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Preserving Tradition, Mobeen Akhtar

Mobeen Akhtar London based artist Mobeen Akhtar, specialises in the traditional arts. Her work takes you through a journey of colour and meticulous detail heavily inspired by traditional Islamic art. Paying respect to highly skilful techniques; developed by innovative artisans of our past, Mobeen hopes to continue to shine a light on them and keep them in focus in the form of contemporary work.

We talk to Mobeen about her passion for traditional arts, the challenges of painting and preserving heritage for the future.

Your work reflects your admiration for arabesque, geometric patterns and more recently Persian miniatures. How did you develop a connection to these art forms?

It’s an interesting question, before learning about the traditional arts I don’t think I really knew or understood the purpose of the art at all. I would say my connection began to develop when I first began to practice the art.

At first, I was visually drawn to the art but, as I started understanding the hidden meaning I knew it there was no turning back. I knew I’d found something I wanted to do forever, and I was full of excitement. Every time I learned something new it never failed to amaze me. There are layers and layers of beauty visually and spiritually, and I felt a great connection with the ancestors of this art. I would sit and wonder in awe of their innovative techniques, and everything always seems to come back to nature and God.

Through this art, I formed a deeper connection not only with the art but, with nature and therefore with all of God’s endless blessings and with God Himself. I found a way to express my own journey in finding my way back to Him. This connection is now what keeps pushing me to learn more about the traditional arts.

You are influenced by traditional Islamic art and painting techniques, how did your journey working with traditional art forms begin?

I’m a mother of three and I was getting to stage in my life where I had started to think about what I wanted to do for myself and how I could build my own career. I have a science background, but I knew I wanted to do something creative, it’s all I’ve ever enjoyed and it’s all I ever seem to pick up when I look for something new to delve into. The other thing I wanted was to be near my kids, and to have a career that I could tailor around my family. Instagram was becoming bigger, and I had started posting a few things I was working on. During this time, which is now around 8 years ago,

Instagram surprisingly exposed me to the traditional arts. I know it’s not exactly the most exotic way to stumble upon such a beautiful form of art, but it’s the truth. I found some very talented and skilled ladies such as, Jeea Mirza, Maaida Noor and Sharmina Haq to name a few. I remember thinking I need to learn this; I want to do this! From there I began my journey to discovering traditional arts, which has been full of non-stop growth and learning.

I knew I needed to go somewhere to understand how best to practice the traditional arts, I understood it wasn’t something I could fully grasp while learning through books and watching tutorials. I wanted to understand how to create geometric patterns properly, I wanted to create my own arabesque designs, but I knew I needed to be taught the fundamentals of what these patterns and designs needed to include.

I joined the Art of Islamic Pattern and completed the introductory course with Adam Williamson and Richard Henry. The course gave me the base that I needed to feel confident enough to move forward on this journey. From then on, I continued creating more and more geometric and arabesque work and got to a stage where I began to feel the need to introduce traditional materials within my work.

I had ordered some beautiful Wasli paper from India, but had no idea how to use it correctly. In the days that I had acquired the paper I had also visited the Princes School of Traditional Arts to see the Masters Degree Show, where I discovered Hana Shanawaz’s beautiful Persian miniatures. She was also using the same beautiful Wasli paper and I thought there would be no harm in reaching out to her to ask how to prep the paper ready for use. Hana, who I didn’t know at all at the time was very warm and welcoming and invited me to her studio. I would say that this was the starting point of the next chapter in my traditional arts journey, not that I knew this at the time!

As promised Hana showed me how to prepare the paper and I was so grateful for it! But that wasn’t all she was prepared to teach me. Hana offered to teach me all the things I was dying to learn but couldn’t find the time to do so with my very young family. Committing to an intensive course to learn how to make paint was a real stretch at the time. Hana offered to teach me how to make paint, how to gild and before I knew it, I was preparing for my first exhibition! It was also the first time I felt I was beginning to form my own artistic voice.

Being in the presence of another artist and organically learning through watching, conversing and sharing was the best gift God could have given me at the time. I do believe it's because He knew how deeply and desperately I wanted to learn.

You describe your work as visual poetry, where do you find inspiration to create your work?

Some forms of Persian miniatures were used to display poetry in a visual form which I thought was fascinating and beautiful. As my work developed and started taking on a more personal feel, I found myself telling short stories, or expressing deeper feelings that I couldn’t express as eloquently with words. I felt that this was my way of communicating those feelings, maybe this was my way of making poetry.

I’ve always had an image of poetry being beautiful, meaningful, and quite clever. I don’t think I ever set out to create something that would help me express myself or tell little stories, but that’s where my inspiration seemed to come from. People started finding deep and spiritual connections with my work, which blew me away. I would get messages explaining how they felt when they saw my work, and most of the times they’d hit on a similar feeling I had whilst painting. It made me very excited, I felt I was connecting with people, but through shape, colour and composition.

For me it is a little like how poetry makes you feel, you feel emotional as you discover what the writer tries to convey. That’s how I feel my paintings are, there’s meaning in my work and sometimes it’s obvious what my work is about, but other times sometimes it’s not so obvious. I like to leave it up to the viewer to make up their mind, but I do tend to write about my work a while after they’ve been shown publicly.

Inspiration seems to come when I’m actively searching for it. As a painter you’re always on the lookout for inspiration, your mind becomes fine-tuned to all the little details around you. I believe you have to make an effort to find inspiration and recognise it when it presents itself. Visiting places of interest like exhibitions and museums or researching a new topic of interest always helps. I even look out for moments of inspiration whilst in deep conversations with friends and family. If I don’t find it, I begin easing back into creativity by making paint or painting smaller experimental pieces that don’t come with any pressure to create something great. I feel that if I keep myself busy and surrounded with creativity then inspiration eventually comes.