Rana Begum (Photo: Mohammed Chiba, courtesy Jhaveri Contemporary)
Rana Begum (Photo: Mohammed Chiba, courtesy Jhaveri Contemporary)

Rana Begum’s language of colours

  • At her solo exhibition in Mumbai, Rana Begum, the Bangladeshi-British artist, continues her exploration of light, colour and form with a selection of sculptures and paintings
  • Marble and nylon fishing net, both of which are new to Begum’s practice, have been used in this show

Many writers have likened Rana Begum’s work to alchemy. The artist says she “distils spatial and visual experience into ordered form" in her art. By finding harmony within the chaos of urban life—in all its clashing colours and materials—Begum creates objects that highlight the infinite within the physical and the momentary. Through a practice of observation and translation that focuses on the elementary, it seems as if Begum picks up the sharpest shard of an encounter and uses its brilliance to represent the whole.

This process often remains a mystery to the viewer since Begum provides bare contextual information in her titles, instead using sequential numbers to name each work. To understand Begum’s distillation, then, we could look at a photograph she shared online from a beach in Durban.

In the picture, Begum holds up a watercolour against the sand and the sea, with green, red and blue bars painted on white paper as an abstract documentation of a mass of bathers rising out of the water. For Begum, making the watercolour was a way to unwind, but even this casual gesture demonstrates how she transforms disarray into states of calm and contemplation. “I wanted to describe what I was seeing, the experience I was having," she says.

Installation views of Rana Begum’s solo
Installation views of Rana Begum’s solo (Photo: Mohammed Chiba, courtesy Jhaveri Contemporary)

At Jhaveri Contemporary in Mumbai, where her third solo exhibition with the gallery is on display, a Bangladeshi-British artist continues her distinct exploration of light, colour and form with a selection of sculptures and paintings, all either from 2018 or this year. They combine certain characteristic concerns with basic geometric shapes and urban experience with forms from landscapes where natural elements are predominant, and focus attention on texture and surface. “I wanted to push my work and think about how light interacts with different surfaces. That is when I started to look at other materials," Begum explains.

Marble and nylon fishing net, both of which are new to Begum’s practice, have been used in this show. This is a result of occasionally leaving London, where she lives, for residencies over the last two years—to St Ives in the UK, to the medieval town of Cittá della Pieve in the Umbrian hills of Italy, and to the shores of Istanbul. Each of these experiences is combined and distilled into elementary form.

‘No. 950 Net’
‘No. 950 Net’ (Photo: Mohammed Chiba, courtesy Jhaveri Contemporary)

Marble blocks from Italy, in shades of white, brown, green and black, are fashioned into ovoid and spherical forms and shown in the gallery on white marble pedestals. While they borrow the appearance and display structures of sculptures that modernist artist Barbara Hepworth, who lived in St Ives, made more than half a century ago, they are also inspired by the floats that fishermen use there. Marble lends weight to the sculptures, with the lightness of floats transformed into something monumental and stationary, their moving shadows clocking the passage of time. The patterns on the surface of the marble appear like waves of the sea frozen in a particular moment.

Alongside the marble sculptures, Begum is showing a large nylon net, which she purchased in Istanbul, where fishing is a visible activity within the urban landscape. Sprayed with bright paint, the net is pinned to two walls that form a corner, and has soft curves and folds. It seems as if the drying net has trapped colours from elsewhere, both the intense hues of marine creatures and of synthetic objects. “For the last 10 years, I have worked with hard-edged geometry. I am now interested in showing the contrast between such forms and more organic shapes," Begum says of the shift in her practice.

However, the artist’s interest in fishing nets is not just formal. The nets she saw in St Ives and Istanbul were compelling because they brought back childhood memories of Sylhet, where she lived until the age of 8. “I remember looking at fishing nets and being mesmerized by them," Begum says. Talking about her experiences before and after immigration to the UK is also relatively new to her practice. “I was conscious about how I would be perceived as a Muslim female artist. That had an impact on how I pushed my work. I don’t title my work and I don’t like my name written next to it because it is not about imposing my gender or my religion on someone else’s experience of my work, but I feel much more confident now to highlight the background that is part of me and does affect the work," she adds.

The vibrant colours, too, draw in part from this background. “I grew up watching Bollywood movies mainly because of the music and the colours. It has a huge impact on how I perceive colour. It made me definitely take that risk to see what happens with colours you don’t generally put together and to see how that conflict can be turned into something calmer," she says.

Through a series of 30 wall-mounted objects cast in jesmonite—a material invented in the 1980s by mixing plaster, cement and resin—Begum offers the eye a heady and delicious mix of pigments. Each of these objects, laid out in a grid, presents a duet on its undulating surface. Red fades into green, orange transforms into violet, yellow and blue move together. In the paring down of texture and colour, many kinds of visual experiences are suggested—the movement of shimmering textiles in films that Begum may have watched, the vivid clothes of tourists who can be seen strolling by the Gateway of India from the gallery’s windows, and the puckered waves crashing into the shore nearby. “I was definitely thinking about the colours I experienced when I was here last, and the clothes I grew up wearing," Begum says about the way certain memories filter into a work and how the grid may be received in Mumbai, particularly in the setting of Jhaveri Contemporary.

The process of making the works, however, came out of a formal exploration that involved folding a paper into a grid, unfolding it and then crushing it in order to understand the interaction between “hard-edged geometry and organic shapes". Like the jesmonite rectangles, wall-mounted and painted aluminium foils have been folded and crushed, and framed on the wall. Resembling wrappers and other kinds of trash, they could appear to contain nostalgia for a time lost, but they can also be viewed in formal terms. On a larger scale, within the simple act of folding and crushing, which leads to intersecting lines of various kinds, is an echo of the complex geological process by which various materials are formed, including the marble used elsewhere in the exhibition.

In leaving origins ambiguous in the presentation, Begum’s abstraction shifts constantly between being an investigation of universal forms and the subjective experiences that further her fascination with certain shapes, colours and materials.

Throughout the show, we come up against an interest in playing with the representation of time, whether it is in giving permanence to the momentary action of crushing a thing or in exposing the layers of time that have gone into the formation of marble through its polishing. Fleeting time is fixed for viewing—as in the waves on the surface of the jesmonite rectangles—and durations that are so long that we cannot grasp them are crystallized within small objects—such as in the marble floats that took millennia to form.

In four paintings, paint is sprayed on brown paper in such large quantities that its surface has become textured. The sheets were originally wrappers for aluminium bars used in earlier sculptures and the paint was sprayed to test cans before working on the metal. These paintings accumulate traces of studio activity and are a record of the work done by assistants, none of which is quite as intentional as artworks tend to be.

As it rains outside, the paintings transform on to fleeting scenes of a hectic urbanscape seen in a moment of swift movement, the mundane transforming into the infinite and back again.

The exhibition is on view at Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai, till 9 November.

Zeenat Nagree is an independent writer-curator based in Mumbai and Montréal.

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