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Carved Geometry, Halima Cassell

Halima Cassell is one of the UK’s most distinctive and dynamic ceramicists and sculptors. Born in Kashmir, growing up in Manchester and now lives in Shropshire, her work is influenced by her multicultural heritage, as well as her travels to Japan, Italy and Pakistan.

Cassell’s work is instantly recognizable due to her bold, energetic designs, crisp carving and intuitive understanding of how to integrate pattern, form, material and scale. Inspired by geometry, architecture and nature, she creates deeply carved forms in unglazed ceramic, bronze, stone, wood, concrete and cast glass. She is able to visualise complex patterns and project them onto 3-D objects.

One of Cassell’s most thought-provoking pieces is Virtues of Unity, which will represent all 195 nations on earth. Each element is composed of clay from a certain country and each pattern is unique and portrays an aspect of the country’s culture. The idea for it emerged from Halima’s heritage and identity. Considered an immigrant in Britain and a foreigner in Pakistan, this feeling of displacement made her want to create a piece which emphasised the commonalities, rather than the distinctions, between every nation.

We talked to Halima about her creative process, representing Muslim artists in mainstream spaces and the potential for future of Islamic art.

What is your art process like from concept to creation?

When working in clay, I use heavily grogged clay that allows me to work on a large scale and utilise relatively thick surfaces to carve to my desired depth. I also concentrate on simple forms as the basis of my work in order to amplify the effect of the complex surface pattern combining with sharply contrasting contours.

I start by hand-building, and/or using a former to create the basis of a shape for my structure. This follows on to the next phase, which involves exploring numerous possible design outcomes. I work out the mathematics of the pattern and the surface area of the form, so that they work accurately and harmoniously together. Finally, when the clay is at the right consistency, (in between leather-hard and stone-dry), I intuitively work out which way to carve each section of the design. Subsequently, this informs the remaining pattern on the overall form without having to work it out on paper.

Each piece varies between 100 and 350 hours or more, depending on the size and complexity of pattern. The work is slowly dried over several weeks/months, to ensure a steady drying process. The pieces are fired to variable temperatures depending on the clay body capability.

Your work is represented extensively in leading private and public collections including the Victoria and Albert Museum, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Manchester Art Gallery and the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool as well as public art commissions which can be seen in Blackburn, the Forest of Bowland, the Ribble Valley, The Hepworth Wakefield Leicester, and Liverpool. This is a huge achievement, do you feel there is still a need for wider representation of Muslim artists in institutions and mainstream spaces?

All round representation of diverse cultures is always important. Some museums and collecting institutions already have amazing Islamic art collections which showcase the rich cultural heritage and diversity of Muslim artists from the past. There is definitely a need to work towards an understanding of contemporary Islamic art and spaces to showcase Muslim artists who are creating work now.

Congratulations on being awarded an MBE (an MBE is one of five classes of appointment to the Order Of The British Empire, and it stands for Member Of The Most Excellent Order Of The British Empire) how did it feel to receive that recognition?

It’s wonderful. I feel really honored to be able to be recognized for my contribution as an artist. The arts always need exposure and to be able to do this for my fellow artists to raise awareness of the importance of arts and culture to society is definitely a privilege.

Can you describe what the future of Islamic art looks like to you?

For me, the future looks really bright! Islamic art isn’t static, it’s always evolving and changing. There is a necessity to support the growth of the development of Islamic art too as it can do wonders to building an understanding between cultures and fostering a sense of hope and inspiration. If we reflect on the great Islamic architecture from the past, it continues to inspire people today. There is always a need to have that beauty around us and the world is definitely a much better place as a consequence.

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