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.



Persian Miniature Painting - Trees and Flowers

Last week I attended a course at PSTA focused on painting trees and flowers in the Persian miniature style. Partly because its been a while since I painted anything and feel I need the practice, and partly as a treat for myself, because why not hey! 

The course was taught by Farkhondeh Ahmadzadeh, an extremely talented artist and all round lovely person, and with focus on two of my favourite things in this world, it was great timing as all the trees were in full blossom, and inspiration was physically growing around us. Held at PSTA as part of their Open Programme, it felt like I was back at uni, back in class during the first year of my MA! But this time with more confidence and more self assurance. 

The course opened with a presentation introducing the genre and style of painting, and the principles of nature in traditional Persian miniatures. The depiction of the natural world is there to remind the reader (as these paintings would form mart of the illustrations and illuminations of manuscripts)  that there is a paradise. The representation of flowers, plants, trees and fruit, whilst inspired by the world around us, have an other worldly quality, and an almost fantastical feeling about them. The vegetation doesn't have to be related, for example it is perfectly acceptable to have some spring blossom neighbouring an autumnal tree. Its about fantasy and paradise, and your fantasy and your paradise, all whilst remaining somewhat loyal to the inspiration.  

Likewise, proportions and perspective are given the same treatment. Persian miniatures are always painted in the plain/flat perspective, and are never realistic or dimensional. The reason for this is because God, or The Source, has no dimensions, and is limitless. Therefore the less dimensions we have, the closer we are to The Source. The perspective, proportions and forms within the painting could also be symbolic, emphasising a particular part of the narrative or message of the story. 

The painting process itself starts off with preparing the paper. It is sized with hollyhock flower (purple or white) and sometimes egg white, and then burnished. This fills the pores in the paper and allows the pigments to sit on the surface and not be absorbed. Once dry it is stained so give the ground some warmth and depth. This could be done using the water from boiled pomegranate skins, tea, saff flower, and many more, and the paper is burnished again. 

Pigments are ground from, depending on the colour, rocks and minerals, earth, plants, soot, and even animal parts. Brushes are made from the softest kitten hair (without harming the kitten) as they hold the pigment and are of the right length. Once the design and composition has been decided on, it is drawn up and traced onto tracing paper, which is retraced or burnished onto the paper to be painted. 

The painting then begins, and colour is applied in layers. We start off with the background block colour, and once dry, add in the small details. This is done with a dry brush technique, and the rendering entices a play with light and shade. In Farsi this is called the pardakht technique. A small area can take many hours to render, so patience and practice really is a virtue! 

Here you can see some pictures of my progress (and more on my Instagram). I'm going to try my best to finish this painting when I get some quiet time. Painting all those tiny leaves and petals may seem tedious, but with the right mindset, can turn into quite  meditative process. Its something that requires a lot of concentration and being in the moment. So all these colouring books and mindfulness stuff...yep the Persians have been doing that for centuries!