10 Minutes with Abdullah Qureshi

Abdullah Qureshi is a Pakistani-born artist, educator, and cultural producer. Within his practice, he is interested in using painting, filmmaking, and methodologies of collaboration and organization to address personal histories, traumatic pasts, and sexuality. Through his on-going doctoral project, Mythological Migrations: Imagining Queer Muslim Utopias, he examines formations of queer identity and resistance in Muslim migratory contexts. Qureshi’s work has been exhibited internationally and he has held numerous positions at cultural and educational institutions. In 2017, Qureshi received the Art and International Cooperation fellowship at Zurich University of the Arts, and in 2018, a research fellowship at the Center for Arts, Design, and Social Research, Boston. In 2019, he joined the Center for Feminist Research, York University, Toronto as a visiting researcher, and is currently a Doctoral Candidate, supported by Kone Foundation, at Aalto University in Finland.

This week, Huma interviews Abdullah on his various roles, his doctoral research in queer theory, inspirations, hobbies and more.

You are both an artist, curator and educator, how do all of these roles feed into your practice and daily life? How do you find a balance? 

My practice as an artist and curator has been intertwined from the beginning. Both started at the same time, when I converted my art studio in Lahore into a project space, Gallery 39K (2007 -2016). I was a student at Chelsea College of Art and Design, London but felt a strong desire to connect with home – an idea that fed into my paintings through interior objects. Chairs, beds, and drawers have remained consistent motifs in my work. In these early years, I mostly contextualized my work around autobiography, however, at the same time, I was keen to connect personal investigations with local art history and the contemporary art scene. To this end, through social media, I would actively reach out to established and emerging artists – inviting them to make and curate work together. Looking back, I feel I was driven by a need to bring together communities, create spaces for critical dialogue and collaboration, and independent organizing – aspects that have continued to inform my overall creative work, in particular, my on-going doctoral project, Mythological Migrations: Imagining Queer Muslim Utopias.

Over three-years, Mytholgical Migrations examines formations of queer identity and resistance in Muslim migratory contexts. Drawing on Islamic mythological ideas through a Sufi framework, and employing artistic and curatorial strategies of organization and collaboration, the project responds to an urgent need to recognize queer Muslim voices, challenging rampant Islamophobia in Europe, and re-imagining spaces of exclusion and fetishization. It is here, in this project, that I feel my roles as an artist and curator have truly started to come together, critically informing each other as methods of knowledge production. 

It is worth mentioning, however, that the two – being an artist and curator at the same time – didn’t always have a symbiotic relationship for me. It was when I started teaching that I began to reconcile these two identities, ultimately pushing me to pursue art making and curating on a doctoral level. 

In terms of balancing, rather than dividing my time on a day to day basis, what works best for me is to dedicate my time projectwise, allowing me to focus more intensively on the kind of work/thinking I need to do for weeks or months at a time. 

Abdullah Qureshi in the studio, Lahore
Image courtesy: Hassan Sheikh

You have also written a lot on queer theory and have initiated interviews, are you working on / writing anything at the moment?

I am a doctoral candidate at Aalto University in Finland. As an artistic researcher, my dissertation includes two artistic components, Chapter 1: The Nightclub and Chapter 2: The Darkroom, as well as a monograph. I have completed both of the artistic components and I am now focusing on completing the written part. At present, all my energies are focused towards that, and I hope to submit a draft by the end of the year. In addition to this, I am also writing an essay on Anwar Saeed for Pakistan Desires: Queer Futures, a book edited by Omar Kasmani and to be published by Duke University Press.

What / who inspires you right now?

 I feel like I am currently going through an exploratory phase of my practice. I have been experimenting with filmmaking and organizing exhibitions outside the white cube setting. At the same time, painting – a central aspect of my practice – remains constant and I find myself returning to artists I fell in love with as a young student: Marlene Dumas, Luc Tymans, and Wolfgang Tillmans, for instance. I am also very excited by the recent wave of younger painters. For example, Doron Langberg.

Sohaib, 2016
Enamel paint on canvas
91 x 91 cm

How have you kept sane during the pandemic? 

Like everyone else, the pandemic has been very challenging for me. I consider myself amongst the lucky ones as I have been able to keep myself safe and continued work. Yet, the neverending lockdowns in Toronto and limitations on meeting people have been hard. What helps me is maintaining a sense of schedule. As well as continuing work to the best of my ability, I dedicate time towards physical and mental health, cooking, and relaxing. I also maintain contact with a close group of friends and checking-in with each other on a daily basis. 

What is your preferred medium?

So much of my practice is rooted in abstract expressionist traditions. I like materials that allow me to work at a fast pace and spontaneously. Any paint that is fluid – watercolor, ink, enamel/gloss paint in large cans!

If you could teleport yourself to any time or place in the world, where and when would it be? 

Marseille. I love the energy of the city and the warmth of its people.  

CharBagh, 2018
Mixed-media paintings, watercolour studies of plants,
video: an interview with an Iraqi refugee: Gay narrations of home, digital photographs printed on fine art paper, and black thread, dimensions variable.
Installation view: Uqbar, Berlin.

Any exciting projects coming up?

I am excited about curating a virtual exhibition of my students at the end of April. I have been working with them over 12-weeks, looking at LGBTIQ2S+ histories and visual culture at OCAD University. The exhibition will be organized in collaboration with the Centre for Feminist Research at York University, Toronto. All the students are incredibly talented and I can’t wait for everyone to see their amazing work. 

I also have a group show coming up in Berlin in May: Peepal & Banyan, curated by Benjamin Merten, Amna Mawaz Khan and Zara Sajid, and of course, dissertation writing continues.