As of my writing this, your work is not yet finished, but I already feel a kinship with it.
I’ve been thinking about how painting requires time and patience and emotional energy. It’s a practice of devotion. Your decision to paint photos of relatives seems like an answer to the sorts of experiences we had talked about over coffee; feeling some kind of odd shadow version of grief for distant family deaths, the emotional dislocation in knowing of relatives in other places but not really knowing them. You’ve put hours into expanding these photos, softening old detail and creating new detail, taking the instantaneity of a camera capturing a single moment and extending it out and out with the thought and care that you mightn’t have had the opportunity to put into those relationships themselves.
There is something unique about making work from family photos that feels like adaptation: the reinterpretation of a story that’s already been told. A friend was once asking around for family photos that included women and flowers to use for an artwork. It was a thoughtful and beautiful project, but giving her photos that I myself felt detached from made me uncomfortable in a way that I didn’t process until much later. I’d passed on the ownership of those photos outside of myself before I’d even really understood what they meant to me. I beat myself up over giving them to her even though I knew what she’d ultimately create likely wouldn’t leave the studios. I don’t think I would’ve constructed the same narrative about those women that she did. But however much a story feels like ours to tell or guard, I suppose there is an awareness that it might – has before, and probably will again – get away from us.
I once painted a series of portraits of my friends, each about three times bigger than life size. I had interviewed each of them and displayed a booklet of the transcripts with the paintings. The interviews varied in length and depth and emotion; some drew me much closer to the person interviewed while others revealed the limits of our friendship or the amount of vulnerability the sitter was willing to offer. When an interview seemed to put a wall up between us, painting my subject felt more intimate than talking to them. I learned from that project how painting could help with navigating lost intimacies, and I wonder if it might also be a way of creating new ones. I’ve painted so many of my friends, some multiple times. I rarely paint anyone or anything else – never even someone of my own ethnicity (unless a self-portrait counts). Seeing and talking about your art has stirred some sort of longing in me to paint what I’ve ignored for so long.
I never really made work about my culture while I was at art school, nor about any other part of my identity. Rehashing metanarratives of diaspora children was something that repelled me, and I felt at odds with an expectation to utilise – to make it worth – my place as one of the few non-white artists in that building and fulfill a gap in the output of our cohort. Worth is a hard idea to shake: that my work has to measure up to some nebulous
but not too in-your-face
that I-can’t-quite-remember-who designed.
It wasn’t me, right?
You’re so sure about what you’ve made despite other people’s projections onto your work, and I think about how those projections come from people who themselves have a misplaced sureness. Though it isn’t your responsibility to do so, if you uncover what it takes to topple that sureness, please let me know.
Working traditionally with oils slows you down – your movements when you swipe your brush over canvas must, to an extent, mirror the viscous state of the paint that hardens over months or years. How ridiculous that for centuries it was used to depict people who already had an excess of slowness and time. I want that time for myself and for the rest of us. I hope time is what you are given, just as you yourself have given it, over and over.
Uswa Qureshi is a writer and artist living in Naarm/Melbourne. They recently completed their Bachelor of Arts in Art History and Linguistics at the University of Melbourne.
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