of Holi. After all, Mogul miniatures gradually absorbed local Hindu and Buddhist influences, too, spawning hybrid regional styles.

Qureshi’s paintings about painting seem speckled with painful portents. And they still seek traces of blood, 2013–14, is a room-filling installation of crumpled sheets of paper smudged with vermilion. Is this Qureshi’s ironic gesture toward Arte Povera? The work resembles a mountain of rubble after a bomb blast, or a heap of soiled bandages, and it’s hard not to be reminded of blood—as the title states—or to ruminate on religious fundamentalism in Pakistan today. But here, too, paint played tricks: Up close, the red-smeared paper disclosed photocopies of Qureshi’s signature miniatures, packed with ornamental designs. What a pretty way to proselytize for peace.

Zehra Jumabhoy