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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.

You use natural pigments to create your paintings, why is this important to you?

There are so many reasons why this is important to me. The first one being I wanted to create traditional arts the way they were created centuries ago. I wanted to learn the techniques of paint making so I could understand the process and level of dedication that went into preparing for a painting. It find that the preparation is the part that really builds my connection with my work. The process of foraging and sourcing raw materials helps me pay more attention to my surroundings. It helps form a deep appreciation for nature, and all the beautiful things we have been given by God to enjoy and take inspiration from. I paint flowers and scenes of nature and it’s quite a lovely feeling knowing I’m painting nature with what nature provides.

A more practical reason is that I’m able to control the quality of the paint and the purity of the colour. For example, when I grind my own Malachite mineral, I can control the kinds of shade I’d like to extract and the more I wash it the purer the colour becomes. Many natural pigments have a beautiful shimmer running through them which adds a lovely subtle sparkle to my work. Making paint is an art in itself and a very experimental process which I really enjoy. However, I do use some pre-made gouache especially for pigments that are too toxic to use. I’d rather avoid keeping toxic pigments in my home studio.

How do you create your colour compositions?

Colour composition is something I used to struggle with a lot. As time went on, I felt more and more comfortable with visualising colour placement. I don’t plan a painting with all the colours finalised, but I’ll have a few colours that I know I definitely want to work with, with that in mind I begin the work and gradually it all falls into place.

Using colour to help the viewer navigate through my painting is really important in my work and I’m sure many other artists will say the same. I’d also like to mention how some Persian miniatures use colours to evoke or display emotion, and this is something I’m looking to use more in my work.

Your work expresses the rich heritage of Islamic art and culture. What has the response of audiences been?

I live in London so this form of art really isn’t the norm, it’s not something that the average person living in Britain is exposed to. However, we have had two exhibitions which included around 10 ladies practicing the traditional arts. The first exhibition was in London which is quite a multiculturally diverse city, and the second was in the Southampton City Art Gallery. In both places we had an amazing response from people of all walks of life.

They gave us brilliant feedback and really enjoyed listening to the guided tours we had organised. The exhibition opened up a door to many conversations that might not have taken place otherwise. I felt that there was a good interest in Islamic art as well as the culture. People asked plenty of questions and were genuinely intrigued and reminisced about certain places they had visited and seen similar patterns and art. I spoke about my work to many individuals and families and the spiritual aspect of the art really resonated with them.

I sell a lot of my art as limited editions prints which I hand finish in 24k gold. I’ve found that I sell to a very diverse range of people and feedback has always been generously kind and encouraging.

Why is the preservation of cultural heritage important?

It’s extremely important to preserve cultural heritage. There is a huge wealth of knowledge that we need to retain and pass on to our future generations. So many things have already been lost due to lack of documenting and practice of certain techniques and methods. Certain colours/dyes can’t be recreated because the recipes have been lost, likewise across many other forms of traditional arts some techniques have been lost forever.

Preserving cultural heritage means protecting the hard work of our ancestors. People are proud of their roots and ancestors, and many continue to keep their culture very much alive. It brings us so much joy to visit cultural spaces and see the workmanship of ancestors. I think we need our cultural heritage to understand who we are. Cultural heritage is what makes us different but it’s also what brings us together as we learn about each other and exchange ideas, crafts, recipes etc. Visiting foreign countries is appealing because people enjoy experiencing and learning about different cultures and seeing the preserved cultural heritage of that place. If it’s not protected and looked after, it will be gone forever just like the people that created it and that would be a really big loss.

What has been the most challenging work you have created and how did you overcome obstacles?

My work “Solace” is the first painting that springs to mind! The painting constitutes mainly of clouds and waves which I painstakingly painted in several layers and fine lines finishing. The work has a large negative space which was to be filled with one colour and in the sky there is one bird and a gilded sun. The challenge came when picking a colour for the sky. I had painted the clouds and waves in a very delicate white, lapis lazuli and azurite. For some reason I decided to block out the sky with a vibrant azurite blue. As soon as the colour went on I knew I’d made the wrong choice, but for some reason I carried on painting, as if by ignoring my gut it would somehow be ok it the end.

As I neared the end and finished the sky, I felt an overwhelming panic set in. I remember the look on my husband’s face, he knew how long I’d spend on this piece of work. He asked me to set the work aside and come back to it when I’d be able to think more clearly, but I couldn’t. I knew I had to act quickly because the paint was fresh and maybe it would be easier to wash off. I began by taking a huge wet brush and soaked all the azurite painted area to loosen the paint. By the end I was literally running water off the paper trying my best not to wash off my painted clouds and waves.

My other problem was the azurite, it was my own handmade paint and had been laborious to make. It had taken a good week to grind and wash to obtain the purest blue. I couldn't really afford to lose it. So I decided it was best to collect all the washed off paint into a jar, just to save the pigment.

In the end most of the paint had come off, but it had left behind a faint blue crystalline haze. I now had a textured sky to work with, which actually went on to add depth and create more interest in what would otherwise have been quite a flat looking sky. I chose a pale powdery blue colour to lay over the textured sky and thankfully the painting was saved.

When I see Solace, I see the hours and hours of brush work, the panic of my azurite episode and then the calm that the pale tranquil blue brought to the work. You can still see the tiny azurite crystals through the pale blue paint!

I’m a believer of everything happens for a reason and I’ve had so many episodes of paintings turning out to be quite different to what I’d imagined them to be. I think nearly every time I’ve made a “mistake” in my work it has gone on to enhance the final piece, Solace definitely was one of them.

What do you think the future of Islamic art looks like and how do you think we can continue to keep the tradition alive?

I think more and more people are connecting with Islamic art, there seems to be a renewed appreciation for it and I do believe it comes from institutions that have been established with the sole purpose of teaching traditional arts. The way to keep it alive is to keep practicing it and teaching those who are eager to learn.

It would also be great to get more representation within the art world for those who practice Islamic art. The exhibition Manifesting the Unseen did a great job of putting the spotlight on the art, as well as on the Muslim community. Lastly, I believe that the younger generation need to be given an opportunity at educational level to be able to practice and experience the art. That will give those who are keen a chance to practice for longer and refine their skills.

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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.


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