London-based artist and researcher, Sara Choudhrey explores themes of space and place in her work through shapes and pattern. Sara’s practice involves the construction and application of patterns using a variety of media, where geometry and natural forms become reference points to site-specific locations around the world.
Sara is interested in human engagement with space, both natural and man-made, and considers their impact on each other beyond a specific time and place. Pursuing the concept of continuity, Sara has conducted practice-led research on visual culture from medieval Spain and Portugal, Mughal era sites in Pakistan and Islamic art in the British Arts & Crafts Movement. We talked to Sara about hybrid societies, how traditional Islamic architecture and pattern has influenced her work and the potential of using digital technology to create contemporary Islamic art.
Sara Choudhrey in collaboration with Pete Cleary and community groups in Milton Keynes and Bletchley. Between the Stars, commissioned by MKIAC.
Installation view at Bletchley Park, 2020, Photo: Pete Cleary.
Your work explores space and place through shapes and pattern. Can you tell us more about why this and the inspiration behind it?
I am intrigued about what spaces, and things within those spaces, can tell us about the world around us, about nature, people, and society. Visual culture is often inspired by nature and is manifest in the built-environment, allowing us to learn about our history, heritage and values. It also allows us to connect the past to the present and reflect on changes over time. Those changes might tell us about things we once valued or have come to neglect, or may evidence disruption, the movement of people (whether by choice or by force), changing political values, economic conditions and the make-up of local communities.
By analyzing and working with surface design within architectural spaces I am able to reference specific locations and consider not only the visual information, but the wider context in which that place is situated.
The material world is also a way in which we can see developments in artistic output, something that abounds in the Islamic world, and the cross-cultural, cross-regional influences of art and design.
Sara Choudhrey, DW05 (Driftwood Series), 2019. Photo: Will Noor
What does a hybrid society mean to you and how is that concept conveyed through your work?
Hybridity was a term I first encountered in cultural studies to refer to people who are a mix of more than one ethnicity, culture or heritage. However, it could be argued that the highly-connected, increasingly globalized world we inhabit is becoming ever more hybridized, and therefore the term’s application to identity studies is becoming more complex and nuanced.
The term also applies to numerous disciplines including art, crafts and design, where different materials, techniques and processes may be combined to lead to a new outcome.
In my artistic practice I take these ideas into consideration and also explore hybridity as a literal method for making and constructing my work. I enjoy experimenting with digital and non-digital making processes, for example laser etching my digital drawings onto wood and then completing the process by painting with washes of ink and gouache (as can be seen in my Driftwood series). As a result, it would be difficult to describe the works without also adopting hybridized terms: the term ‘painting’ would not suffice alone for these particular artworks. I have also dabbled with hybridized descriptions such as ‘digital Islamic art’ as one area of consideration for how terminology might address developing practices seen in contemporary Islamic art.
Sara Choudhrey, Siraat, 2021. Installation view at Southampton City Art Gallery, commissioned for Manifesting the Unseen 2021: Southampton. Photo: Joe Low Photography
Sara Choudhrey, Siraat, 2021. Installation view at Southampton City Art Gallery, commissioned for Manifesting the Unseen 2021: Southampton.
How does Islamic art and architecture influence your work including the construction and application of patterns based on geometry and botanical forms which are seen in your pieces?
The Islamic world is rich in some of the most splendorous examples of art and design, including in the masajid, palaces and monuments built over its 1400+ year timeline. One of the most celebrated aspects of this is the unity that can be seen in the varying styles and colours used to adorn these sites. That unity is referencing the natural world which presents a wondrous underlying formula attributed to Divine creation, signs from Allah SWT. We celebrate and acknowledge this in our manifestation of creativity – by using the same principles we see in the natural world in our art and design. These principles include geometric constructions which feature symmetry, proportion, harmony and balance.
I have been blessed to be able to travel to a number of places in the Islamic world (past and present) to see these sites first-hand, including Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Pakistan and parts of the Middle East. Being based in London, I have also had access to archives and museum collections which have a rich variety of artefacts originating from the Islamic world. Noticeably, these artefacts, much like the architectural sites, tend to be adorned with geometric patterns, calligraphy, and biomorphic or floral motifs.
I have a curiosity in understanding how these patterns have been constructed and enjoy the challenge of deconstructing and analyzing these. A further area of interest is the little historical documentation regarding how Islamic patterns and motifs were constructed in the past, as it was knowledge shared from one artisan or craftsperson to another in a face to face setting such as a workshop. However, by applying geometric principles of construction, it is possible to deconstruct and understand better how the artisans may have approached pattern-making to achieve the wondrous tradition of Islamic art we can still see today. In my work, I like to tap into this tradition but also provide continuity in a contemporary context, touching on themes relevant to our experiences today.
Sara Choudhrey, Al Jaqmaqiyya detail, 2018
Your work combines digital technology with traditional methods, creating a contrast between the two. Why did you combine both and can you talk us through your process?
My practice developed as a result of studying Multimedia Technology and Design as an undergraduate. I had learnt to use various design software and dabbled in using this to digitize some of my free-hand geometric drawings. However, during my Masters in Digital Arts I pursued pattern-making from the context of Islamic geometric design whilst also adopting a research-based approach to better understand the context of my work situated in the wider history and developments of Islamic art and design. I then further focused on the context of Islamic art and its production and development specifically in the UK through my PhD research.
I found that digital technologies have increasingly been adopted in making processes for all types of artisans, whether as a tool or a medium, yet this does not determine the outcome’s quality, methodology or accuracy. The artist is still very much the creative force behind the work. A traditional approach can still be adopted in the use of digital technologies, as an understanding of traditional geometric principles is still required in order to produce a proportional, harmonious and balanced artwork/design. The same applies to any type of visual art, where the skill and ability to use a tool will be based on the ability of the artist yielding it.
The designs I construct usually incorporate some form of geometry and lines of symmetry, sometimes in a very subtle way. Again, the results can vary between paintings on paper to framed woodworks, installations and sculptures.
I use a variety of tools and media, and often start drafting or sketching a design using lead, compass and ruler on paper. However, I use a similar manual process for constructing digital drawings on a computer – same rules and methodology which are especially important for construction of Islamic geometric patterns.
The benefit of a digital drawing is that I can then output this in a variety of ways. For example, it can lead to an animation, or it could be transferred as an engraving onto wood or Perspex using computer aided machinery such as laser or water jet cutting.
The possibilities are numerous but is determined by suitability to the project brief and conceptual aspects of the work. The technology is not intended to be the main focus of the work.
Sara Choudhrey, still from Digital Light Code Makers at Bletchley Park, 2020. Photo: Karen Kodish
You have exhibited widely including the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, at Digital Futures in association with the V&A in London, as part of Digital Light: Code Makers at Bletchley Park, and as part of the Islamic Arts Festival at the Sharjah Art Museum in the UAE. How do you prepare for an exhibition and which has been your most memorable experience to date?
When approached to exhibit, there is usually a theme, brief or curatorial statement, and the work proposed might be site-specific or presented amongst a narrative. Site-specific projects are perhaps the most exciting as there are challenges and parameters that shape the direction yet there is enough scope to be imaginative and creative.
Some memorable examples include my installation Siraat which was commissioned by Manifesting the Unseen to be exhibited at Southampton City Art Gallery in 2021, and my Ulterior Motif series commissioned for the Sharjah Islamic Art Festival in 2015.
Being commissioned to produce work specifically for an exhibition or project shows that someone has understood your artistic practice, the passion and concepts behind your body of work and they become a patron in the further development of your practice. It also opens doors to exploring new directions, for me these projects have led to larger, more immersive and engaging installations, use of new mediums and therefore new forms of impact on varying audiences outside of my usual locality.
Sara Choudhrey, Ulterior Motifs installation view at Sharjah Art Museum, commissioned for Islamic Arts Festival 18th Edition, 2015. Photo: Shanavas Jamaluddin.
What is your dream creative project?
That is a tough question to answer! Creativity is an ongoing pursuit and I have many ideas that I would love to explore. I continue to draw on my Pakistani heritage in my ongoing Rang series and there is my overarching interest in colour studies that comes into many of my works, referencing natural forms and organisms.
I also very much enjoy working on community-collaborative projects where locals can have an input in the artistic outcome. This was the basis of my work on the AYAH – Sign project in 2018 in West London and the Digital Light Codemakers - Beyond the Stars project in Bletchley commissioned by MKIAC. In both cases, I was able to collaborate with experts in the new media and computer programming fields as well as work with locals to develop understanding of Islamic art-making processes. It would be great to continue advocating for arts for wellbeing and making art and designs skills more accessible for all.
Sara Choudhrey, DW06 (Driftwood Series), 2019
Digital technology is increasingly being used to create contemporary Islamic art. What do you think the potential is and how digital technology redefine our understanding of Islamic art for the future?
One of the beauties of Islamic art is its continuity and relevance through the ages. Over the centuries, new developments, materials and tools have been used across the Islamic, and non-Islamic, world. The traditional approaches have adapted and evolved with time, yet the aesthetic, visual language and essence of the art has remained. As surely, with the continuity of the Islamic faith and its presence amongst its people, the creativity that stems from this community will also remain.
It will be immensely interesting to see how Islamic artistic practice will continue through this post-digital age too. In my research I have found that audiences are drawn to immersive and interactive experiences, and digital technologies are a great way to facilitate this. Their incorporation has also become increasingly normalized in artworks. There is a lot of scope to build on this, exploring the use of augmented and virtual realities, as just one strand of digital output as these technologies are becoming increasingly incorporated into our everyday lives, even enabled on our handheld devices.
I have found it very rewarding to take an experimental approach in art-making which has led to some unexpected and intriguing outcomes in my artistic practice.The use of any particular tool or technology does not guarantee a good quality artistic outcome, the focus should always be on the most efficient solutions that do not compromise on creativity. Taking an experimental approach in art-making and simply enjoying the process has led to the more intriguing outcomes in my artistic practice.
For more information about Sara Choudhrey check out https://www.sarachoudhrey.com/
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