British artist shares passion of Islamic art with Princes and Prime Ministers.
Art Radar catches up with Shahida Ahmed to find out more about how her work transcends cultures, faiths and race.
Recognised as the United Kingdom’s first female Muslim British ceramic artist, Shahida Ahmed (PDF download) seamlessly melds together Islamic geometric shapes and calligraphy with three-dimensional sculptures and installations.
Ahmed, who successfully earned her MA in Visual Arts from the University of Leeds, also has an advanced degree in Community Leadership and was a recipient of a scholarship at the Royal College of Arts, London. The artist is currently working towards a PhD in Art Management and Process. Her work is included in notable private and public collections worldwide.
Art Radar talks with the artist to learn about how she fuses techniques and textures, and on winning the Alhambra Award for Excellence in the Arts.
Growing up in the United Kingdom, what or who were your early influences?
My earliest influences and inspirations were being surrounded by a community predominantly composed of cotton mills, textiles and businesses in Lancashire. Our family textile business and my mother, who was a creative ambassador to my childhood, also played significant roles early on. The creativity that my mother transcended to me were manual skills such as sewing, knitting, crochet and making dolls. A vast picturesque countryside gave me many moments to question and ponder; where, who and what I was doing in this small part of the United Kingdom. Growing up, I lived in close proximity to several historic, cultural and arts hubs. Exposure to this rich environment heavily induced my creativity and gave me bountiful inspiration.
Do these influences appear in your work? How?
I used the natural environment to influence the landscapes and figurative art in my early work. Early exposures to fabrics and textiles made it an easy medium to obtain, hence I have used these prominently. I used these textiles and fabrics to make collages to allow texture in my work. I can definitely say the textural, colour and surfaces were all influenced by my upbringing and later enhanced as well by my frequent travelling and knowledge of different cultures. These early influences are still used in my recent works, where I use fabrics to create texture in my paintings. Later on at art school, I was surrounded by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth sculptures and many visiting exhibitions, which also inspired me.
Please tell us about your experience with ceramist Jim Robison.
In magazines and the Ceramic Review, the name Jim Robison was published frequently. I further learnt he lectured at Leeds University located in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Following him on media outlets made him someone I aspired and looked up to, thus I set my sights on studying at the aforementioned university. At university, I reviewed Jim’s work and fell in love with the way each sculpture was distinct, different and equally as creative as the next. I realised that none of his works were traditional forms of pottery and I saw each piece as abstract art made in clay. I loved how he used decoration on form. His glaze and colour techniques looked raw and natural on some of his sculptural forms.
What did you learn from Jim that you have added or adapted to your artwork?
Being in the presence of Jim throughout my undergraduate degree I learnt a lot from him. I learnt that clay is a medium which can be manipulated to address many specific ideas, allowing me to develop sculptures and installations. These manipulations and ideas were further encouraged by Jim as he enabled me to utilise my theme in such a way that I could amalgamate the form with the decoration. The creativity and abstract nature of his artworks were not the only things that could be elucidated when reviewing his artwork but also the finish of his works, mainly natural colours with no shine. The finish of my works also has inspiration from what I observed during my time at Bretton Hall. However, I wanted to explore his techniques, colours, forms and style that he amalgamated with the use of pattern and texture. This allowed form and decoration to fuse well. He always advised me during my tutorials to explore the form and decoration in pottery and to not make it look stuck on or forced.
Did your tutelage under art historian David Hill have an impact on you and your work? How?
David Hill is a true academic and his book Turner on the Thames was a great contribution to art. Dr. Hill showed me how one can have passion about an artist, his works and how that can create an understanding for others. At university I realised that art can be in any style and subject matter; however, Dr. Hill elucidated the passion one has to have for the subject and his/her work. David helped me underpin the theory of my art works and be able to critically analyse the development of my work. At this stage I was travelling, it was the beginning of the Gulf War and I was starting to divert from landscape to figures, exploring culture and Islamic art. David was able to give me direction and encouragement to develop my theme and also make me understand the importance of theory in my work. My tutelage under David Hill was definitely one that gave insight and creative understanding of the journey in my work.
Please tell us about the exhibition “Spirituality in Action” for HRH Prince Charles (2010) and how you used Kufic script in the installation.
The exhibition for Prince Charles was a solo exhibition based on sculptures and paintings inspired by Rumi’s poetry and Sufi quotes. The paintings were inspired by my trips to Turkey and my studies of whirling dervishes. Whirling dervishes are a form of meditation in Sufism, bringing one closer to God.
Kufic script is one style of calligraphy which I am drawn to. I like it as it visually draws you to traditional Islamic calligraphy but in a modern contemporary manner. Kufic script reminds me of bar codes, puzzles and a maze; it cannot purely be understood and read in a horizontal manner. I decided to use this style on the façades and surface on my installation piece. Its patterns may not be easily legible but somehow looks like a universal code.
In order to express this, I created the piece Oneness. This installation contained 99 clay and wooden cubes in varying sizes, heavy in form and in their monochrome glaze. This huge installation exquisitely juxtaposes the most avant-garde modern style to illuminate an ancient and eternal effect. In their precise formation, one is drawn through each layer of beauty to a point of singular transcendent completeness.
In this installation it is very simple; everything is included and allowed to live according to its true nature. This is the secret that is being revealed, the opportunity that is offered one universal truth and one God. Oneness brings Arabic calligraphy and the beauty of geometry to a wider audience on a universal modern and contemporary platform as it merges tradition and form.
Any interesting stories meeting the Prince or former British Prime Minister David Cameron?
The exhibition itself was both overwhelming and exciting. While conversing with HRH, I learnt about his love and passion for not only art but Islamic art. I also found that he showed a great amount of interest and was going through each piece in detail. In addition to HRH being down to earth and extremely engaging, he also had a great sense of humour. In honour of HRH Prince Charles, I made him a clay cube which had Islamic inscriptions, calligraphy, engraved into it and finished in stoneware.
When invited to 10 Downing Street, I felt equally overwhelmed! I presented the former Prime Minister with a piece of artwork. David Cameron was very interested in the art piece. I found him very pleasant and genuinely wanting to know about my work. I was invited again by the current Prime Minister Theresa May in July 2017 and had an amazing conversation about using art as a universal dialogue for interfaith and diversity.
In 2012, you earned an advanced degree in Community Leadership. Please tell us how you use this aspect of your education in conjunction with your artwork.
My Master’s Degree in Community Leadership was pure serendipity. This is because at the time I was an elected councilor, as an independent and elected in by the committee as vice chair of the Town Council in my hometown Nelson. At the time I was also doing an MA in Visual Arts at Leeds University working on developing techniques in glazing and underpinning my artwork with theory and technique, when I was approached regarding undertaking another Master’s degree funded by The Fair Share Trust, who received money to develop community leadership at UCLAN. This was significant as it was the first Master’s programme in the country in “Community Leadership”. I had, at the time, no intention to be doing two Master’s degrees simultaneously, but when I discovered one module was in Cordoba University on Interfaith Dialogue I didn’t gather a second thought. As a frequent traveller, I hadn’t explored this part of Spain before and this enticed me further. Penultimately, I decided for the master’s and the aforementioned trip was a huge turning point for me because I learnt about interfaith dialogue and the simultaneous existence of the three Abrahamic faiths that co-existed peacefully and in unity. The module explored pluralism and synergy, and how one can merge the best from each other’s cultures and faiths.
This specific trip inspired me to produce a collection of thrown ceramic works that were glazed in blue and white with Kufic script. They looked at traditional forms and decoration that was inspired from the visit and research.
Can you please tell us about the illuminated works that you created for the Sharjah Museum? Any interesting stories behind the piece 99 Illuming? How was it received by the audience?
This was a commissioned piece for the Sharjah Art Museum, for an exhibition with the theme of Festival of Light. I took a verse to inspire me as a starting point: “God is the light of the heavens and earth.” (An-Nur, 24:35)
This particular piece was constructed based on my installation Oneness. I wanted to create a piece of work that portrayed my theme and style but also showed development and growth. I thought about natural sources of light such as the sun and moon, and the connection with geometry and nature. The primary colours were taken from nature such as the sun, water, green grass, and then the grey and other colours showed secondary colours which take nature away. The colouring and deliberate composition of these colours create layering.
The piece proved to be challenging. It was created through experimentation. I experimented with the plinth, the light source and the layout of the gallery. All these factors affected the impact the piece would ultimately have on the audience. The Kufic Arabic script says “Noor” (light) in Arabic; I rearranged the letters in the word, jumbling them up in size to recreate a design which had no legible order relating to light as it can be penetrated from any direction. In order for the light to penetrate within the final installation and be seen by the audience, I decided to tread in unknown territory and use an unfamiliar medium, acrylic. The cubes in the final installation were made of translucent plastic in the same colours that I initially chose and this allowed the emergence of light from within the piece. The planning, design and producing of this installation took nearly a year to finally complete. I would, however, have liked to develop this into a new series but the duration of the process for this piece was lengthy and I didn’t have the resources. Overall, it was quite pleasing to work with new materials and create an installation as well as seeing it in a gallery. The feedback and reviews were amazing.
I am interested in learning about your connection with contemporary art and artists in Pakistan. I believe that you participated in an international residency in Karachi with artist Ismail Gulgee. Please tell us about that experience.
I was posted in Karachi in 2002-2005 after 9/11. I had never lived in this part of the world and was overwhelmed with the local art scene. I returned home to the United Kingdom with a wealth of exposure about the creativity in Pakistan. This led to my being funded by the Arts Council to do research and explore South Asian art. The trip allowed me to visit Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. During my residency, I had the pleasure of working with Ismail Gulgee, who was an established senior artist with an amazing national and international art career. His advice and experience was very encouraging and enabled me to believe in myself as an artist. He loved one of my sculptural pieces that I planned on giving him. After I arrived home, I heard he had been murdered. Out of my devotion for him, I produced a collection inspired by the trip and I created the exhibition “Journey through Zikr”, which was held in Karachi. It was my first solo exhibition in 2008 and included a piece dedicated to his memory.
You have been recognised as the first female Muslim ceramic artist born in the United Kingdom. Do you feel that artists such as yourself have a unique mission to reach out to others who may not understand the culture that you embrace or come from?
I see myself as an artist, one who creates. I wouldn’t necessarily say I have a unique mission to reach out to others who may not understand my culture, which I embrace. I identify my culture as being ‘British’, which in itself is unique as it allows individuality, acceptance, and doesn’t allow for confinement of my creativity, personality and labelling into a single category. I am very fortunate to be British. However, I feel that I have found art to be the best way to express and present a universal dialogue. This is very important as it is a platform for all; beyond creed, colour, gender and faith.
I engage with audiences from the various backgrounds and cultures, and I expose them to see beauty through art. Art is one step forward; people travel to all parts of the world, such as the Taj Mahal, Blue Mosque and Alhambra of Granada, which all feature Islamic architecture. These places are diverse communities where different cultures and faiths visit to show appreciation and are for all. I do feel, as an artist, that it’s my legacy to encourage youngsters towards this career path as it is not an easy ride for those who have passion and do not get the opportunity or chance. I enjoy discussing my art journey to encourage others. This has also led to my current PHD programme, which is looking at the exploration of Art Management and Process (standardisation) in museums and galleries on how they select art and artists’ works, with particular emphasis on Islamic art.
Please tell us about the change in how you sign your work. What was the impetus behind this change?
I feel very strongly about my signature and name being associated with my work. ‘She’ was my nickname as kid. However, in the contents of using it with my art, I thought about women in society and women in the art world, such as Frieda Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Cindy Sherman, and the recognition they gained compared to male artists. With global change and Islamophobia becoming emphasised more and media aiding towards the division in society, I felt it was time to eradicate any faith, culture or age in regards to my work. I can say that these pieces are produced by the female gender, a lady as in SHE, who has no race, culture or religion. So I changed my signature to the simple and anonymous pronoun ‘She’, to denote “a woman, no faith, colour or culture”, whose art was there to be freely interpreted by all.
You were recently awarded the Alhambra Award for Excellence in the Arts. Please tell us more about this award.
This was a total surprise and huge honour as artists are first nominated and then selected to be shortlisted. To be honest, I never thought I would win. There was representation from all over the United Kingdom. To be awarded nationally in the United Kingdom and gain an award for the Alhambra Arts Award for Excellence in the Arts really meant so much to me. Awards like this make you strive further and more determined to pursue your career in art.
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