An expanded notion of self in the work of Nusra Latif Qureshi
Over the past fifteen years Nusra Latif Qureshi has worked extensively with the tropes and language of Indo-Persian miniature and Company painting, and nineteenth century conventions of portrait photography, to explore the politics of representation in art history.1 Her usually small and often sparingly painted surfaces are ‘teeming with layers of imagery from the past, meanings from the present, and methods from both’.2 Her interest is not so much in ‘righting’ history’s ‘wrongs’, as in pointing to its erasures and highlighting its faded traces. Through her practice, she encourages us to distinguish between what was and what remains; viewing history as a collection of fragments constantly rearranged to construct new narratives.
Qureshi has frequently used the lone female figure as the subject of her work, often inserting it in dialogue with well-known (and usually male dominated) examples of Mughal miniatures. At times, the figure is merely an outline or a collaged cut out – a ghostly annotation to earlier instances of female invisibility. Although not consciously ‘self portraits’, her painted female figures often function as stand-ins for her own subjectivity. And since moving to Melbourne from her native Lahore in 2001, this subjectivity has expanded to include the trials and tribulations of being an immigrant (in a land almost wholly populated by other immigrants).
So while the works in this exhibition represent the most obvious example of Qureshi’s use of her own visage to explore issues of gender and identity through history, an expanded notion of self can be seen in operation through much of her practice.
The two works (or rather bodies of work) in this exhibition mark a distinct new step in her practice, using the same passport photograph of herself as an integral part of both compositions. In the Red silks series of digital prints, she creates digital photomontages incorporating her passport photo, Victorian era dresses, paintings of flowers, exercises in classical calligraphy and other seemingly orientalist ornamentation. The prints are variations on a tightly controlled visual theme built from these same basic components, and when shown together, hint at the process of constructing identity.
The Victorian dresses with their exaggerated shapes speak of the physical constraints placed on the female body in the pursuit of an ideal. This notion of an ‘ideal’ is mirrored in classical calligraphy, where the calligrapher spends a lifetime in pursuit of a perfection against which he (and it is mostly a ‘he’) will be judged. Urdu calligraphy, sharing the script of Arabic, will invariably be read in Western circulation as a reference to Islamic edicts. In fact the ‘calligraphy’ mostly comprises meaningless arrangements of alphabets that are mere exercises. But is this an exercise in search of perfection, or the process by which words that carry religious or cultural conventions get twisted into restraints? Into the strait jacket-like Victorian dresses even.