Passing through the towering arched gateway of the Khatoon-i-Pakistan Government Girls School, one does not expect to find such a gem quietly hidden away from the chaos of the city. It is a surreal experience to walk past the sprawling gardens that lead up to the 65-year-old campus building refurbished and run by the Zindagi Trust under its School Reform initiative. On this Sunday afternoon, I find internationally acclaimed artist Imran Qureshi, flushed and covered in paint, two days deep into his site-specific mural on a sunny terrace overlooking the coastal city.
Originally from Hyderabad, an alumnus of the National College of Arts (NCA) and now based in Lahore, Qureshi is part of the first group of artists who began experimenting with traditional miniature to interpret it through contemporary forms and narratives. “I had an issue with this idea of copying with no creativity or innovation,” he says. “I wanted to do a lot more in life, so I went with the intention of challenging that.”
From there, Qureshi’s work organically developed into his signature minimalist forms of violent colour splashes tamed through meditative foliage, with an underlying socio-political commentary on the prevalence of violence in our society. “One of my inspirations has been the Lahore Museum collection, the landscapes, the foliage, especially the Kangra Hill and Basohli Hill miniatures. Then, slowly, the foliage became the main subject of my work.” However, it was his origins from Sindh, growing up at the peak of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement ’s power that fueled the narrative. “My work is all about something beautiful emerging out of something that looks very violent and aggressive.”
Imran Qureshi creates a site-specific mural at a government school reflecting life, hope, water and the city of Karachi
For this particular project, titled Out Of Blue, Qureshi replaces the red typically seen in his works with blue. “Blue is about water and about life,” he says. It also reminds me of the blue pottery of Sindh. Usually, I work with red, but the context of this space is different and I felt that something so violent would be inappropriate. This piece is more hopeful. It is a tribute to this effort of Shehzad Roy [founder and president of Zindagi Trust] and the entire team,” he explains. The blue flows out from the classroom windows overlooking the terrace and spreads out across it. “There is a lot of fluidity in it. As someone coming from out of town, I associate Karachi with water and the sea. These scattered fragments are spreading out towards the city, creating a dialogue with it,” says Qureshi.
It isn’t always easy working on site, however, with weather conditions playing a major role in how the work emerges. “The element of wind is very strong in Sindh, especially on this terrace, and it also contributed to my work. If I wanted to make a mark here, the wind would take it somewhere else,” he says.
Qureshi first became involved with this project when he accepted Roy’s invitation to visit the school. What the school has achieved brings it at par with, and in some cases, beyond elite private schools, while catering to girls from low-income areas. “I was really impressed, especially with what they are doing in the art classes. The kids are so bright. I spent a few hours and I was so happy. I felt like I should do something for them. It was a very spontaneous decision.”
This project in a government school sets a significant precedent for public art and art education in Pakistan, a country where there is no national curriculum for art. “I think it will be very inspirational for the kids and for the general public as well. It is not about me doing something, but how others see it and approach it and take it forward. I feel that once you have reached a certain level, then it is time for you to give back to society.”
“Out Of Blue” was inaugurated by Zindagi Trust at Khatoon-i-Pakistan Government Girls School on March 7, 2020
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 15th, 2020