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LONDON — Pakistan is not an old nation state, but its history — and, indeed, its present — is uncommonly steeped in blood. In the 20th century, as the country, riven by internal tensions, was being pulled apart by conflict with both India and a nascent Bangladesh, Faiz Ahmed Faiz wrote revolutionary poetry in Urdu lamenting a homeland that was a “wilderness of yellowing leaves,” a “carnival of suffering.” Here, he wrote, “Where the earth is so unclean / Where the shadows are so deep,” truth-seekers will be confounded by darkness. Clear-sighted as it is, Faiz’s poetry — celebrated for its ability to balance a delicate, classical formalism of diction and structure with political awareness and a conversational tone — is unremittingly tender: a love letter to a place and a people beset by violence.
Faiz’s verse is threaded through with delicate, insistent ribbons of blood — an aesthetic shared by one of Pakistan’s preeminent modern miniaturists, Imran Qureshi, whose latest exhibition at the Barbican Centre’s Curve Gallery borrows its title from Faiz’s work. Where the Shadows are So Deep displays 35 new paintings, whose opulent color scheme and intricate designs glow gem-like against the dim, arched stretch of the gallery. Gold highlights glitter beguilingly in the gloom, set amidst white walls that are intermittently sullied by dark crimson splashes of blood — an effect achieved using red acrylic that has become something of Qureshi’s trademark since he picked up the practice in response to suicide bombings that struck Lahore in March 2010.
Born in Hyderabad in 1962, Qureshi trained in Lahore, studying the art of miniature painting — a style that thrived in the Mughal Court from the early 16th century to the mid 19th. Like Faiz, Qureshi uses a classical medium to examine the contemporary realities of Pakistan to devastating effect, combining stylized panache with complex political allusions. Each painting in the exhibition is a delicate landscape, often suspended on a traditional curved horizon line — an element inspired by the gallery’s architecture that lends the exquisite paintings a mythic quality. But this sense of timelessness is gradually eroded as the exhibition wears on, violence corrupting the miniatures’ balanced perfection. Having established a classical composition, Qureshi’s swift shattering of that blueprint completely disarms the viewer. Where the Shadows are So Deep is almost narrative in its organization, escalating towards breakdown.
Trees are quasi-anthropomorphized players in this narrative: the focal point and central figures of each landscape, limbs laced with red vines like creeping arteries that are both constricting and life-giving. The trees’ leaves have bloody tendencies; autumnal or aflame, they erratically burst into inky splotches of red. Blood dominates even the initial paintings, crimson splashes overlaying the vibrant ochre, aquamarine, gold, emerald of the landscapes. “Now everything is like my heart,” Faiz wrote decades before, in words Qureshi may as well have taken as a directive regarding his palette, “a color at the edge of blood.” In the same poem, Faiz goes on to describe a world composed of:
the grey of your absence, the color of poison, of thorns,
the gold when we meet, the season ablaze,
the yellow of autumn, the red of flowers, of flames,
and the black when you cover the earth
with the coal of dead fires.
As the exhibition progresses, grays and blacks come to prominence. The content shifts from elegant, upright trees to falling boughs, smoking branches; the world splits apart, sometimes quite literally, as miniatures are jarringly spliced in two. Here, a couple of trees look like their “brains” have exploded, red veins waving, tentacle-like, from open tree-skulls. In one painting, two trees lie side by side, roots exposed, like dead soldiers laid out on spherical ground. In the next, any semblance of order has disappeared: a borderless white field covered in staccato vertical lines of red and blue; gray, ghostly tree branches reach upwards from the splotchy base, towards the deluge. The effect — a miniature without center, without form, purposely without finesse — is almost nihilistic.
Dragonflies buzz, darkly busy, reminiscent of drones, through these later paintings: insubstantial menaces whirring easily across Qureshi’s curved earth. In one miniature — a blue square of sky on gold backing — a swarm of dragonflies process from the left towards a blood-spattered massacre on the right. In another, the black insects hover over black ground, beneath a red-streaked sky. The only human figure in the exhibition, a hazy self-portrait, shows the artist amidst tall plants, casually dressed in a T-shirt, up to his thighs in molten gold, with dragonflies flitting innocently overhead.
As the miniatures grow grimmer and less predictable, so too does the exhibition space. The paintings are brilliantly lit against dim surroundings — spaced at varying heights and in different formations — but as the exhibition goes on, the ambient light reduces to nothing. The gallery slowly widens, expanding from a narrow walkway to a more cavernous gloaming. As the light grows less, blood blooms abundantly. Red acrylic smears across floor and walls, floral patterns occasionally unfurling from incoherent splashes, boisterous carmine sprays spattering over the paintings’ protective glass. One explosion of scarlet far above head height looks as though someone has been strung up and shot against the wall. A body seems to have been dumped and dragged behind a corner, leaving viscous, incarnadine licks of flowers in its wake.
“Yes, these forms stem from the effects of violence,” Qureshi told the Metropolitan Museum in the lead-up to his 2011 Roof Garden commission, which saw him adorn the Central Park-side rooftop with the same blood-spattered finesse, delicate floral spirals exploding, in Fibonacci swirls, out of vermilion splotches. “They are mingled with the color of blood, but, at the same time, this is where a dialogue with life, with new beginnings and fresh hope starts.”
The deteriorating trajectory of Where the Shadows Are So Deep could be tinged with despair, but Qureshi refuses to succumb to hopelessness. Instead, his fecund miniatures brim with the possibility of regeneration; the exhibition’s composition gradually comes to seem more cyclical than linear. Savage slashes of blood metastasize out into creeping flowers; the final tree, flame-haired against black ground, is exuberantly entwined with green vines. Life’s beauty and its anguish are inextricably linked, Qureshi seems to say. From winter comes spring: from sorrow, hope. Where the shadows are deepest, light may still be found.
Imran Qureshi’s Where the Shadows are So Deep continues at the Barbican Centre’s Curve Gallery (Silk Street, London EC2Y 8DS) through July 10.