If you’re anything like me, when you find yourself trotting through an exquisite stately home, you’ll be the one to sniff “a bit dark but innit” as you pass intricately carved moldings and elaborate wooden doors. Not, however, at Pitzhanger Manor, the country estate owned by late 18th-century architect Sir John Soane in Ealing. The ingenious way it lights every part of this surprisingly domestic mansion is extraordinary, which is one of the reasons why London-based artist Rana Begum is such a brilliant choice to hold a solo exhibition there, which opens tomorrow.
“It’s amazing,” she raves over steak and chips around the corner from her purpose-built studio in Stoke Newington, where work for the show is nearing completion. “It’s beautiful. As you walk around, you feel like you’re constantly in the light. I wanted the work to respond to that. She was also struck by the grace of Soane’s chambers, ‘how you move in space. It’s quite interesting, there’s just a flow, it’s like it’s endless.
She sees a direct correlation between them and her own art. “I like that, especially when I use geometry, the idea of infinity comes through in a lot of my work, whether it’s the painting, the mirror tile pieces, or the jesmonite works or even the cloud [among her most recent works is a diaphanous collection of delicate, pastel clouds made from metal mesh and suspended in space, a version of which will feature at Pitzhanger] it looks like there’s kind of an endless aspect, and it could grow.
Unless you are a regular visitor to shopping galleries (she is represented by Kate MacGarry in the East End) you may not be familiar with Begum’s work, although outside the capital she has had solo exhibitions at Tate St Ives, Sainsbury Center in Norwich and Galerie Djangoly in Nottingham. His geometrically patterned beach huts stood out at the Folkestone Triennale last summer, and an exhibition of recent work has just ended at the Mead Gallery in Warwick. Later this month, a new site-specific public outdoor sculpture, Catching Colour, will be unveiled in Botanic Square, London City Island, with the occasion being marked by a specially produced performance by dancers from the English National Ballet.
Begum’s work is abstract and uses light, color and repetition to capture fleeting moments of beauty – or capitalize on them. “I’m excited to see how things will change because even in the gallery space of Pitzhanger you have the [circular stained glass] a skylight, which will be reflective and provide a certain type of light that changes throughout the day,” she says.
Light is a constant in Begum’s work. She grew up partly in Bangladesh and came to the UK aged eight. She therefore has a “pretty strong memory” of her stay there. Although she is the second eldest of four (she has an older sister and two younger brothers), she was “a little lonely” and remembers her mother “shouting at me a lot because I spent a lot of time sitting and gazing into space, or the rice field or the reflecting water.She once spoke of “reading the Koran at the local mosque, in a small room dappled with morning light”.
“You would have read it out loud,” she says now, “so it was something that was instilled in me, that kind of rehearsal.”
She was not always fully aware of these connections. His sculpture is very inclusive and instinctive – it speaks to everyone. She started out doing figurative work, but discovering abstract artists like Sol LeWitt and Agnes Martin while doing her art foundation reconnected her to inspiration from Islamic art and architecture. But “I always intended not to want anything to be overtly representative of myself, my culture, my political beliefs or my religion, because that would immediately mean that it’s pretty closed off. I wanted to use a much more open language and I felt that gave me more freedom.
She felt that freedom at art school, praising her teachers at Chelsea School of Art and then at the Slade, but found that afterwards people rather expected her, as a woman of Bangladeshi origin, make a particular type of art. “I think it was because people were having trouble logging in at work,” she says now, rather charitably.
It was probably her stunning installation made with woven baskets at the Dhaka Art Summit in 2014 – later remade at Kettle’s Yard Chapel in Cambridge – that crystallized what she was doing and gave audiences and galleries a way to ‘enter. Invited to create a work in Dhaka, and wanting to use existing materials rather than shipping, she immediately thought of baskets.
“My grandmother [grandma] took care of me when I was a child and weaved baskets; I did that with her. So immediately it came to mind, the way light passes through gaps [in the weave]. In fact, I didn’t even know if it was going to work. So I had to quickly order baskets on eBay.
It worked, certainly in Cambridge, where I saw it, a floor-to-ceiling descent of intertwined, nearly identical vessels (ordered from traditional basket weavers near Dhaka) creating an intimate but heavenly space where tiny specks of light were projected. like spangles on the floor of the little chapel. Serenity is the impression I felt, and since then Begum’s work has been increasingly celebrated for this quality – its harmony, its calm, its ingenious use of natural processes (such as the inexorable change daylight) to create and capture beauty. .
It was only relatively recently that she began to make meaningful connections for herself, thanks to cognitive analytic therapy which she decided to undergo after suffering from postnatal depression (her children, a boy and a girl , are now 13 and 10 years old).
“I found it really interesting; it made me think about what I was doing and why. I discovered things about myself, memories that I have; what they mean. There was so much space growing up in Bangladesh – it was the countryside, so I grew up surrounded by lush colors. [Before] I couldn’t really understand why I was a little attracted to these things, the repetition, the light, the color. It was a very nice connection.
The baskets won’t be in the Pitzhanger exhibit, but the aforementioned clouds will be (in the adjoining gallery space, because it’s really not easy to hang things from 18th century ceilings, but some works will be dotted around the house, or placed in the surrounding gardens) alongside a series of vibrant acrylic geometric paintings on aluminum, a set of jesmonite panels that resemble miniature mountain landscapes, and a wall installation large-scale metal molds of various sizes and shapes evoking Istanbul’s period buildings. Her first video piece will also be featured, capturing the light streaming into the forest behind Begum’s studio as she navigates the year in lockdown.
The job kept Begum sane during this time, when she wasn’t homeschooling her children (she says that, like everyone else, she was “going crazy), but it was always a comfort and a source of calm. The methodical research and testing of process that her sculptures require can be meditative, but, she says, when it’s all done, “then there’s a beautiful moment where it feels that the work is unveiled and it is just left [in the studio] to meet everything in space. So even though it’s pretty chaotic, it’s there among all the other things and things that go on, and I can see every day that I walk into the studio or walk out, there’s a point where [I’ll look at the finished work and] it stands on its own, and this calmness passes through you. It just exists.
Want that inner peace? Get off at Pitzhanger and let the light wash over you.
Rana Begum: Dappled Light is at Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing, from March 25 to August, pitzhanger.org.uk