Artists’ work: Of similarities and differences

Published December 6, 2015
You who are my love and my life’s enemy too, 2015, Imran Qureshi
You who are my love and my life’s enemy too, 2015, Imran Qureshi

This year’s Venice Biennale had the very first Indo-Pak joint pavilion “My East is Your West” that offered a strong contrast between the softly reflexive works of Shilpa Gupta from Bombay and the loudly spectacular works of Rashid Rana from Lahore. Yet both addressed a shared theme of territorial location and dislocation.

Comparisons may well be odious but are often helpful, especially to the viewer in a dazed state of confusion after seeing too much art. Where the Biennale excess of imagery forces us to scan, this event asked us to slow down and listen to others. Similarly, to compare two exhibitions by South Asian artists in a European capital undergoing extreme stress may help understand the bigger picture through looking at the particular, the macro through the micro. Notwithstanding their differences, Indian artist, Rina Banerjee’s exhibition “Human Traffic” at Galerie Nathalie Obadia in Paris and Pakistani artist, Imran Qureshi’s show “Idea of a Landscape” at Galerie Thaddeus Ropac, Paris share a concern with addressing history through the everyday.

Since Qureshi’s nomination as Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year in 2013, this is his first solo show in Paris. It reveals the challenge he imposes on himself to paint on a large scale in a gestural manner — light years away from the familiar detailed delicacy of his miniature painting. The Western contact with abstract expressionism leads the viewer to an expectation of corporeal abandon in the likes of Pollock or de Kooning. However, the initial impression of resemblance between Qureshi’s splattering and Pollock’s drips is deconstructed on looking closer. Gradually the viewer may come to grasp that the body language is different, how this relates to cultural differences is the bigger question.

Indian artist, Rina Banerjee, and Pakistani artist, Imran Qureshi, are conscious of their post-colonial predicament but Qureshi re-invents traditional practice as a form of resistance, while Banerjee recycles Orientalism as a tool of deconstruction

The artist’s handling of paint on a large scale still makes use of his training as a miniaturist, the brushwork may feel freer due to its ease in covering larger spaces including walls, streets, rooftops and courtyards as well as canvasses, yet on close observation it reveals itself to be wrist-bound rather than embodied. The presence of a few small figurative paintings, as Qureshi says, “To make the connection with the tradition”, reassure viewers of his acclaimed mastery of miniature practice.

In contrast, his recent experimental drawings on paper reveal his ongoing determination to extend the parameters of the field, to stretch his lines and to animate his marks towards a truer transfer of the emotions he feels in counteracting violence. In the spirit of Gandhian ‘homespun’, his hand-made works make vibrant pleas for peace. Conscious of their fragile beauty, he wants to make a link between ethics and aesthetics, to remind us that in between bomb blasts there lies hope.

She was now in western style dress, 2011, Rina Banerjee
She was now in western style dress, 2011, Rina Banerjee

Born in Calcutta, raised in London and living in New York, Rina Banerjee is a truly cosmopolitan artist. Her work shows hints of a common Mughal heritage in her finely drawn profiles of females dancing in pastoral landscapes but humour manipulates them away from lyricism into defiance, they are cheeky seductresses. Other such brazen appropriations include erotic figuration from Tantric sculptures, references to African fetishism and to Japanese manga. Her paintings and sculptures are metaphorical curiosity cabinets stuffed with trophies and relics from colonial collecting. Moulding weird and wonderful objects into ornamental chandeliers or geological puddings, Banerjee affirms that, like potlatch, more is definitely more.

Satirising popular references such as the Taj Mahal, she juxtaposes sacred and secular, glitter and grunge in her hybrid mish-mash of fat and feathers, light bulbs and plaits of human hair. Her irreverence is framed by a surrealist play with language forming outlandish titles, often more than 40 words in length. An exotic bird wearing a pink tutu is entitled, “She was now in Western style dress covered in part of Empires’ ruffle and red dress, had a foreign and peculiar race, a Ganesha who had lost her head, was thrown across sea until herself shipwrecked. A native of Bangladesh lost foot to root in Bidesh, followed her mother full stop on forehead, trapped tongue of horn and grew ram-like under stress, 2011.”

Hers is a world apart from that of Qureshi. His mood is quiet and meditative, hers is vociferous and rhetorical. His narrative is metaphysical; Banerjee’s is ‘in your face’ physical. Both artists are conscious of their post-colonial predicament but whereas Qureshi re-invents traditional practice as a form of resistance, Banerjee recycles orientalism as a tool of deconstruction. Both make use of irony but differ due to geography and time. Banerjee’s irony has the ease of diasporan distance, Qureshi’s irony lies in mimesis; his meticulously crafted technique mirrors the interface of everyday life and risk. As with the joint Indo-Pak show in Venice, these two Parisian exhibitions offer particular South Asian responses to real and symbolic violence.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, December 6th, 2015


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