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A Life with Earth: Sheherezade Alam

So from this clay-and-nothing, color and oil glaze, I
Can again strike sparks
…’

(from Hasan the Potter, by Noon Meem Rashed, trans. Frances Pritchett)

For some artists there is a definitive moment when they realize their medium. But Sheherezade Alam’s decision to be a potter was a slow germination. She grew up with a consciousness of the rich craft tradition surrounding her, in the block printed and embroidered fabrics worn by her mother, and the matkas and gharas which she gave her to paint as a young girl. During her first two years, the foundation course at the National College of Art, Sheherezade watched a friend struggle with her thesis in clay. These were the nineteen sixties, and the ceramics department, with its thirty unused pottery wheels, was a lonely place – her friend the sole student, with a very exacting teacher. Salahuddin Mian himself broke with family tradition to become a studio potter and ceramics teacher at NCA.

There was never a doubt in Sheherezade’s mind that she would use her degree to enter the field of design, rather than the visual arts. She was aware of revolutions in design in the West through magazines in the college library; and in 1968, on a trip to Europe and Scandinavia, she was able to see for herself the developments in industrial design by artists and designers. But in her third year of college, when students choose their medium, she chose to study ceramics, rather than the textiles that were her passion. There was no explanation for this decision, other than the impulse to set herself a difficult challenge, more so since, like her friend before her, she would be the only student. Textile would have been easy; but perhaps a memory from her girlhood told her that handling clay vessels brought her solace. Throughout college and even afterwards, however, she never envisaged becoming a studio potter. The intention was to design, manufacture and sell ceramics, subscribing to the idea of the artist in industry as seen in companies like IKEA. Her thesis work at Shahdara, which houses the government pottery works, taught her the process of pot making in small industry. But from the time she graduated in 1972, until 1979 when her second daughter was born, she began to realize that this dream was unlikely to see fruition. Pottery as a craft with industrial possibilities was a concept far ahead of its time. And with a budding family, the artist needed to be nearer home. Her first exhibition, in a hotel lobby in 1978, taught her the rudiments of putting together a collection. She also realized that the production of studio pottery had to be cyclical, because the material itself altered with the seasons. It was impossible to form clay during the monsoon, when the excessive humidity caused vessels to collapse or refuse to dry. Winter was too cold, making the clay stiff and unyielding, although it was ideal for firing. A pattern began to emerge, and in an environment that provided little in the way of exhibition venues or public recognition, the idea of becoming a studio potter evolved.

From this inception, through the hard years of the nineteen eighties to the high period of her artistic development in Canada, where she and her husband, the artist Zahoor ul Akhlaq, had their own studios with full access to a variety of materials and equipment, and participated in the Artists in Schools program; until today where she lives in the family home, working and teaching, clay has been a constant in Sheherezade’s life. It is like a mantle which expresses her moods and concerns. Using forms which echo the work of potters of Mehrgarh and the Indus Valley, to which she has remained faithful throughout her career, with diversions inspired by the pottery of Turkey and the Far East, she untiringly explores color and texture, glaze and pigment, pitting rough against smooth, light against dark, metallic against matte, or subtle monochromatic permutations.

Central to her work is her concept of earth – clay – as universal mother; the material from which, plant, animal, human, we all spring. It is the material with which, throughout history, we fashioned vessels used to contain nourishment. As if to remind herself of this archetype, she keeps a reproduction of a Paleolithic Venus, whose torso is echoed in many of her pots, with their full, heavy bodies that taper to dainty feet, giving them an air of weightlessness. Watching her hands firmly shaping a mound of clay on the wheel – and any novice who has tried to work clay this way knows the difficulties this entails, as if one is pitting oneself against a force which will send the clay flying off in a spattering mess – one senses the energy with which she infuses the material, and the pure pleasure she feels when she lifts the completed vessel off it. The deceptively simple forms, often seen in everyday terracotta pots, are only the starting point. Sheherezade’s interpretation is a contemporary one. Where the everyday potter stops, her work of refining – carving away the base so that the pot appears ready to fly; adding pigment, texture and line to its skin; honing the lines of the lip and shoulder – begins. In the whirling dervish series, the pot’s belly flares outwards and then stops abruptly, making a wide skirt which tapers sharply to a delicate base. The egg, cupped hands, or bud, reminiscent of the Shiv lingam, another recurrent shape in her work, curves upwards to an elongated oval peak, or a point. A piece from ‘Re-emergence,’ in which the surface decoration is often composed of vividly colored concentric circles seen in the wooden discs adorning old Punjabi furniture, uses this pointed bud shape set in the center of platters whose corners are like unfolding petals curling upwards around it. The spirals indented into her plates, or drawn in glaze, or outlined on the surface of a pot, give them definition and evoke the idea of infinity. The glazes themselves suggest moods: from the starbursts or pooled, glassy crackle of the Subhanallah series to the dramatic reds and blacks of Laali and the vivid concentric circles in reds and yellows on dark grounds of Re-emergence; while recent work explores permutations of white.

There is enormous grace and depth in this economy of form. Even her smallest vessels stand proud, almost resisting the space around them, their delicate bases like anchors for the solid, upward-tapering bodies. Once the viewer is over the sensations provoked by the visual beauty of Sheherezade’s work, he or she begins to understand her deep belief in the intertwining of earth and humankind, in the cycle of reproduction, fruit and fertility.

At this stage of her life, with two recent exhibitions, at PNCA Islamabad and Koel Gallery Karachi, cataloguing several decades of her work, the viewer senses a culmination of sorts; a harmony that springs from a profound knowledge of technical and chemical processes, united with form and passion. One surmises that if this material has been so instrumental in her artistic life, it must have also been the great comforter, carrying her through the monumental personal tragedy of losing her husband and her first born child.

While the artist continues to explore new materials, glazes and pigments – most recently a visit to China to work in porcelain rather than the earthenware and stoneware which she hitherto specialized in – shortages of gas and electricity, mandatory to the creation of pottery, have also forced her to experiment with new ways of firing. Her family home is dotted with the no longer functional shells of large gas kilns built when gas was plentiful. Wood firing is impractical because it demands a long session in which the kiln must constantly be fed with wood, already a rare commodity. While pit firing yielded some beautiful pieces, pale biscuit colored shapes highlighted with irregular daubs and patches of green and blue, and the ‘smoke clouds’ that characterize such work, she found the technique unsatisfactory after a batch of work was lost due to breakage. Her involvement with Jahan-e-Jahanara, which she  founded to teach children pottery and give them a physical connection to nature, was instrumental in this decision, as she needed to produce pieces with minimum chances of breakage. But she has finally discovered a way to fire pieces – in a small, two feet square kiln fired by a large gas cylinder, which accommodates several large and multiple small pieces.

Sometimes, however, restrictions and difficulties with materials have resulted in very beautiful work. A yet un-exhibited series of white on white vessels from 2010, reminiscent of a series made in Canada using porcelain in 2006, came about when she used a terracotta clay which, after firing, did not take on the characteristic orange red. Painted with a mixture of white slip and mica and re-fired, they metamorphosed into a range of cream-white pots with a sandy undertone, in which tiny flecks of mica glimmer under light.

Note: On a spring morning in March 2013, Sheherezade threw a pot to show the process. At the artist’s suggestion, the images were converted to black and white.

Ilona Yusuf is a writer and an artist

 

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