After spending the day with Imran Qureshi touring all three (!) of his shows exhibiting in Lahore – a solo at the new, ‘game-changing’ public contemporary art gallery The Barracks, a group show with late legends Shakir Ali and Zahoor ul Akhlaq at the new White Wall Gallery, and a solo at COMO Museum – another interview I had done sprang to mind. It was with Edward Gibbs, chairman of Sotheby’s for Middle East and South Asia, during his visit to Lahore in February 2020 for the Lahore Biennale, who asserted that “art is never going to speak to everybody”.

In contrast, for Imran Qureshi, the nationally and internationally celebrated visual artist, curator, and educator at the National College of Arts (NCA), a key metric for success is that ‘ordinary people’ unexpectedly walk into his show at The Barracks, situated in the historic Nasser Bagh. The Barracks, an underground bunker built in 1948, was converted into a breathtaking art gallery with the vision and support of Muhammad Tahir Wattoo, the Director General of Parks and Horticulture Authority (PHA) and Imran Ahmed, a fellow artist and educator at NCA. By ordinary, Qureshi means the working class man whose daily routine does not ever involve coming face to face with what we know as high art.

Imran Qureshi has arrived at the stage in his career where he exhibited at major museums and galleries all over the world. Now, he is interested in elevating the way we display and view contemporary art in his hometown of Lahore. Entering the Barracks involves walking through the gardens of Nasser Bagh, and descending the gray steps, where Imran Qureshi’s blue and sea green splashes with the signature white foliage instantly transport you.

The steps lead you to a site-specific installation the artist has become known for (ever since painting the rooftop of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2013). ‘Halqa-e baam tale, sayo'n ka thehra hua neel’ is an experience signature to Imran Qureshi – to take a space, whether underground or aboveground, indoors or outdoors, a museum, a house, or a barracks, contemporary or historic – and to strip it of its significance and confine you to the parameters of his own making. The specially designed circular lights give you the illusion that you’re standing under the sky, and the blue of the paint makes you recall the lake just outside, reflecting the sky. It is a peculiar sensation when you know you’re in a basement.

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This illusion of nature reminds one of the rapid speed at which we are hurtling toward the extinction of actually experiencing nature in real life. Is it a fictional dystopia or an inevitable reality, where we could be sheltering in a bunker situated on the edge of the historic, lovely Nasser bagh with its gardens, bridges and lake, from an environmental catastrophe and looking to the floor to see a piece of the sky? (Though, of course, from the months of November to February, with smog choking Lahore, the sky is pretty much hidden from view.)

‘Ziina ziina utar rahi hai raat’ charts the movement of the sun until we reach a state of darkness. Qureshi’s evocation of blooms and foliage are the constant ray of hope throughout his exhibition. This work connects to ‘Ye daagh daagh ujala’, an oval painting, floating and indeed stretching the white, circular room it rests in, deliberately creating tension in the otherwise serene room, introducing discomfort. The oval itself “can be an abstract portrait of someone” according to the artist, since “in Western history and in our own region, the oval is used as a portrait’s presentation.” Both of these works have added gravitas due to the fact that they are floating in the air, “sculpturally present” as the artist says, rather than hanging by a nail on the wall as is typical of gallery artwork.

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One circular room holds miniature paintings and a gold-leaf 3-D version of one motif: the missile. “When I came in The Barracks, in the environment of the garden, the missile had relevance again,” Qureshi explains. The manufactured missile hidden underground is contrasted with the garden’s ecosystem, the wild spread of nature as the canvas for the bloodshed and destruction of the missile.

Our contrasting desires are inextricably linked and yet diametrically opposed, our unquenchable thirst for power and profit, in this case through arms sales, clashes with our survival instinct to save the earth we live on. We are both creators and destroyers, Imran Qureshi reminds us, and sometimes in the creation of something, like the missile, we destroy humanity itself and the Earth with it. And yet, sometimes in the creation of something, like this unparalleled artistic experience, you destroy only preconceptions, walls, disconnection, ennui, and rekindle an appreciation for your city, for art, for beauty once again.

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Whereas The Barracks show is more about ecological violence, Qureshi’s COMO Museum show is about direct violence. COMO was originally a residence, and Qureshi takes advantage of the initial home-like impression, before the visitor suddenly finds himself in the scene of a violent incident. At COMO, the artist returns to blood red for his site-specific installation. The impact is intense, especially considering the brutality we have witnessed on our screens since Israel’s brutal invasion of Gaza.

“It’s an unexpected experience as soon as you enter the museum space, you feel like you’re in an empty house and there has been an incident and you’re investigating the incident,” says the artist. He continues, “When you come to the first floor, after experiencing the ground floor, you’ll continue that experience in this big room which has a big installation of broken tiles, around 54 large scale tiles, installed as one body of work. There are incidents that get media hype, then they’re forgotten; those events become history like a museum object. And that is the experience I have created.”

The photographs on display represent memories from Imran Qureshi’s daily life, taken on his iPhone, over the course of ten years – “these are like the diary pages of my personal experiences, about my city. I try to capture those things with double meanings; in all these pictures you’ll see the city life, but you’ll also see a commentary, social or political or on the environment.”

The ground floor of Imran Qureshi’s COMO show represents the violence of our present, the first floor represents memories, and the rooftop is an absolute explosion of colour, buoyancy, playfulness, nostalgia and lightness. The artist is expertly “playing with the visitor’s psyche” as he puts it.

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The rooftop is a very big, interactive installation in collaboration with weavers of charpai – a traditional woven bed. “We think, in our fast-paced life, there is no place for that tradition. But I think there is always a place for it; it is our job to make a place for it. The idea of rooftops, the use of charpai, families, social norms, the fading away of that with time – I’m recalling that to the visitor in a nostalgic way.” Qureshi continues: “Visitors can walk, sit, lie down, eat and drink on it, and maybe view our tradition and heritage in a more positive light again.”

What’s significant about Imran Qureshi’s third show at the White Wall Gallery is the link between a legendary artist whose student became a legend himself. Shakir Ali taught Zahoor ul Akhlaq who taught Imran Qureshi. And now Imran Qureshi is teaching us: this is how you make art, this is how you display art, and this is how you see art. We don’t need to hang an Imran Qureshi on a wall to make it our own – a connection deeper and more meaningful than commerce is forged between artist and viewer just by experiencing what he has so thoughtfully and distinctively curated for us.

Imran Qureshi’s show ‘The Garden’ at The Barracks, Nasser Bagh, is on till 31st May (with a possible extension). The COMO Museum show, ‘Home’, is on till 30th June. The White Wall Gallery show closed on 20th April.

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All photos are from Imran Qureshi's show up at Nasir Bagh Barracks and Como Museum in Lahore. Photos by the artist.

Tehmina Khan has been covering art and lifestyle in Pakistan for eight years, an unexpected swerve from her economics and public policy background. Now that her two young boys no longer need her as intensely, she is focusing on reviving her core, neurons and non-toddler relationships.

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