NO. 680, 2016, set of 50 paintings, acrylic paint on MDF, 80 × 25 × 4 cm each. Photo by Philip White.

Unless stated otherwise, all images courtesy the artist and The Third Line, Dubai. 

Simply Put

Rana Begum

United Kingdom Bangladesh United Arab Emirates
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

For all their chaos, ugliness and noise, cities have a poetic tendency to create serendipitous moments of beauty. Despite their size and variety, there are times when things just “come together.” I experienced one of these moments of urban happenstance the morning I visited Rana Begum’s studio in Haringey, North East London. It began when I discovered, on approaching, that the artist works across the street from a house I had lived in five years before, and only became stronger as I turned the corner into the industrial yard where Begum rents her two-story studio-workshop—a site that she shares with an ice-cream truck depot. Lined up in the sun were rows of polychromatic, rust-patched vehicles, a vision of form and color in the bright spring light—unmanned, empty and detached from any function. These were apposite neighbors indeed for an artist whom some critics have called an “urban romantic.” I was reminded of both the origin and the effect of Begum’s art before I had even entered her studio. Derived from fortuitous alignments of circumstance and the percipience to investigate them, her artworks evoke these moments of aesthetic beauty through simplified configurations of light, color and form.

An example of these fortunate circumstances occurred when she recently won the Abraaj Group Art Prize in 2016, and was granted a USD 100,000 commission for a large-scale installation to be exhibited at the Art Dubai fair the following year. Begum had proposed a 10-by-9-meter outdoor series of colored glass triangles, arranged so as to capture the changing Emirati light. However, the organizers wanted to place the installation indoors due to lack of space. A heated discussion ensued in Begum’s studio; she feared the piece would not receive the natural light on which it hinged. Then, as the organizers were making their counterargument, a shaft of sunlight shone through an open doorway, activating the artist’s maquette of the installation. “Okay,” they said, “it needs to be outdoors.”

There’s obvious religious symbolism in moments such as these, but it’s an interpretation at which Begum might balk. Although she was raised in a strict Muslim household, and several teachers and mentors later encouraged her to use this in her art, she has long resisted employing identity or religion as a theme. She eschews biographical determinism in favor of a dynamic response to chance and change. Although light is significant in her work, it is referenced for its beauty as something without meaning, not as a symbol, spiritual or otherwise. Begum was also reluctant to discuss biographical details during our interview, but not from a desire for privacy—she talks openly about her two children and posts pictures of them playing among her works on Instagram. It was rather from an insistence that her art should speak for itself—an attitude she extends to titling her works, which are assigned consecutive numbers that now exceed 700. Despite this reticence, biographical influences on Begum’s practice have begun to emerge in recent years, reflecting several significant moments and memories from the artist’s childhood.

Although she has lived in the United Kingdom for most of her life, Begum was born in rural Sylhet, Bangladesh, in 1977, where her early years were spent contemplating the vibrant colors and surfaces of rice fields and pools as they caught the day’s changing light. One of her strongest memories from this period is of reading the Quran in a local mosque. As she sat in the light that entered through the building’s windows and played on its architecture, surrounded by the sounds of trickling water and people reciting verses in Arabic, all of these things aligned into a single experience. It was at once calm and exhilarating, and sparked her continued interest in multifarious environments and how they accommodate chance moments of beauty.

Installation view of NO. 473 (2013-14) at Dhaka Art Summit, 2014. 

The work that holds the most direct reference to this period of Begum’s childhood—and in fact to any part of her life—arose from a trip to Bangladesh in 2014, where she contributed to the Dhaka Art Summit. The piece she created was No. 473 (2013–14), a cavernous, room-sized installation constructed from woven baskets and through which visitors and light alike were able to pass. The event’s organizers had stipulated that locally sourced materials should be used for the installation, and Begum’s use of baskets, much like those she had woven as a child, was superficially autobiographical. However, the true point of reference to her childhood in Bangladesh—one that runs through all her work—was the attempt to create an environment where elements such as light, form and color could interact and re-create, at least partially, that near-spiritual experience she had while reading in the mosque as a child. In a broader sense, rather than developing an artistic language that is specific to any one history or identity, she was and has been striving to convey a kind of shared experience.

These formative experiences may also explain the artist’s urge toward accessibility and engagement. After those quiet years in Sylhet, Begum and her family moved to the UK when she was eight years old. She found herself plunged into a totally new environment, unable to communicate in her native language or the adopted one she had not yet learned. “When I first started school,” she told me, “I sat in class and couldn’t understand a single thing.” Most of that first morning she slept at her desk due to boredom, but in the afternoon her teachers provided a pencil and paper, and drawing instantly became a means of communication. At the family home in St. Albans—an ancient and architecturally rich city 24 kilometers from London—all her pictures went up on the wall, and this initial struggle with language proved formative. “If I was good with words,” Begum half-joked, “I don’t think I’d be an artist and I think my parents would be a lot happier.”

Growing up in St. Albans, Begum took an early interest in depicting architectural forms. She learned about buildings’ potential to be activated by light during much-enjoyed school art trips to the city’s cathedral, where the midday sun would shine through large, stained-glass windows and play among the arches and vaulting, in an assortment of architectural styles that framed the building’s spacious, tranquil nave. As a foundation student at the University of Hertfordshire in 1995, however, she began to realize that it was not the figurative or narrative elements of architecture that interested her, but rather its more universal, experiential qualities. She began to look for the same alignments of light and form that she had experienced while reading in the mosque as a child in other places, and became aware that incidental moments of beauty could arise even among brutal urban landscapes.

NO. 93, 2005, resin on hazard tape and wood, 50 × 50 × 5.5 cm. 

NO. 94, 2005, resin on hazard tape and wood, 50 × 50 × 5.5 cm. 

However, the city’s more poetic moments—like the one I had experienced on my way to meet Begum—are often down to chance. Urban centers are typically enormous, complex, constantly moving and unintelligible, and in order to describe them in the universal way she wished, Begum realized she had to simplify her approach. Following her foundation year at Hertfordshire, during which she discovered just how much could be done under the scope of art, she studied painting at London’s Chelsea College of Arts from 1996 to 1999. It was here that Begum discovered Minimalist artists such as Agnes Martin, Donald Judd, Mary Martin and Sol LeWitt, and was instantly drawn to their directness and purity. Simplification became so important to her that during these years she did not use color; instead she focused solely on interactions between light and form, in a series of monochrome abstract reliefs made of painted wood that included No. 7 and No. 8 (both 1999), hoping to capture something of the urban environment around her.

Color entered Begum’s practice only during the second year of her Master’s degree at London’s Slade School of Fine Art, the same year that Scottish artist Bruce McLean became the school’s head of painting. McLean’s approach to color, Begum recalled, was chaotic, and so she dived in with a series of panels that were rhythmically striped with vibrantly-colored adhesive tape, among them No. 3637 and 38 (all 2002). “I knew those types of works had been done before,” she acknowledged as we spoke, “but my purpose was to understand color.”

Having opened up her practice to this new variable, Begum discovered that color could be used in combination with pattern to intimate experiences of urban space. She followed up on her striped pieces with a series of works, including No. 93 and 94 (both 2005), which again used adhesive tape, but arranged into abstract patterns recalling the simple, vivid designs used in urban signage the world over. Like the stationary ice cream trucks parked outside her studio, these arrangements of color and form were divorced from any function at specific moments of sightings. Whereas a practical sign might signify “stop,” Begum’s works symbolize the sign itself, thus referencing a universal, urban language that is also strangely abstracted and removed from any direct, location-specific meaning.

Installation view of NO. 700 REFLECTORS (2016) at Lewis Cubitt Square, London. 

Through this series, Begum became increasingly aware of how banal, everyday urban materials—when detached from their function, seen at the right angle or touched by the right light—can be graceful in their simplicity. She consequently began to experiment with reflectors—the kind found on both traffic signs and the vehicles they direct—and tessellating them to create patterns that react to changing light. At the time, Begum was unable to fully develop these experiments due to a lack of both funding and outside interest, but with her rapidly rising public profile in recent years, she has been granted opportunities to revive them with a number of public commissions including No. 700 Reflectors (2016) at Lewis Cubitt Square near London’s King’s Cross station, a 50-meter zigzagging array of red, orange and white reflectors arranged in an arrow configuration against a black background. In its prominent position in a busy part of the capital, the installation conveys an abstract sense of the city while also absorbing light and energy from it. Visible from many angles and subject to both natural and artificial light all hours of the day and night, it is open to the chance alignments of light, color and form that Begum seeks to create.

NO. 528, 2014, paint on powder-coated aluminum, 200 × 156 × 8 cm. 

NO. 623, M DRAWING, 2015, vinyl and powder-coated mild steel, 67 × 75 × 73 cm. Photo by Philip White. 

In addition to their quotidian materials and simple colors, Begum’s works made from tape and reflectors are also alike in their use of repeatable patterns, which are of great significance to her. They reveal one of the ways her background does, in fact, find its way into her work. As a child in Bangladesh, Begum enjoyed the routines of reading the Quran and praying five times a day. Repetition is also one of the ways in which Islamic art approaches the infinite—by displaying part of a whole with no conceivable beginning or end. As a student at Chelsea College of Arts, Begum researched Sufism and Islamic art, and later at the Slade created a number of geometrically complex paintings, constructed either from eccentric circlesas in Rays No. 1 (2002) and No. 31 (2001), or straight lines bursting from radial nodes as in No. 19 (2001), both of which evoke the art of tazhib, or illumination. After graduating, she was encouraged by the British painter and printmaker Tess Jaray—for whom she worked as an assistant for five years—to introduce further political or religious elements into her work. She resisted, and yet Islamic art subtly found its way into her work in the form of these endlessly repeatable patterns, in which the city is rendered as something modular and capable of limitless growth.

The continuing influence of repetition on Begum’s work is best illustrated in a series she began in 2011, which comprises alternating triangles of painted aluminum and raw mild steel, either mounted on the gallery wall, as in No. 280, or folded onto the floor like a reflection, as in No. 278 (both 2011). These fragments of recurrent patterns are glimpses into the infinite—a near-spiritual experience of the city’s essence—but their industrial materials, like the rust-prone mild steel, also suggest a fugacious, earthly, transient side to the metropolis.

With the exception of Richard Serra and a few others, it is rare for an artist to embrace the growth of rust on their art. Begum, however, considers it an augmentation. “I like using materials that allow things to happen within a piece,” she told me. “A lot of my work, when you look at it, feels very controlled, but it isn’t necessarily. There’s a lot of freedom.” Whether through urban decay, development or simply the constant movement that characterizes modern cities, change is fundamental, and in order to reflect this Begum has had to leave room for surprises. She understands that the moments she found and find so beautiful—like her early experience in the mosque—are a matter of constantly transforming elements coming together. Her receptiveness to the serendipity of events like these is apparent in her individual works, but has also altered the trajectory of her artistic development several times over her career.

One significant moment came during a 2009 residency in Beirut through the Delfina Foundation. Begum uses residencies to refocus on foundational elements of her practice, and, in Beirut, she intended to explore drawing. Ever the flâneuse, while walking the city’s streets she came to love the evolving geometry of its roofs and awnings, and on one such dérive happened upon a shop selling the kind of neon-colored drinking straws that are sold for pennies the world over. Surprised by the seeming coincidence of finding them there, and then impressed by the ubiquity this suggested, she bought several packs and began creating open geometric structures that recalled both the varying lines of the city and the kinds of forms Sol LeWitt worked with in the 1970s. She worked on these structures for a while before, one day, a ray of light entered her Beirut workspace, causing the straws to glow and changing their aesthetic and meaning instantly. “They became the nightlife of the city when you walk through the [exhibition] space,” Begum explained excitedly. The result of this residency was an immersive installation at the Delfina Foundation, where black lights illuminated neon forms in an abstracted emulation of the nocturnal metropolis. Even more so than with her rusting triangle pieces, the materials she used here were impermanent, and Begum has since advanced this method of “drawing” into wall-mounted and freestanding steel forms such as No. 623, M Drawing and No. 624, M Drawing (both 2015). Her recognizable “Fold” pieces—geometric wall-mounted planes with folded edges and colored backs that reflect auras of color onto the gallery walls behind them—also began as paper studies that Begum later felt inclined to formalize in more durable aluminum and steel.

When considering these chance moments of illumination, which inspire new forms, materials and approaches, it is easy to see where the moniker “urban romantic” arose. But it is the attention she pays to such easily ignored moments—even at the expense of other concerns—that pushes her practice, making her, perhaps, not a romantic idealist, but more a purposeful cross between geographer and geometer. She told me of a phone interview she had done a few days prior to our speaking, during which a ray of natural light started through the window mid-conversation. She abruptly told the interviewer she couldn’t talk, would call her back, and hung up.

Begum remains receptive to these instances of unpredictability and chance, even when they appear disastrous. For example, the “Box” series—arrays of vertical, powder-coated aluminum bars with colored sides that reveal different hues depending on the viewer’s position in relation to them—were originally intended as another means of approaching the shifting interrelations of form, color and light in constructed environments. Like the “Fold” pieces, at a distance they blend into the gallery, integrating with its architecture and changing as the viewer approaches. Having exhibited some of these works in “The Moment of Alignment” at Dubai’s The Third Line gallery in 2009, Begum was preparing to display new iterations at Bischoff/Weiss gallery, London, the following year. During preparations, one work was too large to mount in the studio, and while hanging it in the gallery on the show’s opening day she noticed to her horror that the color between the bars had changed. In photographs of the completed pieces, the anomaly is barely visible due to the work’s naturalistic effect, but to the naked eye, the two opposing colors on the sides of each adjacent bar had combined to create a new, solid shade. “It was a disaster when I thought about it because I don’t mix paint,” Begum said. “I love the idea of taking paint straight out of the tube and keeping its pure original form.” Once the initial shock had subsided, though, she became open to the idea as another way of reflecting the changing environments she witnessed on a daily basis, reaffirming her openness to chance. “If I’m so controlled,” she says, “I’m not going to have things happen.”

NO. 670, 2016, powder-coated mesh, dimensions variable.

Restrained or not, things are undoubtedly happening for Begum. In 2016, she mounted “The Space Between,” a major retrospective at London’s Parasol Unit Foundation for Contemporary Art, displaying prolific works from her career as well as creations that broke new ground in her practice. In No. 670 (2016), which is based on wall-mounted works from 2015 in which two mesh planes of different colors overlap to create a third—visitors were able to explore a complex structure of galvanized mesh, powder-coated in different colors. The piece—a complex visual environment that changed in color and form as visitors explored it—took Begum’s abstracted re-creations of urban experience to a whole new scale.

Following on from the show at Parasol Unit, a number of public art projects in the last two years, and her installation for the Abraaj Group Art Prize, Begum recently mounted a solo exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich—her first museum show—and will guest-curate an exhibition in July at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the largest exhibition space of its kind in Europe, with works from the Arts Council England collection. When I spoke with her, she confided that she doesn’t want to think too much about these upcoming projects because it “stresses her out,” and that she’s looking forward to embarking on her Vanucci residency in Italy later in the year, where she intends to think about “pushing the work”—a favorite expression. One potential avenue of exploration, she mentions, is a further collaboration with electronic-music producer Hyetal (David Corney), with whom she mounted a collaborative sound and visual installation, No. 694 Hyetal (2016), as part of “The Space Between.”

Installation view of Begum’s commissioned work for the 2017 Abraaj Group Art Prize, NO. 695 ABRAAJ (2016). Courtesy the artist and Photo Solutions. 

It has been more than 15 years since Begum first introduced color into her practice. In addition to sound, she is now expressing interest in other disciplines—performance, design, fashion—and a desire to blur them into her current practice. Over the last two decades, however, she has managed to do a lot with a little, capturing the great variety of urban experience in only a few simple elements. When I left the studio, with her work fresh in my mind, the ice-cream trucks had mostly gone. They were out on the roads, reflecting London’s multifarious architecture in their windows as they stopped and started, becoming part of the cityscape themselves. Walking to the nearest tube station, I passed the basketball courts where I had played five years before. Sharp spring sunlight bounced off the variously colored roofs of cars and houses, shone through the gaps between new green leaves, the cages of the courts and the swinging nets. With my every step, each element of this microcosm of the city moved in and out of alignment. Colors mixed and modulated, rays reflected and refracted, repeatable and unique forms alike swelled and shrunk as I passed. I saw the world as the receptive flâneur Begum invites us to be. And all it came down to—put simply—was light, color and form.

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