By H.E. Mr. Suljuk Mustansar Tarar
The National College of Arts, Lahore is one of the few places in the world where traditional miniature has been taught for long and a degree is awarded in miniature painting. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s few of the graduates started to experiment with ‘modernity’ and contemporary or neo-miniature evolved. Contemporary miniature from Pakistan is a powerful genre that has been recognized across the world. Imran Qureshi who graduated from NCA in 1993 is among the leading Pakistani artists who laid the foundation of contemporary miniature. He has received several national and global accolades.
Traditional miniature painting documented different facets of high life of royalties including in the Mughal South Asia. In time different princely states in the sub-continent further evolved the Mughal miniature into local styles like the Pahari school, which also started depicting everyday life scenes including sporting activities of the time. One of my favorite Pahari miniature which is in the collection of Lahore Museum is a portrait of a dapper lady playing with a red ball. It is a rare work because typically miniatures paintings show sporting activities like wrestling, hunting, chess or polo.
As the British consolidated their rule over subcontinent, the Company school of painting emerged which catered for the aesthetics of colonial rulers and was a mix of European and miniature painting. The British also introduced cricket to the subcontinent and it is today a game played and followed by most Pakistanis at home and abroad. In the Netherlands there are a few cricket clubs where Pakistani origin cricket enthusiasts play and practice. Only last year the Punjab Cricket Club of Rotterdam won a Dutch championship. The Dutch national cricket team has also done well and includes a number of Pakistani origin players. Pakistan is a world class producer of sporting goods to the world and exports around $ 200 Millions worth of sporting goods annually.
Pakistan Super League (PSL) was founded in 2015. It is a professional cricket league currently contested by 6 cricket teams of different Pakistani cities. PSL’s 2022 season was played in February. One of the PSL teams is Islamabad United (IU) owned by Ali Naqvi who along with Amna Tirmizi Naqvi has played an important role in promoting Pakistani arts through their AAN Art Space and Museum. With his long association with the art world, Naqvi thought of the opportunity to mainstream art using the most popular sport in Pakistan. Without being prescriptive considering the “gestural abstraction of Imran Qureshi,” he asked him to bridge art and cricket. Qureshi found the idea interesting and gave a life of its own to the project.
When Imran Qureshi told me about IQxIU (Imran Qureshi X Islamabad United) art project my mind immediately went to “Lady playing with a red ball” and that Pahari miniature of 1760’s attributed to famous miniature artists of his times Nainsukh seemed to me a contemporary work inspired by game of cricket.
The common response for an art project would be for a visual artist to go to a cricket stadium and create a piece of art but Imran Qureshi with his ingenuity thought of bringing the cricketers to his studio in Lahore and engaged them in the process of creating art. There, he explained them his work and concept. He wanted the cricketers to understand the work and relate to it. This aroused interest of sportsmen in Qureshi’s work. Qureshi has in his oeuvre moved way beyond the traditional miniature practice. He is also known for his large-scale installations done in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Sharjah Biennale, London, Paris and elsewhere in the world.
Despite the larger size works Qureshi still retains miniature’s discipline, finesse and aesthetics. Qureshi’s vast experience of large-scale installations became useful in the IQxIU art project. He conceived a miniature cricket stadium in his studio where he and the cricket players Asif Ali and Shadab Khan dipped the ball in paint and played cricket. Dipping cricket ball was a revisit of street cricket played in Pakistan. As children we have all played cricket in neighborhood streets or narrow alleys in houses and the ball at times ends up in a puddle and left splashes on clothes, street surface or the surrounding walls. A peculiar aspect of street cricket is the joy of tapping a tennis ball with red color tape to play cricket at home. Imran Qureshi’s studio created the same ambiance – the walls and canvas placed on different surfaces documented the movement of the ball and markings by the bat. Qureshi created his signature floral patterns within and around those marks in light blue color.
In terms of final products there is a big canvas diptych in blue; one capturing the balling marks and other documenting batting marks. There is a third smaller canvas in maroon and a number of cricket balls painted by Qureshi. The process has as Naqvi said resulted in “Qureshi’s work leaving the art centers of the world and entering cricket fields and TV screens in Pakistan.” The IU kits with Qureshi’s splashes are available across the country. Although aesthetically the splashes look odd and the kit’s color scheme is at variance with the light blue art work appearing like actual splashes, many a young children would wear them and have the opportunity to think or ask questions about the art and some may dream to follow creative professions.
Qureshi’s creative process was documented in a wonderfully done video by Qureshi’s equally talented brother Faisal Qureshi. It shows Qureshi dipping the ball and handing over to baller Asif Ali to ball to batsman Shadab Khan. The fast-moving ball sheds its layers like a snake sheds its layer. Each layer of the ball shows Qureshi’s signature materials like the gold, light blue, and finally the red cricket ball of Lady with the red ball emerges with light blue floral patterns of Qureshi.
Ball sports have been part of painting in different countries. In the Netherlands Hendrick Avercamp’s (1585-1634) winter landscape paintings tell many stories and some of his characters indulge in skating and playing kolf – an early ice hockey and golf like game. Qureshi’s recent work, Nainsukh’s eighteenth century Lady with red ball or Avercamp’s seventeenth century ice scene displayed at the Maurithuis in The Hague show how artists centuries apart and from different cultural traditions bring us closer by depicting every day sporting activities.
About the author:
Suljuk Mustansar Tarar is Pakistan’s Ambassador to the Netherlands. He is also an art critic and his first book on Pakistani contemporary art All That Art was published last year. He can be followed on Twitter @suljuk & Instagram @suljuktarar