Saad Qureshi: Something About Paradise / In conversation with Kostas Prapoglou

Saad Qureshi is interviewed by Kostas Prapoglou

British artist Saad Qureshi(b. 1986) graduated from The Slade School of Fine Art, London in 2012. His work engages with notions of space and time filtered through the prism of his diverse visual lexicon. With a keen interest in the process of experimentation with a vast range of materials, his installations embrace mysterious landscapes and surreal environments. Qureshi’s recent solo shows include Aicon Gallery, New York and Gazelli Art House, London. Group exhibitions include Bo.Lee Gallery, London; the Saatchi Gallery, London; and Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery, London.

His work can be found in public collections such as the Leeds City Art Gallery; Dipti Mathur Collection, California; The Farjam Foundation Collection, Dubai; the Creative Cities Collection, Beijing; the Al Markhiya Gallery, Qatar; the Bagri Foundation, London and the Boston Consulting Group.

Something About Paradise
2019
Mixed media including metal, wood, Celotex, Idenden, marble dust, sand, paint
Dimensions variable
Photo © Jonty Wilde. Courtesy of the artist and Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Kostas Prapoglou: How do you choose the narrative of each of your installations? How important is site-specificity to you?

Saad Qureshi: Site is absolutely central to my installations. It is the starting point for the work, and the first thing I focus on when I am invited to make a new piece for a venue is “where am I making this for?” The work has to be relevant and rooted in the location, and it’s only once I feel I’ve really taken that in properly that I begin to think of what would be right for it. I’m lucky in that I’m always thinking about new works I would like to make, so I’ve ‘banked’ away a lot of ideas, ready to revisit when the time and circumstances come together. So the two go hand in hand from the start: the place and the story I set out to explore through the work.

Once I have made the installation, and it has this very direct connection to its place of origin, then I feel it is conceptually strong enough to travel, and to activate new reactions and associations. It has an inner structure and unity that means it can stand its ground wherever it goes.

Something About Paradise
2019
Mixed media including metal, wood, Celotex, Idenden, marble dust, sand, paint
Dimensions variable
Photo © Jonty Wilde. Courtesy of the artist and Yorkshire Sculpture Park

KP: Ruins and debris seem to have a particular place in your visual vocabulary. In what ways does architecture and its constituents inspire you?

SQ: It’s funny, because I never set out to refer to ruins and debris, but they have arisen as a common element in a lot of the work. I would go as far as to say that it’s actually the viewers who have brought them in, because as part of my working process, I often ask people to contribute memories of places –be they real or imagined– and these places are by their nature quite fragmentary. Mindscapes function like memory: there are the sharp bits you can describe in great detail –the bits that mean most to you– and as the contours of those soften, so do the edges begin to fray and fade away. This naturally leads people to think of ruins, which to me, makes the work more interesting and multi-layered.

I believe in the significance of place in the stories we tell to and about ourselves. And sometimes place is a landscape, but more often than not, it is a built environment, and that brings with it architecture. The thing about buildings throughout the world, until relatively recently in human history, is that they also have a very distinct vernacular: so a building immediately places you within a culture, a region and a time. I find this fascinating, and the source of so much imaginative as well as aesthetic pleasure.

Gates of Paradise. Something About Paradise
2019
Mixed media including metal, wood, Celotex, Idenden, marble dust, sand, paint
Dimensions variable
Photo © Jonty Wilde. Courtesy of the artist and Yorkshire Sculpture Park

KP: Are the materials you choose related to the conceptual parameters of each work?

SQ: Absolutely. The work has to originate from an idea I want to realise, but as soon as I’ve settled on that, I take great joy in selecting the materials with which I will work. The idea needs to go hand in hand with a sense of excitement around making. I like to get physically stuck in, and enjoy being immersed in the process, so materiality is key. It’s the language through which concept is translated into an object in the real world, and whether that be sculpture or drawing, I can’t wait to get into the studio and get my hands dirty.

For example, with Places for Nova, my commission for the LandSec development in Central London, I asked people who were passing by or living in the area to give me a memory of a place that was important to them, but which they no longer had access to –either because it no longer existed, or they hadn’t been back. So I was looking to create a middle ground, between real and imagined places, and I was looking for a material that would visually articulate this. That’s when I came across brick dust. The idea of taking a building block out of which so much of our environment is constructed, grinding it into dust and using it as a pigment, added an otherworldly dimension to the works. It bridged the space between the memory and its representation.

Night Jewel, 2019, Mixed media including fibreglass, resin, Idenden and paintDimensions approximately 55 x 67 cm 
Photo © Jonty Wilde. Courtesy of the artist and Yorkshire Sculpture Park

KP: Your works seem to reflect on human absence. Are humans really absent in your narratives?

SQ: Not at all. I’d go as far as to say that –even though it may not look like it at first glance– on a personal level, the works function almost like portraits. Again, this goes back to how I start these works: speaking with people, asking them a question and spending time with them as they share their memories with me. When I go to translate these memories into places, it’s a very intuitive process, where I’ve taken in what they’ve said, how they’ve described what was important to them, and in bringing these places into the mindscapes, I am thinking about what best evokes the emotion as well as the location they’ve shared. So conceptually, I see these works as portraits of all of these people. This is why they are mindscapes: the landscapes, buildings, in the works don’t exist without that very specific connection to someone existing in the world at the time of their making.

Something About Paradise
2019
Mixed media including metal, wood, Celotex, Idenden, marble dust, sand, paint
Dimensions variable
Photo © Jonty Wilde. Courtesy of the artist and Yorkshire Sculpture Park

KP: Your solo exhibition Something About Paradise at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park embraces an amalgamation of surreal scenes imbued with a sense of otherworldliness. To what extent do spiritualism and allegorical meanings are embedded in your repertoire and how do you balance them with elements of the world we live in?

SQ: I am interested in stories, and I was born into a religious household, where the Quranic allegories formed part of the backdrop to family life. I think the way we make sense of the world is by telling stories: for many cultures, their holy scriptures lay the groundwork for this; but there are also parables, fables, a wealth of archetypes and symbolic languages which consciously or unconsciously give us the frames of reference we use to describe and measure our own life experiences against. This is what psychoanalysis is too, after all.

Some of my works have their origin in spiritual themes, but what really makes them take off in my imagination is when I see a connection between what first caught my interest, and the wider human imagination. For example, When The Moon Split takes as its starting point the Quranic story of a miracle performed by Mohammed. But from the very earliest civilisations, human beings have stood on the earth and looked upward at the night sky to see the moon lit up by the sun, speculating and weaving mythologies around it. So the work evokes this original story, whilst also confronting us with the purely secular frissons more commonly associated with fairy stories, science fiction and Hollywood films.

Similarly, with Something About Paradise, it was realising that although I had been brought up with the one very specific conception of paradise, drawn from the Quranic allegories of the Seven Heavens, there were hundreds of different definitions and ideas about what paradise might look like. That paradise is a very personal universal place, that we all imbue with meaning. I am an optimist by nature, and it’s this common ground of the imagination that unites us.

Kostas Prapoglou