Keeper of a heritage – Raeda Ashour
Saudi art is an ongoing dialogue between artists and the tradition which they and their work springs from. A longstanding, calm, and distinct voice in this conversation is Raeda Ashour’s, an artist from Jeddah who creates patterned compositions in paper embossing, and lovingly nurtures a heritage that nurtured her.
Tradition is a central axis for Saudi artists. They see themselves in a continuous and ongoing relationship with it, and their work alternatively embraces and examines it, sometimes mapping its shifting contours, sometimes predicting its future forms. Engaged full throttle in this is Raeda, who sees herself as a keeper of the Islamic heritage, not just in its local Saudi variant, but in its full range, span, and richness. “I am Saudi by birth, so I have Saudi Arabia in my blood, but I spent a large part of my life in Cairo, Egypt. To top it all, I am married to a Lebanese. Thanks to my exposure, I didn’t absorb one, but three different flavours of Islam. Since a very early age, I was marked by the unique cultural manifestations of Islam in different regions. The faith was the same, but its physical manifestations varied from country to country, and region to region.”
Coloured by various shades of Islam, and celebrating the shared lived heritage of Islam as a culture.The mosques series consists of 16 mosques from different countries, and includes the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Al Azhar mosque in Cairo, the Shah Mosque in Isfahan among others. Shown above are the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan (right) and The Sultan Ahmet Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey (left).
Some forms of this cultural landscape of shared heritage have stuck with her since. Using motifs and symbols from this lived reality of the Islamic heritage (some patterns from Islamic textiles and architecture, some details of everyday life like utensils, and patterns from Islamic geometry, the baseline grids of which are identical and unalterable even though its permutations are endless), Raeda creates inspired collage compositions on paper. “It’s like a portfolio of images, forms, and motifs in my subconscious memory. I need to recreate them over and over, like an obsession. I don’t tire of them. In fact, that’s all my work is really about – things from my heritage that I love to obsess over.” In Islamic geometry and design, there is a suggestion of infinity, not only in the absolute abstraction of form, but in the infinite, perfect, and tireless repetition of the same grids and motifs. To some extent, Raeda’s work embodies that. “Forms I never tire of reproducing, re-appropriating, or reincorporating, because they are etched into my internal and external landscape.”
Suggestions of infinity: Using the principle of Islamic geometry, Raeda works with the base patterns and shapes of Islamic geometry, and composes endless new permutations.
Raeda speaks with a deep sense of pride and affiliation for her heritage, and she recreates it out of a sense of nurture, as if tending to something that would perish if neglected. “We often complain that our children resort to other cultures, that they don’t seek their own culture. It’s because we have failed to keep it alive and interesting. If I stop my child from watching Mickey Mouse, I must have an alternative to propose. Culture and heritage must be celebrated and re-appropriated with the tide of time. I feel I am doing my part through my work.”
Her instinct for preserving the rare kicked in much earlier, during her time in Cairo, when she ran a small publishing house and a book shop in Cairo called Al Bayader. There, they published books related to political and social issues in the Arab World specially those related to the Arab-Israeli conflict. There were not only old manuscripts, but some of them were valuable books in English that they translated and published in Arabic, books that they thought must be read by Arabs. These were strands of thought that differed from mainstream schools, and needed to be preserved before they dulled, or were forgotten. The same hunger to preserve something fragile and ephemeral led her to the work she does now.
“Forms from my heritage that inform my consciousness, that’s what my work is all about. They nurtured me every moment growing up. I’m returning the favour through my work.”
Pristine or Puritan? Some works are composed entirely in white, and receive mixed reactions. ‘Some love the simplicity of white, and some tell me they want the same work, but with some colour in it!”
It was also her experience with book-making that defined the physical form and techniques that she works with today. “Publishing those rare manuscripts, I was closely involved with the process of designing book covers. It was a very tactile process, you had to feel your way through the detail, and concentrate a lot of meaning into one single surface. After years of designing covers for rare manuscripts, somewhere along the line, I guess I realized that the physical act of designing the cover was a process I could manipulate for artistic ends. Led by the same instinct of preservation, and nurturing something rare, I began creating my works of paper-embossing. The paper is my surface, and I’m creating on it as it I was working on a real surface in three dimensions, only on a smaller scale, perhaps. My process is very physical, very intimate, and very involved with detail.”
The finished canvases are created out of small segments, and each segment takes hours of physical work. “I think of myself as a craftsperson. For me, the act of creation is almost completely physical.” The relationship of a craftsperson with his art is more intimate, more lived, more intense, and more sincere. There isn’t the manipulation that a concept artist can deploy to distance himself from his oeuvre. “In my work, there is no philosophy, no distance of thought, there is just passion, madness, and perhaps later, a composition. It’s more sweat and blood and direct implication. I create everything with my hands, and almost nothing in my mind, except perhaps the composition of the canvas.” The concept artist would experience something, distance himself from it, and fashion his thought into a work of art. The triumph of the concept artist is essentially a triumph of thought, while the triumph of the craftsman is a triumph of labour. For that reason, he invests more of himself directly.
Labour of love: Raeda demonstrated her technique, and how she worked on the whole canvas by dividing it into small segments, for each, using a stencil to mark the design, and a burnishing tool to create relief. The colours are dry and are added on later.
Raeda’s finished works possess a quiet, secure dignity in their subdued hues and in their incredible, almost precious detail. At times, they look like illustrations from children’s books, conjuring up a universe full of magic and nostalgia. “Nobody has ever walked away from them indifferent. Some part of the love and care that goes into their creation always touches them.”
Images of works by artist
Images of process by writer
– Naima Rashid