New York City’s Met Museum sets a high bar for protest art

Judith Reynolds/Special to the Herald

Pakistani artist and teacher Imran Qureshi works on his 8,000-square foot untitled painting in May on the rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Chances are you’ll find a flower painting or two in the upcoming Annual Juried Exhibit at the Durango Arts Center.

Scheduled to open June 21, the exhibit is in its 37th year. That alone is something to celebrate.

A few weeks ago I saw the most provocative flower painting I’ve ever encountered: Imran Qureshi’s 8,000-square-foot floor painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The Met commissioned Qureshi, 41, a Pakistani painter, to create an installation for the Roof Garden. The work carries no title, but its imagery and references are entirely clear – and disturbing. Did I say provocative?Qureshi is well known in Pakistan and Europe but little known in the United States. A contemporary painter and professor, he teaches at the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan. He’s known for updating the ancient tradition of miniature illumination. In his part of the world, the Indian subcontinent, courtly manuscript painting carries cultural weight similar to the power of Italian Renaissance art in the West.Detailed narrative painting flourished in the Mughal Empire in the 16th century and famous manuscripts fill museums, including the Met’s spectacular holdings.

Qureshi has combined the techniques and motifs of this Islamic art form with a contemporary conceptual approach. That sounds like jargon, I know. What it means is, Qureshi’s miniature paintings look like old, pristine illustrations until you look closely and see current references about politics, life and death.

In the last few years, Qureshi’s practice has expanded beyond his reinvention of the miniature format. He has created installations in architectural spaces all over the world – Karachi, New Delhi, Berlin, London and now New York.

At the Met, Qureshi turned the enormous roof garden floor into an enormous flower painting – with a significant twist. Working in one color, red, Qureshi began by splattering buckets of paint everywhere. Consequently, the roof garden looks like a crime scene or the site of a terrorist massacre.

That’s the point.

The MET project is Qureshi’s response to the violence that has escalated in his country, in fact, all over the globe.

At the press opening, he talked about surviving terrorist attacks and seeing the streets of his town covered in blood. He went into the studio and began experimenting on a scale larger than his manuscript paintings.

At the Met, he said, he randomly splashed red paint all over the roof garden’s floor. When he stopped, he developed beautiful images of flowers inside the chaos – as a counter statement.

“These delicate forms are mingled with the color of blood,” he said at the briefing, pointing to several exquisite renderings of dahlias at his feet. “Yes, there is an overwhelming image of death, but at the same time there is a dialogue with life, with new beginnings ... and fresh hope.”

Downstairs, in the newly reconfigured galleries of the art of Arab lands, you can see ancient miniature paintings from several manuscripts including the Book of Kings. It is astonishing to see how those traditions have persisted – and changed – with Qureshi’s installation on the roof.

In May, after grading my students’ exams from my art history class at Fort Lewis College, I treated myself to a trip to New York City. I timed it to include the press opening for the Met’s unusual commission. It was well worth it. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic.

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