Robina Akhter Ullah shares the inspiration and process behind her collaborative exhibition, Beyond Faith …
Beyond Faith is an exhibition I am participating in at Whitworth Art Gallery, part of The University of Manchester. This exhibition is on until 10 November 2019. The exhibition is co-produced with five contemporary artists and explores themes of identity, faith, cultures, otherness and belonging. Beyond Faith showcases the important and often overlooked contribution of Muslim women to culture and the arts in contemporary Britain.
As an older British Pakistani Muslim woman I have never felt there is a space for me in the art world. However, as a consequence of my (BA Hons) portfolio in 2016 I was independently awarded the University of Bolton Graduate Award by The Quilters’ Guild in recognition of my contemporary take on English paper piecing. This graduate award was part of a pilot project between The Guild and the University of Bolton.
My work is focused on fractured memories and moments. Patchwork is a technique associated with memory as traditionally it reuses leftover materials that have emotional significance. I am interested in how moments in nature are so fragile like the setting of the sun or changes in the natural landscape and often unnoticed. I take pictures of nature and digitally print these onto fabric. I use English paper piecing combined with embroidery and embellishment using traditional Pakistani techniques as I feel this forms a narrative of my identity as a British Muslim Pakistani woman.
Winning the Graduate Bursary had a huge impact on my confidence and I realised that my work has value and potential. Following The Guild’s Bursary Award, I applied to be part of a major Arts and Humanities Research Council Project on the roles and experiences of Muslim women in the UK Cultural Industries led by Dr Saskia Warren at The University of Manchester. My application was successful and I subsequently was selected to be one of the five artists exhibiting in Beyond Faith.
I created two new works for the exhibition alongside presenting select relevant pieces forming part of my existing portfolio.
Salah is about how the sky is integral to my faith and beliefs as a Muslim. The five daily prayers are obligatory (fard) and are performed at times determined essentially by the position of the sun in the sky ordained by Allah swt. That’s why salat (prayer) times vary at different locations on the Earth. To produce this piece I used a process of photographing the sky in the same spot outside my home and digitally printed these onto fabric and pieced them together, capturing moments in time that are lost everyday. Culture constantly evolves and through using geometric shapes in traditional English paper piecing, I am interested in how that influences what we consider as ‘Islamic’ art. As I was born in Lahore, Pakistan but lived all of my life in Manchester since the age of two years old, I have used beads acquired from my last trip to Pakistan in contemporary ways, piecing part of my memories of Lahore into Manchester’s landscapes.
The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire is about the gaps that reflect the missing pieces of the whole, unpleasant memories we choose to forget and connections that are lost. The hanging threads are a representation of how we are fragile and links can easily be broken, with lost memories and family as a consequence of colonial pasts.
Being part of Beyond Faith is a rewarding and rich experience which provided me with knowledge of curating practice and exhibition making. I am grateful to The Quilters’ Guild for awarding me with the Graduate Bursary as without that recognition I would have never have taken this opportunity.
By Robina Akhter Ullah