The Wick - Interview Anglo-Bangladeshi contemporary artist Rana Begum The Wick - Interview Anglo-Bangladeshi contemporary artist Rana Begum
Monday Muse

Interview Anglo-Bangladeshi contemporary artist Rana Begum

Rana Begum
11 April 2022
Rana Begum
11 April 2022
Pitzhanger Manor & Gallery’s new exhibition by Rana Begum, ‘Dappled Light’, explores the perception of light, colour and form across sculpture, painting and installation. It is Begum’s first solo show in a London public gallery in six years.

Born in Bangladesh in 1977, Begum moved to the UK aged eight and graduated with a BA in Fine Art from the Chelsea College of Arts in 1999, and gained an MFA in Painting from Slade School of Fine Art in 2002. While she continues to live and practice in London, her work draws inspiration from childhood memories of the rhythmic repetition of daily recitals of the Quran, as well as geometric patterns from traditional Islamic art and architecture.

A stroll along The Line, London’s first public art walk, which runs from Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to The O2, will also reveal a new site-specific, outdoor public sculpture by Begum, developed in response to the architecture and landscape of London City Island. Catching Colour features ‘clouds’ of suspended coloured mesh, appearing to float above the central pathway of Botanic Square.

As this week’s Monday Muse, Begum shares why she thinks art in public outdoor spaces is so important and her favourite spots to appreciate the changing light in London.

THE WICK:   Who is your ultimate Monday Muse?

Rana Begum:   Tess Jaray is a massive inspiration to me. I worked for her as an assistant for five years at the beginning of my career. She taught me so much when I was starting to develop my own practice and learning to navigate the art world. I am still in awe of her drive, passion and energy. To this day, she continues to push her work and still has something new to say. I can hope to be like that.

TW:   What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

RB:   Self-doubt is something that is always there and it is a positive thing. Look at it as a series of questions, it forces you to think about what you are doing and why.

TW:   How did growing up in Bangladesh inform your practice?

RB:   Growing up in Bangladesh has informed so much of my practice – I can see the influence of its landscape, culture and light in all my work.

As a child, we would go to the mosque and recite the Quran. In these recitations, there was a feeling of rhythm and repetition that filled me with a sense of calm. There was a feeling of meditation that accompanied the collective recitation. I can see this childhood experience playing out in much of my work, the use of repetition, of order, and the resulting feeling of calm.

Visually, the landscape and light in Bangladesh permeates through my work and influences the way I see the world. There were rice fields all around the farm where I grew up and I used to be captivated by the way light fell on the water. The light in Bangladesh is so different from the light in the UK, and I think this difference has always given me a heightened awareness of light in all its variations. When I travel now, I am sensitive to the changing quality of light in different countries and the way it interacts with a surface. These observations still inform and push my practice.

I think it is only recently that I have been able to see these connections between my childhood in Bangladesh and my work. I spent much of my career trying to separate my work from my identity as a Bangladeshi, female artist from the fear of being pigeon-holed – I wanted my work to be experienced and appreciated for itself and not categorised or defined by my background or gender. However, in the last years I have been able to see and value these connections that have influenced me and my work.

TW:   Much of your work is multi-sensory, which is your favourite sense?

RB:   It has to be sight ¬– this is the sense that I work within and through which I find inspiration. However, there is an interesting connection with touch – with the way a material feels and the texture of a surface. When making a work I am always aware of its tactility, the experience it creates and the way light interacts with it. So, the sense of touch feels inseparable from sight, producing a sensory experience without the need to physically touch the object.

“The last two years of the pandemic have really made us aware of the importance of public, outdoor spaces as a means to interact, think and connect.”

TW:   Which is your favourite medium and how important is materiality to your work?

RB:   I don’t have a favourite discipline as they feel so interconnected, there is always a dialogue between the works and the different ways my ideas and explorations come to be materialised. My work rarely starts with a particular discipline or material in mind. It starts with an idea or an inquiry, the desire to answer a question or explore a possibility, and this can develop in multiple directions and mediums at once.

TW:   How important is art to outdoor spaces?

RB:   The last two years of the pandemic have really made us aware of the importance of public, outdoor spaces as a means to interact, think and connect. It is so important to bring art into these accessible spaces so it can be appreciated and experienced by all. I love the way The Line’s public art walk makes you experience the work as part of a journey, as a way of navigating a city and discovering new spaces.

Designing this body of work to be outside has been challenging and we have had to really think about the structural design and other practicalities. But it has also allowed me to push the work in a new and exciting direction. The changing seasons and natural light completely transform the work in a way you would never experience indoors, giving it a sense of transience and movement that brings it to life.

TW:   Tell us about your current show at Pitzhanger Manor.

RB:   It is a touring show that was originally shown at Mead Gallery in Coventry. It has been amazing to see how the show has adapted to fit each location – both are so different. There are some site-specific works that I have created for each space in response to their differing architecture, allowing me to explore how one body of work can evolve and change to create a new experience for the viewer.

I have really enjoyed the dialogue between my work and the architecture of Sir John Soane. He was famous for the way he played with light, designing buildings to draw light in to a space and create an experience. I have always felt a connection to architecture and the way the body passes through and inhabits a space. This connection between light, architecture and form has been at the heart of my show ‘Dappled Light’ and the curation process.

TW:   What is your favourite culturally curious spot in London?

RB:   I love Abney Park Cemetery. I am lucky enough to live overlooking it and can spend hours watching the changing light filtering through the trees. It is such a haven of calm in the midst of the busy, urban environment that surrounds it. London feels miles away.

Over lockdown I started developing a body of work taking hourly photos of the cemetery through my flat window. The result was hundreds of photos documenting the changing light across the course of each day, month and year. I used these photos to make my first video work, shown in ‘Dappled Light’. In the film, the subtle movements and changes in light make the trees look almost like they are breathing – I find it mesmerising.

TW:   In 2019, you became a Royal Academician, what does this mean to you?

RB:   It was a privilege to be elected by such an incredible group of artists and architects, which I respect and admire. It was amazing to get that validation and it has definitely helped me feel more confident about my work and what I can achieve.

It has also come with a feeling of responsibility – the responsibility to promote a diverse and inclusive art world and to create a community that is supportive and collaborative.

TW:   Would you like to share any other information on your current or future projects?

RB:   At the moment, I am just so excited by the conversation that is happening between my show at Pitzhanger Manor & Gallery and the new work, with The Line, Catching Colour. The series of work is so different in each location – it’s inspiring me to think of the new ways it could develop and the spaces it could inhabit.

I am part of a group show presented by Parasol Unit in Venice called ‘Uncombed, Unforeseen, Unconstrained’, showing a work which is produced in collaboration with musician Hyetal (David Corney).

I am also looking forward to my solo show at Cristea Roberts Gallery that opens in June. This show documents my printmaking journey and the dialogue between it and the rest of my practice. I am excited to explore this conversation, between print making, installation and sculpture.

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