Turning tradition on its head: Aisha Khalid and Imran Qureshi – interview

Husband and wife artist duo Imran Qureshi and Aisha Khalid prove that miniature painters can think big.

Pakistani artists Aisha Khalid and Imran Qureshi have challenged formulaic and restrictive stereotypes surrounding miniature painters for nearly two decades, emerging as two of the nation’s most visible neo-miniaturists. Art Radar spoke with Khalid and Qureshi about their connection with the miniature tradition and what makes their artwork anything but ordinary. 

Aisha Khalid, 'Pattern to Follow', 2010, gouache on wasli paper, 35.5 x 49". Image courtesy the artist and Chawkandi Gallery.

Aisha Khalid, ‘Pattern to Follow’, 2010, gouache on wasli paper, 35.5 x 49 in. Image courtesy the artist and Chawkandi Gallery.

Aisha Khalid is one of Pakistan’s most well-known contemporary artists, adept at exploring socio-political and global issues through an impressive range of media, including an artist book project, site-specific installations, miniature paintings, textiles and video. Graduating from the National College of Arts Lahore in 1997, Khalid won the Alice Award (Artist Book Category) in 2012 and was a finalist for the Jameel Prize (2011). Khalid’s work can be found in the permanent collections of the Sharjah Art Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the World Bank.

Imran Qureshi was born in 1972 and graduated from the National College of Arts Lahore in 1993, where he currently teaches in the same department from which he earned his BFA degree. One of the pioneers of the Neo Contemporary Miniature Art Movement, Qureshi was awarded Deutsche Bank’s Artist of the Year (2013) and the Sharjah Biennial 10 Premier Prize (2011). His work, much of it embellished with floral motifs juxtaposed with “grave imagery”, is found in permanent museum collections throughout the world, including the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, as well as a number of notable private collections. Recent exhibitions of his work include a Rooftop Garden Commission at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2013), a solo show at the Salsali Private Museum, and his most recent show at the Eli and Edyth Broad Art Museum in the United States from 9 May to 17 August 2014.

Art Radar spoke with the husband and wife duo to learn more about how they have updated the traditional foundations of miniature painting and asked them to comment on each other’s work.

How did you first become interested in miniature painting as a subject in college?

Imran Qureshi (IQ): I will have to go back to the history of the revival of miniature paintings at the National College of Arts Lahore in the late eighties and early nineties. Before that time, there was miniature painting at the college, but they were doing it as a traditional practice. Later on, they decided to make it a part of the other contemporary art practices after one of my professors, Professor Zahoor ul Akhlaq, went to the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum in London and saw a collection of miniature paintings. He then connected [contemporary] art practice with the traditional. It was still miniature painting, but done in a very contemporary way.

It was Akhlaq’s idea to establish a department of miniature painting. At that time, the National College of Arts had areas of specialisation in different media—painting, printmaking and sculpture. He decided to establish a department of miniature painting [in 1985] and they invited Professor Bashir Ahmed to teach it.

When I was a student at the National College of Arts, I was more into contemporary painting and not aware of this whole tradition of miniature painting. What I found really exciting was printmaking and I decided I would do my specialisation in that technique. Later on, however, I decided to make painting my area of specialisation and printmaking my elective, after taking an introductory class in miniature painting with Professor Ahmed when I was in Secondary Design in 1991. I questioned why he was always asking me to change my specialisation! But I decided to take his remarks seriously. He was not just doing it for fun, he was seeing something in my artwork. That’s why he asked me to join the miniature painting department.

I discussed this with a few of my friends who were doing miniature painting and seeing my work. I concluded that maybe I could only learn this [discipline] at the National College of Arts. Other genres I could do anywhere in the world, but I wanted to get a chance to learn miniature painting in such an intense, detailed way. So I quit the painting department and moved to the miniature painting department, and have been happy with the decision.

When I began taking miniature painting, there was this preconceived notion or idea that it was only about copying traditional miniatures and there was less margin to create or express yourself as an artist within that boundary. I disagreed with that idea. I decided to take it on as a challenge. I would do whatever I wanted to do, using the same traditions. That decision made me strong enough to be a part of this debate about traditional painting and whether it was just this exotic thing, a part of contemporary art practice or if I was just challenging different notions of my art practice within that traditional boundary.

Imran Qureshi, 'Bleed', 2013, acrylic paint and gold leaf on canvas, 206 x 274 cm. Private Collection.  Image Courtesy the artist and Corvi-Mora.

Imran Qureshi, ‘Bleed’, 2013, acrylic paint and gold leaf on canvas, 206 x 274 cm. Private Collection. Image courtesy the artist and Corvi-Mora.

Does the traditional school of miniature painting lend itself well to contemporary interpretation? How?

Aisha Khalid (AK): For me, miniature painting is a traditional technique. A traditional technique does not just mean application of paint, but the whole tradition around it. It’s the colours, how we look at it, the perspective. When I was at art college, I didn’t feel like I was trying to keep a traditional technique alive. It was just a technique for me. I grew up in a traditional family, in a traditional way. I like traditional techniques. My teacher was a traditionalist and very strict: we were not allowed to do any experimentation at that time, but only focused on learning skills.

I’ve now worked with the technique for the past fifteen years on my own. Now, the topics I address are contemporary—what’s happening with me and around me. I am independent and I get to use it in my own way. I don’t see any limitations when I am working with site-specific installations. I use the same technique. A very large-scale work is not that different from a miniature. It’s on the same traditional paper. I use colours the same way but how I use them [is different]. I work mostly with layers, which we were not allowed to do traditionally: when you paint a miniature painting, you leave space and then apply the colour. You are not allowed to overlap or paint again and again, but I always work like that. This technique is much more my own now.

You’ve both produced large-scale site-specific installations around the world. What challenges do you face as artists who are trained as traditional miniaturists regarding large-scale installations? What do you enjoy about these types of installations?

IQ: I never considered myself a traditional miniature painter, even when I was a student. I am an artist. I am a visual artist and I am doing what I want to do. Since I was trained as a miniature painter, I connect with that traditional genre, but it’s a naturally built connection to that traditional practice. It is not super-imposed. I do not have a label on my forehead that says “I am a miniature painter.”

What I want to do, I just do. I enjoy it. I don’t think that doing miniature painting has put any kind of pressure or boundaries when I make my artwork. My whole way of looking at things changed when I learned miniature painting. I started looking at the perspective in a different way and started stylising things in a different way. I started the idea of expressing some kind of narrative in the work in a very different way.

As a student, I was really frustrated with contemporary painting or other forms of art, and was into theatre, drama and poetry as extra credit activities. Together, these things helped me take up challenges in my art practice. The large-scale installations just happened to me. I thought about it and I did it. I never spent time thinking about different issues or problems of what might happen when I did a large-scale piece.

The first time I did a site-specific installation was at the Khoj Artists Workshop in India in 2001. The work was called Coming Down to Earth. I enjoyed the environment and that kind of workshop. We were fifteen international and Indian artists, living together under one roof. That environment inspired me.

Aisha Khalid, 'West looks East' (diptych), 2013, gouache on wasli paper, 20 x 27.5". Image courtesy the artist and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde.

Aisha Khalid, ‘West looks East’ (diptych), 2013, gouache on wasli paper, 20 x 27.5 in each panel. Image courtesy the artist and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde.

Tell us about the contemporary art scene in Pakistan. How has it changed and developed in the past five to ten years?

IQ: It has changed a lot. It’s really exciting. It’s always exciting to see young contemporary artists. There’s a diversity, another kind of energy because of the difficult times we are facing every day. I think that people are expressing their thoughts through their artwork and the idea of art making. Everything comes strongly, with a kind of energy you can see. I am very excited about the whole contemporary art scene in Pakistan.

The good thing is that the whole pressure of the global art scene and the international market, luckily, has not had a negative impact on the artists here. I think people are quite focused and sincere with their own art practices. If they are getting displayed in some international market, that’s another thing, but that’s not their priority. You can see their priorities through their art. Look at India’s contemporary art scene, for example. I’ve seen so many artists change their work to fulfill the requirements for the international market and become a biennale artist.  So far I think we are safe from that kind of thing.

AK: This is a very important time. I think every artwork is attached to what is happening in the environment and these last ten to twelve years have been very intense for this country. There was a war with the country next to Pakistan and we were also involved. These things really give something to art and the artist reflects on these political or international events. I always feel that the pure artist comes [through] when you are in conflict. I don’t see art coming from peace. I really need to see something strong to create.

Is Pakistani contemporary art important in both a regional and global context? Why?

AK: It’s getting more and more important. You can see that miniature painters are getting more opportunities. That’s because it’s a traditional technique and it is something that belongs to this area. It’s ours and the issues that the artists are addressing are also coming from here. Because of this, it’s getting attention from all over the world.

Imran Qureshi, 'And there will be a spring, when the garden will be all unblighted', 2014,  gouache on wasli paper,  12 x 9". Private collection. Image courtesy the artist and Gandhara Art Hong Kong.

Imran Qureshi, ‘And there will be a spring, when the garden will be all unblighted’, 2014, gouache on wasli paper,12 x 9 in. Private collection. Image courtesy the artist and Gandhara Art Hong Kong.

Some associate the colour red with violence, but you see it as a hopeful colour. Why?

IQ: I think it’s not like that. The colour red depicts hurt for me, but at the same time, when I paint [red] foliage, it just transforms into something else. They work together.

There was this whole incident where two brothers were killed in a remote area of Punjab. It was very horrifying, because somebody released the video and people were shocked to see the whole act on TV. At the time, everybody was saying that this is a very brutal thing and this is the end of civilised society, but the response was that people were called to action. They came out of their houses, were on the road, the newspaper, the TV and were calling each other.

I think that the response was so powerful and gave a kind of strength to a society that is still alive. These types of incidents are very unusual and the majority doesn’t want society to be like that. So many people came out! They spent many days on the road, demonstrating against this horrifying incident, working together.

Imran, when you spoke to Art Radar recently in Dubai, you said that Aisha’s work is better than yours. Can you explain what makes Aisha a great artist?

IQ: I said that because I like her work! She is one of my favourite artists from Pakistan. She’s using the same traditional technique of miniature painting, but she has transformed it into a completely new idea. Her work is very simple and quiet, but at the same time it’s very powerful. It says a lot. There is a diversity in her art practice that I don’t see in any other artist from the region. She’s working with textiles. People generally criticise miniature painters as they are restricted, their vision is very limited and somehow their practice becomes very formulaic. The way she explores textiles, the medium of video, her artist book project, her miniature painting, her large scale painting, her site-specific installations – Aisha is the best example showing them the other side. I don’t see this kind of approach in any other artist’s work.

Aisha Khalid,  'Yourself of Yourself', 2013, velvet and silk fabric and steel pins. Image  courtesy the artist and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde.

Aisha Khalid, ‘Yourself of Yourself’, 2013, velvet and silk fabric and steel pins. Image
courtesy the artist and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde.

What do you love most about working with textiles and embroidery? Is there a tradition in Pakistan of textile and embroidery work?

AK: This comes from my roots, my house, my mother. She taught us when I was a teenager. At that time, I was really not that interested and she didn’t force me to learn. She used to do embroidery, sewing and textiles. In Pakistan, it’s a tradition that you buy fabric, then you think about the design and then you sew it. There’s a whole process. I grew up with this type of situation, where these things were really common.

When I decided to go to art college, I wanted to join the textile department, but one of my professors said I should join the miniature painting department instead. However, I still remained fascinated by textiles. I like everything that involves my hands. I sew and embroider. That comes very naturally in my artwork.

Do you feel that both western and eastern establishments respond to spirituality in the same way?

AK: Yes. I didn’t know that before, but as an artist I am working with this aspect of spirituality and I am showing my work internationally. After showing my work, I see how people respond to the work in both the West and the East.

It’s so interesting to see how people react to my work. When I showed my artwork in London in 2010, I received amazing responses. I remember one experience in particular. The artwork was from my own interest in spirituality. It was something very personal and a way to connect to myself. I didn’t want to display everything to everyone. My work is very abstract. It’s not direct. It’s more symbolic.

During this show, there was a nine year old boy. He was just lying on the floor, in front of one of my paintings, writing. I was so curious and wondered what he was doing. I went over to him and asked him what he thought of the painting. What he had written was just a few words, but those words explained everything. I was so surprised to see that! How a nine year old boy from another country could see that was amazing. I’ve had similar experiences at other exhibitions, including the recent one in Hong Kong.

How do you address spirituality in your artwork?

AK: I am very inspired by Sufism. Sufism is the root of this culture. I’ve read a lot of Sufi teachers, such as Rumi, because the area where I live has many Sufi people. I am interested in poetry, the poetry of their lives. My artwork is based on my own experience and my own spiritual journey.

Imran Qureshi, 'opening word of this new scripture', 2013, gouache and gold leaf on wasli paper, 27 cm X 22 cm. Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image courtesy of the artist.

Imran Qureshi, ‘Opening Word of This New scripture’, 2013, gouache and gold leaf on wasli paper, 27 X 22 cm. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image courtesy of the artist.

Aisha, which of Imran’s artwork, installation or series do you like best? Why?

AK: My favourite is the Sharjah Biennale piece that he called Blessings Upon the Land of My Love. It’s really powerful and just went so perfectly with the architectural space and the energy of the building. It was just a perfect fit. When you stood in the middle of it, you really felt like you were inside the artwork and a part of the artwork.

You have recently shown your work side-by-side in Hong Kong. What is it like showing your work together, instead of separately at solo shows?

IQ: It was not a conscious decision to show together in Hong Kong, but most of the curators or gallerists think that it works well together. It’s not because we planned this. Our approaches are completely different, though the techniques are the same. At the same time, the interesting thing is that the pieces work together so well. There is a chemistry which creates a very good energy when put together.

Until recently, you have been sharing a studio together. How has that been for you?

IQ: We always enjoyed being in the studio together because we sat side-by-side. Sometimes we shared our paints. If I used the same green in my work and she used the same green in her work, it worked completely differently. One couldn’t say it was the same colour!

It’s always nice to work together in one studio, but these days our artwork has become bigger and the studio is not that big. So we have rented a space and now we try to work separately.

Lisa Pollman


Related Topics: classicism in contemporary art, interviews, miniatures, site-specific art, installation, video, Pakistani artists, textiles, art in Pakistan

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