Interview with Saad Qureshi

Saad Qureshi: Congregation Installation view, Photography: Sam Drake, Courtesy Gazelli Art House

Saad Qureshi’s latest exhibition at Gazelli Art House is the result of months of ceaseless activity inspired by a recent trip to Mecca, where the artist was struck by the culture and the visual image of the believers circulating the holy Ka'bah. The resulting works have a delicacy about them (even the prehistoric-looking clay and straw birds that seem to guard the ground floor jealously) and strongly explore the power of culture and storytelling. The exhibition develops the artist’s interest in failures of communication and multiculturalism and offers hand-crafted, intricate works that hint at an apocalyptic past or future.

One of the most striking things about your work is the unusual material you use, such as hair, coconuts, burnt prayer mats, and chapatis. How do these elements contribute to the meanings of the works? 

I think we’ve got to a point in the art world where there’s really no such thing as unusual materials! The way I work is to conceive an idea I want to discuss or convey, then I think about materials I can use to best articulate this idea. Next I let go of the concept I started with and play with the materiality, knowing however I manipulate my materials it will add up to the concept. The concept and the materiality really work hand-in-hand in my work. They’re inseparable. In this new show at Gazelli, I’ve allowed the materials to dictate not just the colour and the texture but the whole mood of the show. I’ve literally used no applied colour. It’s about stripping it down and allowing the materials to communicate.

Can you explain the apocalyptic sense in some of your sculptures and paintings, particularly ‘Other Crescents, Other Moons’?

Apocalypse, decay and destruction are all curiously seductive. Ruins remind us of pasts now lying in pieces, or they point to the future collapse of our present. It’s interesting how certain ruins are preserved as memorials, while others are demolished or rebuilt! What are the criteria? How and why do we choose? ‘Other Crescents, Other Moons’, was a body of work about time and memory and the effects they have on inner landscapes. That’s how I imagined the remembered places, as wax structures that are slowly melting with the heat of time. Even some of the drawn landscapes in ‘Congregation’ seem semi-apocalyptic. That’s why they’re so appealing and seductive – they are preserved memorials of the past.

You've said that you are inspired by the traditions of hand-craft. Why do you think this is?

Hand-craft has the human touch. It brings a special, emotional quality into a work when you’re manually manipulating the stuff it’s made of. In contrast, something like video art – which of course can be really emotional and powerful – lacks physicality; it’s purely psychological. The hand touch tells a whole different story, a human story. It brings a baggage of history and tradition and lives lived long ago. My grandmother, for example, was a wonderful potter, hand-making pots out of clay. And recently I’ve started using clay in my work; I’m using the same materials. It links me to a past and to time-honoured traditions. 

Your upcoming exhibition at Gazelli Art House is called ‘Congregation’. Does this have a religious significance for you?

Yes and no. I’ve really come to love this word ‘congregation’, because it has both physical and metaphorical senses. It can be a gathering – of people, of birds – but also a concord of ideas. Yes the word can have religious significance because it’s been used in those contexts. But it can also be used non-religiously, for example as a collective noun in ‘a congregation of magpies, plovers or starlings’. You can bring your own input to it. Generally, I’m very aware of religious and political implications in my work, but just because it has those connections it does not mean that I am allying myself with any particular point. I’m just sharing my sensitivity of and with the world around me. 

There will be a central installation in this exhibition that is based on an event depicted in the Quran. What is this story about, and what is its significance?

The event is the protection of the sacred Ka'bah by a divinely-inspired flock of abaabil birds who defeated a large army by dropping burning pebbles upon them. In the text of the Quran, the abaabil birds are given little physical description, while in later writings on the story they are rendered variously fantastical – the largest birds ever seen, with predatory faces and dog-like paws, etc. Over time, the birds have been mythologised, acting as a neutral ground for believers’ imagination. In this way, they have something in common with the medieval tradition of the bestiary (that gave us imaginative hybrids such as the griffon) and fantastical creatures such as the phoenix. Birds are powerfully potent symbols in many cultures (in various traditions, storks bring babies, magpies arbitrate on fortune, crows bring death, and so on). We are fascinated by birds’ flight and its association with freedom and escape, and with their obvious ability for language – a facility which removes uniqueness from our own species’ linguistic power.

'Congregation' will show at Gazelli Art House, London, until 23rd November


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