Geometric offerings inspire viewers to transcend and transform with “moments of aesthetic wonder”.  

Rana Begum’s upcoming solo show in London elucidates the artist’s longstanding interest in abstract art, architecture and visualising the divine.

Rana Begum, 'No. 680' (detail), 2016, acrylic paint on MDF, 80 x 25 x 4 cm (each painting) with a 10 cm space between. Grouped: 200 x 260 x 3 cm. Photo: Philip White. Image courtesy the artist.

Rana Begum, ‘No. 680’ (detail), 2016, acrylic paint on MDF, 80 x 25 x 4 cm (each painting) with a 10 cm space between. Grouped: 200 x 260 x 3 cm. Photo: Philip White. Image courtesy the artist.

With a self-proclaimed “fascination” for architecture, London-based Rana Begum merges industrial materials, such as raw-metal, aluminum bars and steel mesh fencing with symmetrical geometric patterning and subtle manipulation of light, reflection and shadow. In an interview with Rachel Holmes for e-journal The Metropolist, Begum discussed her interest in urban spaces and manmade materials created for commercial applications:

I’m really interested in the manmade and work with a lot of materials which are used to build or have those associations; like extruded aluminium, or the hazard tape used to cordon off building sites. I’ve always been fascinated by architecture, how it opens up spaces that can be transformed by light. That’s where the 3D element of a lot of my work comes from.

The urban and rural are clearly very different experiences. The countryside can uplift you, but the city can do the same through its sheer grandeur. It’s got a texture which is really appealing to me; a roughness that allows different elements – such as colour and space – to interact in a way they don’t in the country.

Rana Begum, 'No. 480', 2013, paint on powder-coated aluminium, 200 x 155 x 8 cm (20 sections). Photo: Philip White. Image courtesy of artist.

Rana Begum, ‘No. 480’, 2013, paint on powder-coated aluminium,
200 x 155 x 8 cm (20 sections). Photo: Philip White. Image courtesy of artist.

Begum’s work will be exhibited in “The Space Between” at London’s Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art 30 June to 18 September 2016 and will be included in the 11th edition of the Gwangju Biennale later in 2016. Her work has been shown throughout the world and is part of select international collections, including the Barjeel Art Foundation.

The artist’s masterful utilisation of “light, colour, material, movement and form”, as written in the press release for “The Space Between” solo show, “have become a hallmark of her abstract sculptures and reliefs”.

Rana Begum, 'No. 489, L fold', 2014, paint on mild steel, 146 x 119 x 48 cm. Photo: Philip White. Image courtesy the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary.

Rana Begum, ‘No. 489, L fold’, 2014, paint on mild steel, 146 x 119 x 48 cm. Photo: Philip White. Image courtesy the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary.

Rana Begum was born in 1977 in a rural village in post-independence Bangladesh, a place rife with violent coup d’etats and assassination attempts against state officials. At the age of eight, she moved to the United Kingdom and has remained there ever since. Begum successfully completed her BA in Fine Art from the Chelsea College of Art and Design in 1999 and earned her MFA in Painting from the Slade School of Fine Art in 2002. The artist lives and works in London.

Rana Begum, ‘No. 124’, 2007, resin on lithographic tape, electrical tape on aluminium, 125 x 62.5 x 6 cm. Image courtesy the Barjeel Art Foundation.

Rana Begum, ‘No. 124’, 2007, resin on lithographic tape, electrical tape on aluminium, 125 x 62.5 x 6 cm. Image courtesy the Barjeel Art Foundation.

In the eyes of a child

Begum grew up as a member of a “strict Muslim working class family”, where the experience of reciting the Quran five times a day, provided rigorous and rhythmic structure for the artist. According to Begum in an interview with Ziba Ardalan (PDF download), despite living abroad for a significant portion of her life, an early experience in Bangladesh stands out as an important catalyst for the artwork that was to come:

I remember one particular day as a child in Bangladesh reading 
the Quran at the local mosque, in a tiny room dappled with morning light. The light, the sound of the water fountain and the repetition 
of recitation, all familiar elements, suddenly came together in a strong feeling of calm and exhilaration. It is one of my strongest memories. This combination – a simultaneous experience of calm and exhilaration – is what I try to capture in my work.

In the same interview, Begum discusses how her upbringing and personal proclivities became enmeshed:

It is possible that the cultural mores of my upbringing and my tendency towards these resolutely formal elements in art are intertwined. I grew up in a Muslim family where the importance of honesty was paramount. This expectation to be honest and open
 was applied to my work in a rigid way. I did not, or could not, hide the materials I was using.

Rana Begum, 'No. 449'. Photo: Philip White. Image courtesy the artist.

Rana Begum, ‘No. 449’, 2013, paint on powder-coated aluminum, 208 x 75 x 5 cm . Photo: Philip White. Image courtesy the artist.

Abstractions

In addition to Begum’s Eastern influences, the artist’s work has been inspired, in large part, by some of the most well-known constructivist and minimalist artists from the West, including American abstract painter Agnes Martin, American minimalist artist Donald Judd and American constructivist and minimalist Sol LeWitt. In the same interview with Ardalan, Begum discusses the importance behind the “physicality of materials” and the impetus to seek the spiritual:

For me, Minimalism is about searching for something pure in both a spiritual and physical sense. Donald Judd, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly and Sol LeWitt brought my attention to the physicality of materials while simultaneously exploring light and colour in a way that, to my mind, Constructivism lacked. Their work suggested contemplation and serenity using materials that bore truth to structure, mass and surface. This exposure served as a catalyst for my need to create something that was beyond the material.

Beyond those influences, her connections with British painter and printmaker Tess Jaray and Iranian installation artist and sculptor Shirazeh Houshiary figured prominently during Begum’s days as a student at the Slade School of Fine Art and have had a lasting impact on the direction of her work.

Rana Begum, 'No.606 Mesh', 2015, paint on mild steel, 132 x 132 x 2 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary.

Rana Begum, ‘No.606 Mesh’, 2015, paint on mild steel, 132 x 132 x 2 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary.

Broad palette 

This melding of East and West, rural and urban, light and colour, manmade materials and geometric shapes gives Begum a unique palette in which to draw from. In particular, the repetition of form provides a ritualistic jumping off point for Begum and, according to the Islamic tradition, provides the viewer with an opportunity to “visualise the unknowable and divine”. Repetition of form is one of the three pillars of Islamic design, which include symmetry, repetition and rhythm.

As Brooklyn-based writer and curator Murtaza Vali writes in an exhibition essay (PDF download), Begum merges seemingly disparate influences across traditions in her work:

She assimilates the lessons of Minimalism with older traditions of using geometric patterns to visualize the unknowable and divine in Islamic art and aesthetics, and of using repetitive action as a way of transcending the bounded self and communing with the divine in the Sufi ritual practices of sama and dhikr. For Begum, repetition retains an element of ritual; it is always also the “repetition of recitation,” an allusion to the ritualized reading aloud through which the Quran is memorized.

Rana Begum, 'No.276', 2011, painted aluminium and raw steel, 152.5 x 100 x 2 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary.

Rana Begum, ‘No.276’, 2011, painted aluminium and raw steel, 152.5 x 100 x 2 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Jhaveri Contemporary.

This almost seamless integration provides an “interactive experience”, which gives Begum the freedom to concentrate on the subtlety of forms and colours – and as she told Ardalan – while “transcending” differences:

I do not make work which addresses social or political concerns. There is a common language of colour, form and pattern flowing through my work which transcends nationality, class and gender.

Lisa Pollman

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Related Topics: Bangladeshi artistsabstract artartist profilesmixed mediaevents in London

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Brittney

By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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