Mughal Designs and Block Printing, Alchemy at Southbank

Being invited to teach at a venue as well-known as the Southbank Centre was not something I thought would happen anytime soon. However, just last weekend, along with one of my art buddies and partners in crime Tasleema Alam, founder of Traditional Ateliers, we were invited to deliver an afternoon of workshops which would form part of the Alchemy festival 2016.

The Alchemy festival is, as on the Southbank website, ‘a vibrant array of performances, workshops and exhibitions – and a delicious food market. The festival celebrates the rich cultural relationship between the UK and the Indian subcontinent, and explores the cultural influences generated by our shared history.’ But which version of that shared history?   

Whilst this is all very exciting, and a celebration of any BAME culture especially important, it did lead me to question the content and programming of the festival. Music, theatre, literature, art, fashion and so on, are all important and equally valid, but at the same time, what about our history, heritage, our suffering under a brutal occupation and colonialism, what led to the bloody partition and struggle for independence. And what of the pre-colonial civilisations of the sub-continent, are their advancements in art, architecture and culture to be credited and celebrated. Or was it just a preapproved and palatable handpicked selection of the aspects most colourful and lively, you know, the bits we all like. Pre-packaged to satiate the call for diversity in mainstream spaces.

It also led me to question how important my presence would be in such a space. I was being given the opportunity, one many would love to have, to deliver a workshop on something I love and am passionate about. Something that has been appropriated and even ignored in western art history.  How much could I, within an afternoon, decolonise the Alchemy festival. Sounds funny doesn’t it! But it wasn’t just a case of how much, but if it would be possible at all within a space that has an undoubtedly interesting and thought provoking set of events, but is also part of the established art and culture scene of London and the UK.

Mughal designs and block printing as a title was quite self-explanatory. It was an introduction to, and a celebration of the history, heritage, art, architecture and culture of the precolonial India.  All in an afternoon! I started off by introducing some images and talking about some of the features most common in Mughal, and therefore Islamic, art and architecture. Focussing on architecture, we discussed the style and embellishment of renowned buildings such as the Jama Mosque in Delhi, Humayun’s Tomb and the Taj Mahal in Agra. Picking out common elements that feature in them all, and are also ubiquitous in Islamic art and architecture across the world, they provided the initial inspiration for the later part of the workshop. We also discussed the symbolic and sacred significance of particular patterns and motifs.

We weren’t sure how many participants to expect, we thought perhaps 10, and were prepared for 15. So delivering to 25-30 with up to 10-15 more people observing was a bit of a surprise, but a pleasant one! Thankfully we had just enough equipment and materials to cover everyone, and following step by step explanations, all the participants drew a perfectly proportional 8 pointed star using just a compass and ruler. This was followed by adding curved lines within the star, which could be inspired by flowers, leaves, natural forms, domes and arches. Each participant created their own individual motif, and it was amazing to see the range of designs deriving from the same principles of geometry and rotational symmetry. Adding colour then took the designs a step further, and enhanced the individual flair and characteristics of each motif.

Some participants were ready to start carving their block prints, which is when Tasleema’s expertise came into effect. 

Tasleema introduced the tradition of wood block printing, which originated in China and has been used to decorate and print on fabrics for many centuries.  She took us through the process of traditional carving of the wood blocks, and also the dyes used to print on fabrics. Tasleema  also took the participants through another method of designing motifs, using the principles of reflectional symmetry, and with her expert guidance and examples, the participants were able to come up with new (or develop their original) motifs in a short space of time.

As we were constrained by both time and materials, and in the case of wood carving expertise also, our more contemporary take involved carving small blocks of lino. The participants traced their designs onto the lino, and decided to carve out selections of the design, focusing on positive and negative spaces. Tasleema then demonstrated the printing process, from mixing up the dyes to actually printing. Participants were then able to print using their own carved lino blocks, or use the wide range of hand carved wood blocks that Tasleema brought with her from Bangladesh.

Monochrome and bright and colourful, floral and geometric, rotational and reflectional, inspired by Mughal design and the motifs found in south Asian textiles, the results were fantastic! We received really positive feedback from all of the participants and people observing, and ended up clearing away quite a bit later than planned! None of this would have been possible without the presence of Nyeema Yasin and Shama Kun, who were not only a great help during the workshops, but are also amazing textile artists in their own right.

Nyeema designs the most delicate and beautiful pashminas, which are handmade and hand embroidered in Nepal. Real pashminas which are woven from silk and actual pashmina – mountain goat hair. A rainbow box of colours and hand painted silk ties formed part of a really lovely collection. Shama had with her on display a handmade, hand woven jute dress, which is like nothing I’ve seen before. Beautifully designed and made, it will be on display at the Rich Mix in London soon, so do make sure to check it out.



Art Against the Grain

I still can't believe that I was lucky enough to be part of the team that organised and delivered this kick ass event. And the repercussions are still positively flowing though us! (Yes it was over a month ago...yes I am only just catching up on my blog posts now...yes I'm about to get emotional...) 

Australian spoken word artist Sukhjit Kaur was touring the UK, and we were lucky to host her here at Impact Hub Birmingham. Sukhjit speaks about faith, femininity and everything in between, and kicked up quite a storm with her performance at the semi finals of Australia's Got Talent.  What was planned as a night of awesome poetry, art and discussion turned into something that was just a bit magical. I'm going to get quite gushy here and to be honest I don't even care. 

The night was hosted by the fabulous Immy Kaur, and first to grace the stage was some home-grown local talent, whose words and voices managed to reach down withing the audience's gut and cause some pleasant know, the kind that meets a recognition somewhere way back in your consciousness. Aliyah Holder, Aliyah Denton, Amerah Saleh, and Lexia Thomlinson sufficiently rocked the stage and their sets to a full house. 

The art work of super talented Louise Byng and myself graced the backdrop of the stage, and merchandise was available to purchase from the amazing Momhead (do check them out, they are way more than just an accessories and clothing company.) 

Sukhjit's poetry performance, and outright comedy, had us all laughing, crying, and then laughing, and then crying.. you get the idea. Her performance, and presence on stage was a blessing in itself, and lead us into a realm of thoughtfulness and panel discussion that again took things to another level. (and one I had to sit on stage for and participate in, eeek.) 

With questions and answers from the host, the audience and panel members, we covered decoloniality, art, faith, being female, being of colour, being artists. We spoke about stories, our narratives, reclaiming that narrative, and living our art, and how we've navigated ambitions and dreams. We delved into our experience of parents and parenting, being daughters, our thoughts on the future, the past, our communities, the diaspora and some home truths. And probably more.

For me personally, having the opportunity to speak for the first time about something that I am so passionate about, and have such warm receptive and captive audience, was an experience too valuable. Yet am so grateful for that space and time in which to contribute and be myself. The evening was inspiring and challenging on so many levels, and brought home the possibilities of what can happen with a bit of faith and female magic interwoven with some badassery. Just amazing!

You can check Instagram and twitter #againstthegrain for reactions from the audience, but to me it felt like honey. Or chocolate. Or salted caramel. And yes, now we're all hungry for more. Stay tuned to social media for the next Art Against the Grain event. 

(Flyer by Daniel Blyden and photos by Chris Sadler)

An Introduction to the Practice, Methods and Materials of Islamic Calligraphy with Soraya Syed

Even though I have an MA in Visual Islamic Traditional Art, I've never had the opportunity to study Arabic calligraphy. I've managed to do a few day and afternoon courses here and there, but they were too few far between. 

So as a self elected professional development venture (read; treating myself) I eagerly signed up for a course in Introduction to Islamic Calligraphy with the super talented Soraya Syed. Soraya has been practicing calligraphy for about 20 years, and has an ijaza from a calligraphy master in Istanbul, Turkey. As well as celebrating the traditional art form, Soraya is also innovative and exploratory in her practice, and has launched the Nuqta app, collating images of calligraphy from around the world. 

So I'll be honest, I've always found calligraphy particularly difficult. Even in the past, I've never managed to get my letter shapes right, or to the correct measurement, even though I know that I can write beautifully otherwise. It is somewhat strange that the native tongue of my fingers is the Roman script. But, I want to learn, and to practice, and to give it a go. So I did! I told myself at the beginning of the week that no matter what, I will remain positive. I will not feel intimidated by the other people around me, and they've been doing it for years so that wouldn't even make sense anyways. I'm going to try, and remain positive and happy, and enjoy it. And what happened? I absolutely loved it. So this week was much more than a lesson on writing beautifully, it also helped me tame my mind games with myself. Now I just have to keep it up! 

After an introduction to the history and heritage of Islamic calligraphy, (and if you know me for the geek that I am, this had me hooked) we cut our won reed pens (the qalam) and prepared our qalam, silk, and ink. We began with the riq'a script, which is the simplest and traditionally used for standardised official documents. writing out each letter again and again did make me feel like a little child again, but even that innocence was liberating. We would write things out, and Soraya would correct our work and how us where we had gone wrong and how to improve.

After a couple of days we were introduced to the thuluth script, which is one of the most beautiful, and often used in Ottoman Arabic calligraphy. When learning this script, students don't start off with the alphabet, but instead the dua Rabbi Yassir.. (O Lord, make this easy for me..) Watching Soraya write it out for us individually (cheese alert) and demonstrating the dots and measurements, and their beauty, made me feel like I was falling in love, and falling hard. Also, practicing our letters and getting into a contemplative and meditative state only helped me ease up on myself, and my hands flow more freely. 

During the course, we were also really fortunate to be visited by world famous master calligrapher from Pakistan, Rasheed Butt today. He told stories, gave us some laughs, and also lots of positivity, encouragement and reflection, and even his duas and blessings. He's having some eyesight problems at the moment, but still wrote a beautiful basmalla out for us.

Feeling grateful and replenished. Now to keep up the practice..! A good project for Ramadan maybe..?