Before moving to Melbourne in 2001 at the age of 27, Nusra Latif Quereshi was trained as musaviripainter in her birthplace, Lahore. The term refers to a type of Islamic and Indian miniature painting that requires a high degree of skill and patience. Before moving to Australia in 1997, aged 37, Adam Chang studied painting in his native Shanghai, attaining a mastery of technique that it would be all-but-impossible to acquire in this country.
Both artists have exhibitions in Sydney this weekend, Qureshi at Gallery 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Chang at Nanda/Hobbs. There comparisons end, because Qureshi’s work has evolved from miniature painting into a complex, politically-motivated blend of graphic art, installation and conceptualism, while Chang has pursued a form of tonal expressionism that deals in simple, iconic forms.
The problem with Chang’s style of painting is that it is uncomfortably close to that of Yan Pei-Ming, an internationally renowned Shanghainese artist who has been based in France since the early 1980s. Chang and Yan are exact contemporaries.
No-one could deny Chang’s abilities but there is little imagination in his choice of subjects or his penchant for compositions that are hardly more than large-scale mug shots. Most of the paintings in Chinese Icon, his show at Nanda/Hobbs, are of pandas – the warm and cuddly face of the Chinese tourist industry. The exception, and main attraction, is a portrait of President Xi Jinping measuring 320 by 280 cms.
This giant face wears the impassive expression that has become a trademark of the Chinese leader. It’s a face that gives nothing away. It could be interpreted as serious, wise and benevolent, or disturbingly blank. The portrait is bathed in a lurid red that tends towards crimson. It has a bloody feel, but might also be viewed as the emblematic colour of the Chinese Communist Party.
The gallery tells me the picture has had a positive response from the local officials of the Chinese government, who are happy to see it as a respectful portrait of the President. Others might find that the sheer scale of the work has disturbing echoes of those imposing pictures of themselves that dictators, the world over, love to post in public places. The obvious prototype is the portrait of Mao Zedong that still looms over Tiananmen Square.
As a thought experiment imagine that a huge portrait of Gladys Berejiklian was erected in Martin Place, or a big picture of Scott Morrison set up in front of Parliament House. There would be outrage and derision at the intrusion of the cult of personality into Australian life. In China that cult is so well advanced it would be a brave and reckless soul that sought to challenge it.
Chang’s Xi Jinping is a perfectly ambiguous image that will be read in antithetical ways by Xi’s supporters and his critics. This would remain the case even if the artist were to declare his admiration for the President, because once a work of art appears on a gallery wall it takes on a life of its own. The eerie power of this painting resides in its openness to contrary interpretations.
Chang’s next big political portrait is Queen Elizabeth II in blue, but it’s unlikely to stir the same tremors of disquiet in its audience.
Qureshi’s exhibition at 4A is much less ambivalent about politics and power. Titled Strategies of Intent, it looks at the weaponry of another age which has been preserved in institutions such as the Lahore Fort Museum, and in an 1896 book by the Right Hon. Lord Egerton of Tatton called Indian and Oriental Arms and Armour. This antiquated tome, which belongs to the glory days of British imperialism, furnishes Qureshi with much of her imagery, albeit in distorted forms that Lord Egerton would have difficulty recognising.
In one work after another, Qureshi reduces the martial glories of the past to a series of banal mementos or strange, demonic essences. The House of Irredeemable Objects consists of a large, ornate wooden cabinet in which only the outlines of missing weapons are visible. On the floor nearby is a tiny cupboard with a white horse and the black silhouettes of machine guns.
The installation has an air of punctured dignity, as if the valuable artefacts have been pilfered, leaving only a heavy, empty frame and a toy box. This sense of deflation and disenchantment is repeated in accompanying works that distill the colonal enterprise into a handful of slightly shabby souvenirs.
Qureshi’s other strategy is to take an image and make it into something both indefinable and menacing. The largest piece in the show, Fortunate Days for Warlike Enterprise, consists of five large digital prints on clear acrylic screens suspended from the ceiling. The original images, drawn from Lord Egerton’s book, were of helmets and arm guards, but they have been twisted and refashioned on the computer to resemble hybrid, insect-like creatures. The fact that each image overlaps the next adds to the confusion, with limbs and exoskeletons captured in snapshot-fashion in the midst of shuddering movement.
In the installation, The Inventory of Noble Causes, a glass vitrine full of objects that recall the days of the British Raj is positioned under a beaded tapestry that combines at least three layers of imagery. Long threads fall from the tapestry and bunch on the floor alongside the glass cabinet. The threads presumably represent the flow of history, which proceeds in tangles, not straight, clear lines.
The artist’s determination to find concrete symbols for abstractions such as ‘history’ and to turn conventional representations upside-down, leads to a display in which the exploration of ideas creates a good deal of aesthetic compression and clutter. This is one of those exhibitions in which you need to read the labels to fully understand what’s going on, and for many viewers that can be an unwelcome chore.
Unlike Adam Chang, who seems happy to surf on the ambiguities of a single image, Qureshi is determined to pack as much meaning as possible into each work. There’s a bleak humour in her reassessment of colonial rule in the subcontinent but the earnestness of the show cannot be disguised. If history, to paraphrase James Joyce, is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake, colonial history has its own special rancours. What Qureshi has given us is not so much an exhibition as an exorcism.
Nusra Latif Qureshi: Strategies of Intent
Gallery 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art
23 August – 29 September, 2019
Adam Chang: Chinese Icon
29 August – 7 September, 2019
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 7 September, 2019