by Vatsala SethiDec 26, 2022
Imagine walking past a bustling street of a Pakistani bazaar amidst the enthusiasm of festivities! The neighbourhood unwinds together as locals mingle and interact through a maze of shops selling a wide array of handicrafts, Peshawari delicacies, and much more. Indeed, Pakistan is a land of diversified cultures and ancestral heritage with distinct colours of life. This familial tradition of the Pakistani markets and local culture was celebratorily animated within the heart of Hamid Market at the Denso Hall (Urdu: ڈینسوہال ), the first library built in Karachi in 1886. Imran Qureshi - a master of the art of miniature – converted this monumental structure into an infinity room of psychedelic light, familiar sounds, and animated visuals for the third edition of the Karachi Biennale (October 31-November 13, 2022), curated by Faisal Anwar.
Titled as Deen o Duniya (Urdu: دین و دنیا ), Qureshi’s site-specific art installation reflected on long Pakistani religious, spiritual and cultural traditions with a punch of striking vivid colours and digital experiential art. Before decoding this very intriguing art installation title, Qureshi narrated to me an anecdote that journeys down the memory lane and goes back to 2017. “This installation was inspired by two houses in one of the neighbourhoods in Lahore – Riwaz Garden. I learned that every year the two houses were beautifully decorated on pious festival occasion. Year on year, the decorations kept increasing with fascinating additions,” said Qureshi. The adornment juxtaposed the modern and contemporary with the traditional and the religious. “There was religious iconography, calligraphic Urdu text along with modern iconography such as an ice cream. The technology adopted was indigenous as well imported, he added. “It was so gripping to look at when I was invited for the Karachi Biennale, I immediately knew that these two houses were my inspiration and the direction for this installation."
Indeed, a very personal experience and hours of observation of the two local abodes led the Pakistani visual artist to unveil Deen o Duniya at one of the nine venues of the Biennale. Explaining in lay terms - Deen means religion and Duniya means the world. “[Hence,] the English translation of this installation is the sacred and the earthly. I am speaking about religion and its intermingling with other worldly things. Most people deeply rooted with religion connect with the ideology that religion has nothing to do with science. However, we still continue to adopt the latest technology to project religious ideas and ethics to the masses." This very thought left me on a very introspective tangent!
The immersive installation spread over two floors across the 18th century library room. “It’s an experience!”, Qureshi exclaimed excitedly as he talked to me through the installation. “The room on the upper floor has a balcony overlooking the other side of the street. I blocked this balcony with black boards and have installed light panels with a lot of religious vocabulary on it. There are tiny slits through which the neon light projects out on the walls.” There is a paradoxical play defining the undefined, as one tries to ambiguously sneak through the small openings.
As one entered the main room, carnivalesque visuals encapsulated the viewers - neon flashing stars, Urdu slogans, mosque tombs, overflowing abundant fountains, crescent moon, floral motifs, and much more. Reminiscent of the metropolis Pakistani culture, the digital art was almost like a parallel artistic representation of the bustling street of Hamid market, outside the Denso Hall. This visual is complimented by specific sound that the artist himself has produced. “I worked with Qawwal Ustad Moazzam Khan. I asked him to sing the qawwali but I didn't want to read the words in it. So, there are layers of wordings and you can hardly recognise some words, but not everything. Within this qawwali there are words Deen o Duniya, which also forms the title of this work as well," he said.
Qureshi took us through the conception of the artwork, which started almost a year ago. “It started off as an experimentation at home. I shot visuals of houses on my iPhone camera and projected them on a small LCD screen within my modelled mirror room,” he shared. However, the artist did face his share of hurdles throughout the conceptualisation of the installation. He added, “Composing the music was very challenging. The conventionally trained qawwals were not happy with the idea of manipulating the qawwalis. The process was indeed challenging as well as a new experience for Obaid Ur Rehman, the composer of my sound.”
While speaking about this immersive installation, Qureshi revisited his audiovisual art installation at Lahore in 2017, showcased within an architectural structure from the Mughal era. “I created a landscape called Idea of Landscape. I think that this is a similar concept that once again rebirths in Karachi in a different way and probably with a stronger language.” The artist ends this heartfelt conversation with me by sharing a viewer’s thought he met at the opening of the Karachi Biennale 2022: "From now onwards whenever we will look at these lights in the city it will just remind us of your work. Your art has changed our way of looking at things! The festive lights [in our neighbourhood] will also be more like works of art for us."