At first, all you can see is the red paint splattered across the canvas—instantly evoking all too familiar scenes of the bloody aftermath of horrific violence seen around the world. Step closer and countless flowers begin to take shape, blooming from the same red spillage.

“My work is always about two opposites," Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi points out. “I look at the idea of life and death, and violence and beauty, together."

Violence looms large over Qureshi and Aisha Khalid’s ongoing exhibition at New Delhi’s Nature Morte gallery—not as a catchword, but as a lived experience. Their distinctive yet complementary styles draw upon their training in miniature painting. But it is distilled to create powerful abstract forms that convey the turbulence around them. The couple, who met while studying at Lahore’s National College of Arts in the early 1990s, is among the pioneers of the internationally acclaimed neo-miniature trend in contemporary Pakistani art.

Qureshi adopted this red palette following a series of bombings across his city, Lahore, in March 2010. “Red is about violence and death, but it is also about life," he says. “Even after facing so much violence, people are hopeful and react with openness." This sentiment finds resonance in This Leprous Brightness, a painting that invokes Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s Freedom’s Dawn, a poetic lament on Partition. Over six decades after it was penned in 1947, Qureshi found it to be an apt description for his paintings. “We have been listening to his songs and reading his poems for a long time," he recalls. “When I did the work, I realized that the poem said so much about the current situation. It is as if someone has written it for this time."

In comparison WITH Qureshi’s abstract strokes, Khalid’s paintings are loaded with symbolism

From a distance, the gold leaf canvas in This Leprous Brightness resembles a splash of blood, but a closer look reveals flower petals taking the shape of a blood-red sun rising from the horizon on to a golden sky. This use of gold leaf—traditionally used in miniature painting as a decorative element—with red paint creates a vivid contrast. In another gilded canvas, Going Deep, a gaping wound bleeds crimson streams on either side.

These canvases are made in conjunction with the large-scale, site-specific installations that tap into the potent juxtaposition of the colour red with blooming flowers. Qureshi’s language is at once connected to his strife-torn region, but it is deeply universal as well. His rooftop installation for New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2013 was linked to the Boston Marathon bombings, while a similar 2011 piece for the Sharjah Biennial was connected to the Arab Spring protests across West Asia.

While Qureshi’s dramatic imagery represents the immediacy of bloodshed, Khalid takes a more subtle and inward approach. Made in response to the Peshawar school attack in 2014 that killed more than 130 children, her paintings share an overwhelmingly grey and dark palette. Named after a line from her own poem, the series, All Is Gray When The Black Is Washed Away, revolves around an array of incomplete tulips—metaphors for the deceased children—which are partly fresh and colourful, and partly ashen grey. “Art is a way of healing," says Khalid. “The process of making the works is very meditative and gives me everything."

In comparison with Qureshi’s abstract strokes, Khalid’s paintings are loaded with symbolism. Recurring elements such as flowers—she has used tulips, roses and lotuses in the past—make an appearance in every artwork. Khalid also divides the space using geometric patterns inspired by Mughal architecture and the tiled floors in her childhood home. “My symbolism changes the meaning over time and according to the situation," Khalid says.

Yet these precisely delineated miniatures constitute only one half of Khalid’s art practice. The other half is shaped by her original calling as a textile designer. Stemming from childhood embroidery lessons given by Khalid’s mother, this interest is most evident in her Persian-carpet-like silk installation, In Two Forms And With Two Faces—With One Soul, Thou And I. While one side depicts a fantasy world inhabited by dragons and tigers rendered in metallic embroidery, the other side shows the sharp dress pins that have been painstakingly pieced together. “It is my passion to sew, stitch, knit," Khalid reveals, “and do anything with my hands."

This craft-oriented approach also influences the imagery in Khalid’s recent miniatures, which have few human figures. “It disappeared behind the curtain, the veil, the tablecloth," she adds. “Even now, when the work is minimal, you can see the hemline of a curtain. I feel it represents the human presence." In Larger Than Life, a gold leaf pattern runs across the canvas over a sketch of a completely veiled woman. Inspired by Sufism, the veil stands for the relationship between human beings and God, the lover and the beloved.

In their overlapping yet personal way, Qureshi and Khalid draw upon the lexicon of traditional miniatures to create a new and immensely moving idiom. Qureshi’s introspective, 8-minute video, Breathing, encapsulates this relationship. In it, a gold leaf flies in the air, sometimes unfurling and sometimes still.

Akin to watching sculpture in motion, its delicate dance embodies the intricate art of miniature painting. “Before we apply gold leaf to the surface of a miniature painting, it’s so alive, organic and brilliant, and then it completely changes," Qureshi says. “I wanted viewers to experience that quality of the medium. It’s so delicate that whenever we apply gold leaf, we hold our breath and turn off our fan. Yet here the gold leaf itself is breathing and moving."

Much like the dancing gold leaf, Qureshi and Khalid’s immensely moving idioms distil the techniques of miniature painting in an attempt to comprehend the upheaval around them.

Aisha Khalid/Imran Qureshi is on till 30 May, 11am-6pm (Sundays closed), at Nature Morte gallery, A-1, Neeti Bagh, New Delhi.

Close