Imran Qureshi, Where the Shadows are so Deep at the Barbican’s Curve Gallery

The contemporary Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi describes his own work as a creative impulse to “paint the process of miniature painting”, a practice found in the royal courts of Delhi at least five centuries ago. The artist’s most recent solo-exhibition, ‘Where the Shadows are so Deep’, at the Barbican’s Curve Gallery (18 February – 10 July 2016) calls attention to this artistic endeavor. Traditionally, miniature painting is known to be an art of mimicry, not an outcome of original creativity. Qureshi, however, has been described as a “master miniaturist” with “bigger things on his mind”.

Transforming the Curve into a darkened, mausoleum-like space, Qureshi’s miniatures appear dazzlingly illuminated and variably dispersed across the gallery. Remarkable in its quiet beauty, the exhibition shows the artist’s ability to think architecturally as well as painterly. Barbican’s commissioning is significant not only because it accommodates for Qureshi’s more recent explorations into site-specific works, but because it justly promotes a non-European artist into the realm of contemporary art.

It would be wrong to regard Qureshi’s work as merely a “refresh” of the sixteenth-century Mughal genre of painting. Rather, his equally daring and enchanting works deconstruct the practice of miniature painting, making way for the artist’s own personal touch as well as taking on a new kind of political symbolism. Qureshi’s works address the “historically recent” formation of the state of Pakistan and its turbulent history. While Qureshi successfully captures the “essence” of the Indo-Turko-Iranian miniature style, (paying homage to his own heritage), his priority is to challenge the essential characteristics of the genre.

Qureshi is not alone in the contemporary revival of miniature painting. Along with US-based Shahzia Sikander and the Singh Twins of London, he is at the forefront of this renaissance. Since Britain’s colonial ruling of India the genre had been in decline. Now works such as ‘EnTWINed’ (2009) by the Singh Twins, which is featured in Tate Britain’s exhibition ‘Artist and Empire’ (2016), offers a rebooting of the former genre that acknowledges a wider 21st century audience. Qureshi is one of a group of younger artists with Pakistani heritage to add his voice to this new postcolonial discursive space – Sikander and the Singh twins being part of this chorus. Their work will be featured in this year’s Royal Academy Summer Show. Their aim is to adapt a cultural practice once confined to the opulent courts of the Mughals to the cultural hybridity of a contemporary globalized world.

In the 1990s Qureshi attended Lahore’s National College of Art, where he was introduced to the practice of miniature painting by his ‘ustad’, or, ‘master’ Bashir Ahm