Shaheen Ahmed gained a Diploma in Art and design in her home town Burnley, where she started out as a paste up artist working for a high street printing company. She continued to pursue a formal art education and gained a Foundation in Textile Technologies at Bolton University and a Degree in Silk Screen and Lino Printing at Bourneville School of Art (BCU). In 2009 Shaheen studied Bookbinding and Gestural Mark Making in Arezzo and Rome. As part of a Paul Mellon Award in 2021, Shaheen collaborated on a Digital piece based on her Kirigami 3D mapwork and her work has continued to flourish.
Britain, Blueprint Design
We talk to Shaheen about her passion for Islamic art, how empathy is central to her practice, exploring social justice through her work, how maps are a tool for conversation, and her latest group exhibition with Crafts Council UK – Tackling Racism through Craft.
What was your journey to exploring Islamic art?
During my teenage years, a pivotal point in my practice arose at Burnley art college when I was told there wasn't enough information on Islamic art. This led me to question what my parents’ faith had to say and indeed what actually is Islamic art?
Prayers for Palestine and Beyond
I wanted to share the legacy of European Islam, by way of including Islamic geometric patterns within my craft. I attended a few calligraphy courses in London, along with Islamic geometry classes. In 2005, my digital artwork was selected as part of the United Nations Art for Peace exhibition at Stockport Art Gallery. In 2009, I won the Alhambra Award for Excellence in the Arts by Muslim News. In the same year, whilst resident artist at Wightwick Manor House, a National Trust exhibition, I designed the cover for a small booklet, Sacred Koran. I combined a Celtic knot with verses from the Surah Rahman (Mercy) in the Quran, with a William Morris print in the background.
Your creative practice is driven by empathy, why is this important to you?
My parents, especially my father, had always tried to gently remind me that greed, showing off and wanting more and more is a sickness that should be tamed. I try to exemplify this by litter picking in my neighbourhood, carrying out a regular street patrol watch and just living a humble as life as I can. It could be said that the less we have the better it is for us but so often greed gets the better of humans. Also, I've experienced this need some people seem to have to show they are living in a better area or have a bigger car (I'm content with my bike). It's becoming more clearer now that the whole world is in disarray, but going back twenty years it was mainly about how successful you, the individual was and less so about how the rest of the world was living. There was so much emphasis on trying to get rich, how to make your first million. At an arts business session back in 2004 I said, "But even if you do make your first million, wouldn't you give to the poor and starving first?"
When countries are at war, when people are suffering, that is the time to reach out. The very least we should do is empathise.
I remember the news coverage of Bosnia in 1992 - such a devastating, horrific year. It was unfolding in front of my eyes on the media, I was shocked, dismayed and felt betrayed by the world for letting my brothers and sisters be slaughtered, raped and caged just for being Muslim. This spurred me to combine my art practice with the desire to express my concern for others around the world.
Your process involves reworking maps to share narratives of statelessness, crippling infrastructure and disparagement. What was the inspiration behind this?
Twenty years ago, I dipped into a Sufi book about how 'Primordial Earth' is a place of refuge for all of mankind and its inhabitants. This stayed with me, the concept of global Earth being a sanctuary and place of refuge. Now when I look around me there is homelessness on my doorstep, and immense global suffering around the world. A sanctuary is a necessity that humans need to flourish and feel protected. Each mark I add to my artwork is a reflection, a contemplation, a reaching out in the form of a prayer for the destitute, the abandoned, the oppressed, the vulnerable. We have a problem with boundaries and borders. I look particularly at borders, boundaries and structures, displacement on another level with maps. I work with maps to explore and illustrate displacement and belonging. I put a geometric pattern onto the world map, carve it up and put it back together.
Why did you connect geometry to maps?
I needed to express all my thoughts and feelings about the globe being sliced up into specific borders and entities, a need to just slice it up myself and then make connections by sewing it back together. During research in 2011, I was inspired by Muslim cartographers. I didn't just want to carve up the world, I wanted to add my stamp. Personally, for me it was cathartic to quietly work away within my studio on something I felt passionately about.
We need nature for the survival of people and communities. My approach emphasises a collective shared narrative, and caring for others. History is seen through the person who shares it. Maps are physical pieces of paper that humans generally agree on, I am looking at kindness across the globe.
You collaborated with the Lapworth Museum of Geology, experimenting with scientific research relating to geometry formulations and geological maps around plate tectonics (movement of a place). What was the most memorable moment of this partnership?
Working within the archives in a secure sealed room I was introduced to vast styles of maps - maps by female scientists and explorers and cartographers. I thought about the Muslim cartographers and scholars, how amazing it would be to try to research at the Topkapi Palace in Turkey or the Bodlien library here in the UK. I remember saying to the then Director of Lapworth Museum of Geology how I can't seem to find any maps with Palestine on. It was a lovely moment when the director brought out three different types of historical Palestinian maps!
You use a multitude of techniques and approaches that are layered within your work, from calligraphy to digital and Islamic geometry. Can you tell us more about your creative process?
I have been using Japanese brush and ink for the past 15 years, I just assumed I have a love for them and didn't realise my connection was deeper than I first thought. It was at art college that I studied the influence of Japanese wood cut prints on impressionist painters and their work. I guess everything I use ties back to some memory or connection.
KEY to my Mapwork
Geological Maps I am drawn to the immense colours of geological maps. Through my research at the Lapworth Museum of Geology I have come to learn of the geometry formulations and geological maps around plate tectonics (movement of a place).
Silk threads – Silk Road, history, connections, stop points of rest and development for trade and commerce about trade routes.
Blanket stitch – When I am slicing open a geological map I sometimes think about the visual imagery, it feels quite cathartic to sew it back up again using a strong binding stitch like blanket stitch, almost like an incision that is healed through being sewn up. A blanket is a symbol of warmth, comfort and protection and my symbolic use of a blanket stitch is reflective of this
Tent-like paper structures – a symbol of refuge for the destitute and stateless
Islamic geometry – tile work in the Alhambra in Granada Spain – my place in Europe. The eight fold geometric pattern I take from the Alhambra Palace makes me feel as a Muslim I have always been a part of Europe.
Sumi ink – Japanese Ink. My link to Burnley, Lancashire. My art college teacher suggesting I study the influence of Japanese woodcut prints on 19th Century Impressionist Painters. I never understood the pull of Japanese inks, brushes, embroidery until I was studying gestural mark making and book binding in Arezzo, Italy
Meditation Whilst working in my studio on a reflective piece, I bring to mind the suffering of specific community/nation, and try to reflect on what might they be going through
Fabriano Paper Whilst studying in Italy I was based in Arezzo, a place close to where Fabriano paper is made. I often work with Fabriano paper as it holds the ink well, and retains the appearance of still being wet, with a glossy shine to the surface of the paper.
Calligraphy I repeat the Arabic words for peace, patience, hope, resilience, justice, fortitude and strength. Recently I was in conversation with a charity based in Gaza and these words also resonated with local artists in Palestine.
Tallymarks I use tallymarks to document my reflections, meditation and contemplation. They have a dual reference for me, as they also signify pain and suffering in different parts of the globe.
Is there a spiritual element to your work?
In the words of Ali in abi Talib:
Hate no one, no matter how much they've wronged you.
Live humbly, no matter how wealthy you become.
Think positively, no matter how hard life is.
Give much, even if you've been given little.
Keep in touch with the ones who have forgotten you, forgive who has wronged you, and do not stop praying for the best for those you love.
Personally for me there are so many subtle references within my work. I connect with the Earth on a spiritual level. Mountains for example can be seen as more than towering Earth. I feel connected to their expansive presence. Primordial Earth belongs to the destitute, whether they are humans or animals. How is the Earth feeling? The Earth’s ruptures, tectonic plates, people fleeing their homes due to climate change is such a travesty of our time.
Would you rescue me?
Your work explores social justice issues. Do you think art has the power to create social change?
Yes, great art can bring people from different backgrounds and viewpoints to the same space and nurture empathy. Beauty within art can hold a person’s attention, it can give the viewer another angle to reflect on current or past issues. I remember feeling amazed at the inclusive nature of art and thinking this is a great platform to carry on sharing my work.
Rumi once wrote:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
There is a field. I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
The world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
Doesn't make any sense.
Collective strength brings unity and compassion, thereby reinforcing the notion of equality and justice for everyone.
Blindfolded in Palestine
Your latest commission is a group exhibition at the Crafts Council UK – Tackling Racism through Craft. Can you tell us more about the exhibition and the works you have included?
Curators Rosie and Griffi visited my studio and selected the art pieces they wanted to display. The selection started from the large map of Palestine, they shared their enthusiasm for the subtle layers within my pieces. Then there is Grandma’s Spinning Wheel, a book art piece that evokes nostalgia around my heritage and memories. As for my hopscotch sketches, the curators have included a much larger version that visitors can actually play within the gallery space.
I've recently started working blindfolded with brush and ink. I'm trying to get away from presenting a neat, controlled piece of artwork to represent pain and displacement. Sanctuary Displaced was a piece I was working on when selected for We Gather.
It’s encouraging to see institutions like Crafts Council step forward and be inclusive after Dr Karen Patel’s research on the many barriers that black artists have had and continue to face.
What do you think of the representation of Islamic art in mainstream cultural institutions in the UK?
These last few years have seen many positive outcomes for Muslim artists. There is a wealth of opportunities simply due to vast archives that hold Islamic artefacts, objects and artwork. It's nice to see Islamic art is being more appreciated on a global scale.
Can you share any forthcoming projects you are working on?
I am working on three main projects all related to maps in some way or another. From spiritual garden spaces, to an international research project into the Kohinoor, the legacy of Muslin cloth and my own heritage. I'm really excited about an upcoming flags and maps project that I have started work on.
What does the future of Islamic art look like to you?
It has to merge with the society you live in. That's what will give leverage to Islamic art, just as Islam takes on the good from the society it flourishes in, so too will Islamic art. Muslim artists need to come together and start talking to one another as a collective and this is where Bayt Al Fann has stepped up. Just by being represented as a large body of like minded creatives we are starting to gather momentum.
When I reflect upon my career, which started in the late 90’s, I remember feeling quite isolated at the time. Over the years, whilst there may have been some bumps along the journey, I have noticed that there are a growing number of Muslim artists and commissioned opportunities, so it would appear that the future is looking good.
I'd like to take this opportunity to acknowledge and commend Bayt Al Fann for all their hard work in this initiative.
For more information check out
We Gather Exhibition: www.craftscouncil.org.uk/whats-on/we-gather-exhibition
The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.