Delicate, exquisite miniatures adorn Ikon’s white walls, their gilded borders and highlights dimly glowing under the spotlights. A small self-portrait near the exhibition entrance gives us a first glimpse of the artist. Imran Qureshi’s talent as a miniaturist is obvious; his self-portrait calls to mind the jewel-like Jacobean portraits of Isaac Oliver in the pose and fine details of his clothing. Nearby there are delicate manuscript leaves decorated with scrolling foliate borders that surround more miniatures, so vivid and detailed that they could have been made by any medieval master.
However, many of these miniatures are not what they seem. In Opening Word of This New Scripture (2013) the artist kneels in the middle of a Mughal walled garden, grinning as he works while dragon flies dart around his feet. He appears to be painting delicate floral patterns into pools of blood. In Blessings Upon the Land of My Love (2011) similar walled gardens are drenched in the same blood red. Manuscript leaves depict nuclear warheads sprouting out of the ground like deadly cabbages in works including Kagaz Kay Sanam (2011), referencing the Indian-Pakistani arms race of the 1990s. Almost all of the miniatures are splashed and splattered with blood-red paint so that the exhibition space resembles a crime scene.
Qureshi may be a master of the ancient arts of miniature painting – he teaches others the techniques at the National College of Arts in Lahore, where he learnt the craft – but his works are full of references to issues of the here and now. He has taken an historic, and historically political, art form and injected contemporary relevance. The miniatures perhaps sum up the beauty and brutality of contemporary society.
Elsewhere Qureshi has taken elements of his miniatures and exploded them on to large canvases and installations. The blood-red paint that flows through the whole exhibition appears to be magnified, with the ghostly pale outlines of leaves and scrolling stems weaving their way through it. In Give and Take (2013), two huge golden egg-like ovals are covered in delicate petals emerging from splashes and tendrils of blood. These leaves and blossoms are reminders of hope and life, even in the midst of apparent carnage. On large canvases at the back of the space the red paint has been poured and allowed to run, forming organic, tree-like shapes.
Many of the works in this exhibition are concerned with conflict and injustice and nowhere is this more keenly felt that in the upper reaches of the exhibition. Here the bloodbath reaches a climax. There is a sense of unease; splashes and spots of blood red become streams, as the paint flows across the floor into puddles, though still sprouting with blossom and leaves. Turning to look further into the space you are suddenly confronted by what appears to be a huge fleshy mound. And they still seek traces of blood (2013) may resemble a pile of carcasses but it is in fact the product of hours of painstaking crumpling of posters from old Qureshi exhibitions by the Ikon team. The effect is impressive, the mound perfectly framed by an Ikon archway, but also chilling – a powerful reminder of a multitude of atrocities committed around the world.
If you haven’t yet had a chance to explore the exhibition there’s still time, you can catch it until 25 January.
For more information head over to www.ikon-gallery.org