My last tour was planned around the opening of a new gallery by Damien Hirst, Newport Street Gallery. This gallery puts Lambeth, just south of the river, firmly on the art map. Hirst’s gallery, showing works from his own art collection, is a spectacular space. Converting a workshop that used to provide theatre scenes for the West End, architects Caruso St John, who also redeveloped Tate Britain, added two more buildings making a staggering total of 37000ft.
Their vision and finish is of the highest quality. Amongst other things, the gallery has an 11m high space for large sculpture installations, a viewing gallery, a spiral staircase made to resemble the staircases in 19th century mansions, and an enormous LED screen on the façade for showcasing art. Its restaurant, Pharmacy2, is one of Hirst’s famous art installations, and a collaboration with restaurateur Mark Hix. Independent of the art that will be shown here, the space is already a success and a destination.
But more surprising and hidden away was a show at Corvi-Mora, by husband and wife Imram Qureshi and Aisha Khalid. Making our way in between council blocks, we stumbled on a black garage door, with a tiny door sign. This is the joint gallery space of Corvi-Mora and Greengrassi, two contemporary commercial galleries both lead by Italian gallerists. The setting is highly unassuming, but once inside a wonderful airy space opens up filled with exquisite paintings. The exhibition is called “Other States, Other Lives, Other Souls” and it truly feels like stepping into another world.
The works are all abstract. Imram’s deep red acrylic paintings, some on canvas and one on a splendid background of gold leaf, are alive and visceral, whereas his wife Aisha’s gouaches are more controlled geometric patterns, laid on by hand in a painstakingly precise manner. The artists each have their own and very independent practice, but here their styles work very well together. Both were trained in Pakistan at the National College of Art in Lahore, which has a famous miniature department. The department not only trains young art students in the 16th century Mughal tradition of miniature, but encourages them to then use this tradition as a language to express their own contemporary views. Shazia Sikander, represented in London by Pilar Corrias, is another very successful graduate of the College.
To understand these rich works it is important to know the artists’ wider practice. Khalid not only makes abstract gouache paintings, but also works with video, photography and installation. One of her best known works is the Kashmiri Shawl, which was first shown at the Sharjah Biennial in 2011 and travelled to the V&A in where it won the Jameel prize in 2011. A large shawl was suspended from the ceiling, designed in gold paisley and florals and with a luxurious feel. On the back side, however, Khalid inserted thousands of gold pins in a highly labour-intensive process. The shawl functions as a screen - between East and West, men and women, beauty and violence.
Using processes based on textile traditions, Khalid’s seemingly decorative work thus functions on a deeper, more complex level. The geometric gouaches shown at Corvi-Mora refer to the strict Islamic tradition which highly values the decorative and never shows any faces, but at the same time they silently criticize this tradition. Hiding behind the strict decorative boundaries is a voice that is very subtly screaming to be heard. This tension between constraint and emotion is really palpable in Khalid’s work.
To see examples of Qureshi’s broader practice, we don’t have to look far. The show at Corvi-Mora coincides with a major public commission of Imram Qureshi at the Barbican, which has recently started commissioning work by contemporary artists for its interesting architectural space ‘The Curve’. In his installation Where The Shadows are so Deep we see a completely different side to Qureshi’s work. The walls of The Curve are painted a dark grey, and 35 tiny miniature paintings of trees and nature adorn the walls. But where the style of these works is traditional, at a closer look they reveal a darker and more contemporary side. Thin red paint flows from the canvas onto the ceilings and floors of the gallery space, forming a strangely beautiful mixture of blood and foliage.
This mixture of the decorative with a much darker imagery is what Qureshi’s art does so well. Qureshi words it beautifully: “For me it’s like life. And then I paint the opposite of it – the stains that look like blood represent violence; they function like a violent act against the carefully painted foliage. So life and destruction unite in a single image. That was the idea.” The 2010 Lahore bombings had an immense influence on his art. From that moment on Qureshi realised that as an artist he needed to express and give voice to the political situation in Pakistan. For him, living in a country which faces acute political difficulties gives his art a certain urgency, making the artworks more emotionally charged and intense than those produced in a perfect environment.
His ambition did not go unnoticed. In 2013, besides being chosen as Deutsche Bank's artist of the year, Qureshi was chosen as the first artist for one of America’s biggest public commissions: a yearly site-specific installation on the roof of New York’s Metropolitan Museum. In his installation How Many Rains Must Fall before The Stains Are Washed Clean, spatters of blood are mixed with carefully painted foliage derived from miniature painting. Set against the new York skyline which now painfully misses its Twin Towers, this must have been a very powerful sight.
What is most poignant about Qureshi, however, is that he refuses to let war and violence take over. Qureshi and Khailid both emphasise that for them, Pakistan is their home , where they bring up their two sons, and it is a beautiful place. In Qureshi’s words: “Whenever a bomb blast happens, a landscape full of life would suddenly transform into something else. But then I see people responding to it like they didn’t used to 20 years ago; they come out onto the road and talk about it, and suddenly that bloodied landscape was full of life and hope again.”
To find beauty in a world surrounded by violence. In the light of this week’s bombings in Brussels, Qureshi’s words are more current than ever. I urge you to go and see these artists – in London or wherever their promising career takes them next.
Aisha Khalid / Imran Qureshi, Other States, Other Lives, Other Souls, Corvi-Mora, until 16th April
Imran Qureshi, Where the Shadows are so Deep, The Curve, Barbican, until 10th July
Quotes by Imran Qureshi from Imram Qureshi, Traditional, Abstract and Site-Specific, by Lucy Rees, Flash Art Asia 4, January 2013