Veeda Ahmed was trained as a painter and sculptor and later completed her MFA in 1975 from the University of Punjab with first class first position and a gold medal. In 1976, she went to the Ruskin Schoool of Drawing and Fine Art, University of Oxford.
In 2013, Ahmed completed her Doctorate at the Prince’s School of Traditional Art’s in London.
Dr Ahmed has traversed the world in search of inspiration, experience, expertise, and enlightenment working alongside living masters of different crafts that she can find today.
She has earned her name in the field of art by creating spell bound artworks and gathered many feathers in her cap as an artist. She has exhibited in many national and international level art shows. Her work is held in collections across the globe.
She is a member of the Chelsea Art Society, London and The Islamic Manuscript Association, Cambridge. She is currently based in London.
In this interview, with questions provided by ArtNow, Dr Veeda Ahmed is in conversation with Dr Emily Pott (Director of Research Programmes, The Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Art’s, London) and shares her life experiences, practice and challenges she faced as an artist.
AN: Can you tell me about yourself?
VA: I was born in Pakistan, and grew up in Lahore, where I still have a family home. My parents encouraged my love for art from a very young age. My mother was a fine artist and my father had studied architecture in London. Growing up, I had a very rounded upbringing; I was able to learn classical music and dance as well as fine arts. I realised that I was able to paint, and I loved to do it, so I pursued this path. After finishing my MFA with a gold medal from the Department of Fine Arts, University of the Punjab, I embarked on the first of what would become many journeys in pursuit of artistic expertise. I left my home in Pakistan to study at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford University. Here we made life sized sculptures and drew from master’s works in the archives of the Ashmolean Museum, a whole new world of research opened up for me when I visited the Bodleian Library in Oxford. I have always been driven to know more and so I continue to seek art, teachers, and masters to work with. This has been a part of my artistic journey from the first trip to Oxford.
After coming to London in the 1990s, with a Masters degree in Fine Arts and working as a contemporary artist, there was something missing. In my studies I had not been taught the traditional ways of preparing paper, sizing and burnishing the surface, handling pigments, practicing siyah qalam, neem rang and tehzip (illumination).
At the time I was studying, even in Pakistan, teachers were following the Western style of teaching art. There were old, court painters who were still painting traditional miniature paintings in Lahore then, but not everyone was interested in what they did. The fashion at that time was to copy the West and we were taken outside with our easels to paint the landscape en plein air or spent our time in the studio drawing from life. I was also told that miniature painting was a dead art, and so I learned what I was taught and perfected my drawing and painting skills. When I came to the Ruskin, they saw I could draw and paint and at some point someone said, ‘You should go back and learn more from the traditional teachers in Pakistan,’ and this stuck with me. I began to wonder why I didn’t know more about the painting of my own ancestors, which is our heritage. After the Ruskin, I got married and had children and, although I was painting and exhibiting my work, there was still that curiosity to know more. I would go off to the British Museum or the Victoria and Albert Museum archives and draw from originals (while the children were at school), thus allowing me to look closely at the exquisite workmanship and fine detail found in the drawings and paintings, particularly those from the Persian, Mughal and Pahari Hill schools of painting.
In 2000, I had a solo show at the Chawkandi Gallery in Karachi, called “The Museum Series.” The paintings in the show were based on the drawings I had completed in various museum archives in London.
AN: The Prince’s School of Traditional Art’s follows a certain ethos that is steeped in tradition and history. What in particular prompted you to enrol in this institution?
VA: My work was disappointing to me at the time because I couldn’t achieve the luminosity of colour, the subtle shading and detail that I saw in those the paintings from the past. I could draw, I had the line, but something was missing. Where to find out more? Unexpectedly, I found a treasure trove in the middle of London, which excited me. There were teachers there who were still teaching the traditional techniques of making mineral and vegetable pigments. This was the Prince’s School and I made an appointment to speak with Professor Keith Critchlow, the founder of the School, and his student, Khaled Azzam, now the Director of the School. When they asked me why I wanted to study there I told them that there was an ache in my heart, a longing to learn more and research the methods and materials, and the practice, of the art of miniature painting. I wanted to look at three separate traditions of painting, Persian, Mughal and Pahari and compare them using my own practice as a painter to help me gain insight into these traditions. My supervisors advised me to choose one of the three, but I was interested in looking at the connections between them and understanding what they had in common. I wanted to transport my mind to the traditional workshops where such works of art were created. The research took time and I made many more trips to all corners of the globe seeking masters who would teach me about ancient, yet surviving, techniques of preparing paper, grinding pigments, making brushes, painting and shading techniques, calligraphy, and illumination.
This was the beginning of my research for the doctorate. But it was a big shift for me. In order to find that little something that I could see in those paintings, I had to unlearn some of the ways of seeing and painting that I had been taught previously. After doing life-size sculptures and life drawing at the Ruskin, now I was still painting figures, but stylised figures. I learnt details of shading using completely different brushstrokes and using very fine squirrel hair brushes. I went back to NCA in Lahore to learn how to make these from Ustad Bashir.
I received my doctorate in 2013 and have continued to experiment and paint since then.
Sometimes in life there is a door that opens and you don’t know why it opens, but I went through that door and now I feel I am in a much better place. It gave me a place to continually learn and explore. I am still learning, still researching, I am far from having all the answers. I will never be a fulfilled master. We are taught that tradition is not static or connected to any one place or time, it is continually there waiting to be renewed by a new generation in a new time and a new place. This is a challenge for us. Traditional artists and craftspeople followed their teachers, who would in turn have followed the way their teachers had worked before them, but this is no longer possible for us. Having traced where these Pahari, Persian and Mughal works came from, I was able to know more about myself as an artist today but, more importantly, to understand what connects me with those who came before me and who will come after me. Seyyed Hossein Nasr has spoken of ‘ancestral memories’ and this is an interesting way to consider this. These are deep, engrained memories and they have stood the test of time.
AN: How did the experience change your practice?
VA: It completely changed my practice. It improved my hand, because I learnt from many experts and different traditions of painting. Icons, miniatures, and geometry (which made me understand the underlying patterns of composition), even expressing myself in geometry, opened a different world for me. I didn’t think I would be good at geometry; I had a block against mathematics. But I didn’t realise there was another side to it. It drew me in. The proportions in geometry radiate and transcend allowing the viewer to centralize and contemplate. It resonates with the ever-changing patterns of the universe.
Everything I learnt at the Prince’s School is what I use in my work, from making gesso panels to the techniques of icon painting using egg tempera, gilding, all of these techniques blend into my work now. It has given my practice a different dimension. I now have the technical knowledge to do my own work all the way through. Starting from preparing the ground for the painting, preparing the paper or making the gesso, polishing the initial surface so that it will take the paint or the gold, then burnishing afterwards, which gives a certain luminosity. Also, learning how to make the pigments from natural plant sources, or minerals like azurite and malachite, or earth pigments, grinding them and then using traditional methods to work with them. It is time consuming but it can achieve results and I like being able to work from the very beginning to the very end on a piece. It gives me a different relationship with the work than if I bought prepared paper or pigments in a shop. I give much more time to working on the surface, to improving the quality of materials I am using, and more attention to the practice of painting, using my hand-made, special brushes.
Recently when I was in Lahore, I had the time to grind the malachite, azurite and gold even more than normal. I was sieving it through silk and the more I worked on it the result was more luminous. People are appreciating my work more. It gives me more satisfaction as an artist.
AN: Seyyid Hossein Nasr writes, “Sacred art derives from the spirit of a particular religion and shares its genius. It also makes use of a symbolism which is related to the form of the religion in question.” Can you elaborate on this statement?
VA: I agree with what Nasr writes here. But I am not creating sacred art. In Islam, there are two main sacred arts, calligraphy and the recitation of the Quran. There are many paintings based on the Prophet Mohammad’s journey to the heavens, in which his face is covered, which could touch upon the sacred. With reference to my art it may be called traditional, but it is not sacred. I read a lot and I am interested in translations of old philosophical texts and Sufi poetry, which use symbolic imagery. I am also interested in exploring images such as the Tree of Life. The universe can also be symbolised by a tree, “its roots firm and its branches spreading up to the heavens,” or the four elements (earth, air, fire, water), birds and wings are often used. I am painting wings now; the inspiration came from looking at Durer’s painting on the subject. His ‘wings’ were beautifully coloured, and mine are painted using 24 k hand-ground, shell gold. These are large in size but the technique is miniature.
AN: What does it mean to be a traditional contemporary painter today?
VA: Any artist or craftsman working anytime is ‘contemporary’ to that moment in time. I choose to use traditional methods and often traditional inspiration and motifs today. My work now, I think, seems to be about exploring connections or creating conversations. For my doctorate, I was looking at connections between Persian, Mughal and Pahari painting and drawing—all traditional. Now my work explores the connections between modern and traditional with the addition of a conversation between, what I would call, East and West. But I do not work in series, I do not say this is a series of works about x or y. I like to work more organically. Each painting is individual. I am drawn to old paintings and if I am looking at an old painting, some element of it will touch me. And I will draw from it. I may read something, maybe about trees or birds. Something will capture my attention or inspire me and I am compelled to paint it. I am married to traditional pigments and wouldn’t use anything else. The elements that I pick up, for instance, if I take a very intricate patterned drawing as a background, I may work on it using traditional Islimi to start. If I don’t get an inspiration at that time I will put it away in my plan chest. Sometime later, I may see some beautiful images of birds and place them in that composition using my own colours and this is how I completed the painting ‘Enchanted Birds’. I see this as traditional art, making things relevant in any time or place. It must all sit in with the medium I am using which is again traditional. If I have been looking at a miniature that I like from the Pahari School, I take the trees from this miniature and combine them with something from today; I put Battersea Park in the middle of the trees like in my painting ‘A Day in the Park’.It can also be a combination of past and present. For instance, I did two paintings, which were both called ‘Reflections of a Train Journey’. These were from memory. One was a train journey in Punjab and one in an English countryside. I was learning a method of traditional Japanese painting so I was trying to get that feel from my use of washes, trying to capture a sense of both connection and disconnection with the two landscapes, from two parts of the world, both very close to my heart. In these two paintings, colour is applied and washed off. The energy of a form starts to evolve through the placing of layers of subtle colour and washing it off, and finally drawing with a very fine squirrel hairbrush until a semblance of a form appears whilst another disappears. A sort of connection and disconnection with the landscape, one from the East and the other the West, is formed. To me, this is traditional art of today, using traditional techniques, traditional pigments and tools, I am painting today, drawing on tradition today. I am trying to bring new life, to reinvigorate the techniques and the motifs of. It is like coming out of the type of engagement with the traditional work to create these new works by drawing on an enormous well of form and technique that is offered by traditional art.
I learnt at The Prince’s School that Nature is the Essence of all traditional and sacred art. The ancient craftsmen who had links to a tradition turned to the same source and drew inspiration from Nature. They transformed raw materials, and substances of the earth to create jewel like miniatures that are an inspiration to me today this was going on for generations on a physical level and I am exploring this in my own work, trying to reconnect with these practices of the past and use them now to see what arises.
AN: What challenges do you face?
VA: There are many challenges, but I made a major challenge for myself in my aim to learn all the techniques so that I could create a painting from scratch. For example, one of my paintings was almost finished. All that remained in my mind to complete the painting was the application of a tezhip—an Ottoman illumination in gold. I was advised that there were artists who could complete this for me. But I decided I wanted to learn for myself. So, I flew to Turkey to work with one of the first female teachers to have received an ijaza in calligraphy and illumination since Ottoman times. Under her expert guidance I could complete my painting ‘The Camel and His Keeper”.
Another challenge is the time and expense required to prepare pigments and other materials and tools. This is a big commitment, but my work has shown that the more time you spend in the preparation, grinding and making pigments, preparing the vasli paper according to the old recipes, the better the quality of the final piece. I have also realized that with sizing and burnishing, the work withstands the test of time. In addition, while I am working on the pigments, I am also working on myself. It reminds me of the adage that one’s application to the work does to the heart what soap does to a garment. It washes off stains and cleanses it of grease and dirt. Through releasing the qualities in the pigments, I am also transforming myself. So, mainly I see the positive aspects of the challenges and this is a gift of these traditional techniques. The essence of the subject will definitely be more illuminating if we follow the traditional way of working and do not take short cuts as taught in many art schools today.
AN: What are the common motifs and symbols that you prefer to use in your work?
VA: There are things that come up again and again. Trees come up a lot, and branches, I don’t have one form or motif that is repeated, it is not like this anymore. This is why I don’t consider myself a modern artist. I don’t make a plan, I follow my heart. I am doing ‘moons,’ I read something and a seed is planted in my mind and an idea arises to paint 365 moons. So, I begin constructing with my pump compass to see how to place 365 moons within an oval. This takes a long time to configure. Then I start filling up the circles using hand ground palladium and each moon somehow has a different face.
In another painting, I decided to work with the sindhoor pigment and paint orange moons. This is because the lunar is considered as feminine and it is women that wear the sindhoor. I gilded Alif’s in the centre of each circle in the central panel and then carefully painted using bright orange around the gilded shapes. Things happen but they are not planned. In my traditional works, I try to draw from a traditional idiom, but try not to replicate old paintings any more. Many years ago, in order to learn I had to practice to understand the old painters’ way of working through copying their work and especially trying to improve my hand at Siyah Qalam, Neem Rang and Gad Rang. Now I feel as though I have the techniques, I create my own compositions and this is working well for me now. I still am inspired by the old paintings and I will never leave them behind.
AN: “The function of art, according to Islamic conception is to ennoble matter. Colours are not accidental and related to their alchemical etc.” How do you apply colour symbolism in your work? For instance, in your latest exhibition, ‘In the Absence of Shadows’, the colour palettes are distinct in each painting. Can you elaborate on the symbolism?
VA: I am not applying colour symbolism in my work consciously. We are very fortunate at the Prince’s School to be introduced to the alchemical symbolism of colour and the associations with each colour to its corresponding heavenly body. We learn the techniques for creating natural pigments, which can be used with a specific binder. We are taught that, as Nasr says, the use of colour was not “accidental” but came with many associations and symbolisms. Unfortunately, much of this knowledge is lost today and colour symbolism is a vast subject. I always work with completely natural pigments and quite a lot with yellow, red and white gold, palladium and silver. Of course, most people are aware of the associations between gold and the sun and silver and the moon, which perhaps could be described as universal. The colours from natural pigments are more beautiful. There is no comparison with mass manufactured pigments. The final, dry colour has a life that is not possible with ordinary colours. Their quality stands high above the quality of the mass manufactured pigments I used to use. Sometimes when I choose colours, I look at a traditional piece of work and then try to recreate the palette that was used by the artist in the past. In this way, I know that I am following the knowledge of the artist who created beautiful work. Other times I start with a colour I want to use and the other colours follow quite easily. Sometimes, there are associations. An example is my geometry painting titled ‘The Night Journey’ which was inspired by a miniature from the Miraj Nameh. For this, I drew my ideas from the colours used in that miniature. Green represented the cloak of the Prophet, the red was from the angels, the blue is the sky and the gold is the highest level, the uttermost boundary, the journey’s destination.
AN: How do you come up with titles for your paintings?
VA: I never think much about titles, they are not over-conceptualised. They are usually based on the inspiration that comes at the start which prompts the initial idea of the painting. It may be what I am reading about when I get the idea. Sometimes, a title will just come to me as an instantaneous reaction to the finished painting, like an instinct or a gut feeling. It may come from something that inspired me in the first place, such as the alifs in the Sindhoor painting and the alifs in indigo. ‘The Night Journey’ geometry painting mentioned above is an example.
AN: One of the works featured in your latest exhibition, ‘Cypress Tree’, is unique because it seems to feature only one element of a natural landscape that is overlaid by design and calligraphy. Can you elaborate on its symbolism?
VA: I wanted to paint the ‘cypress tree,’ which is used a lot in Persian miniature painting. The paper I used was old paper. I often use old paper and I have a large collection. The paper already had the writing on it so I was working with this. I wanted to complement the writing with the piece of calligraphy that is placed at the top of the tree, as a part of it. I made this using lapis and gold, two colours that were used in the very earliest calligraphy in Islam. Martin Lings writes beautifully about the symbolism of these two colours in his book The Quranic Art of Calligraphy and Illumination. He speaks of the blue as the colour of the firmament or heavens and the gold as the colour of transcendence. I wanted to paint the tree using the colour of nature. Malachite combines perfectly with the lapis lazuli and gold, so I used this. I always find the combination of the three incredibly beautiful; the heavens and transcendence are united in a whole composition. I am not very good at talking about my work I just want to paint. My work is my way of communicating my ideas and thoughts.
I was asked by a friend in Pakistan to pay a tribute to 134 children and teachers who were brutally massacred in their school in Peshawar, Pakistan.
One windy evening, I was thinking about what to paint. I gathered some branches from the path and brought them back to the studio and started painting. In my heart, each stem was for each child, rudely taken away from the parent, like the branches from the parent trees. When you experience a tragedy and you want to express the contemplative element, nature’s beauteous forms are used to symbolize a state beyond this earthly existence.
Blake’s words touch my heart, “The imaginative image returns by the seed of contemplative thought.”
The “imaginative image” is a special way of seeing, which is different from the way we normally view things. Another person walking the same path would not have seen the beauty of these branches. As an artist, I was drawn to their intrinsic beauty. I simply had to paint them: each branch for each child, to keep their memory alive for posterity. As long as the sketchbook survives, and is viewed, the children’s memory will be kept alive, thus immortalized.
AN: How and why is it important for you as a miniature painter to be well versed in the theory and the symbolism of Islamic geometry of just the history and the context of miniature painting?
VA: It is unlikely that all the craftsmen of the past were well versed in the theory and symbolism of geometry, although we do know that the importance of this knowledge was highlighted in texts like the Rasa’il of the Ikhwan al-Safa (10th century) and that it was widely taught as a part of the quadrivium through medieval times. I don’t know whether miniature painters and calligraphers studied geometry but there was geometry and good proportion all around them in the built environment. I know that Martin Lings always suggested that if you lived in such an environment you could not help but be influenced, in a sense absorbing these proportions. We do see the extremely elegant compositions of the miniature paintings and proportion is at the heart of calligraphy. Whether they studied the theory and symbolism, I am not sure but their artwork shows that they were aware of the use of proportion to create beauty. I feel like the geometry they painted in miniatures was so much a part of their life that they understood it in a completely different way. They could draw geometry free hand for their miniatures. The craftsmen weren’t painting because they thought it was “sacred art” they were doing it because it was their vocation and that was what they were taught to do. No one said, ‘You are a sacred artist.’ But today, it is different and I feel it is important to study these things. We are not surrounded by beautiful proportion but if we draw it, if we learn about it, we can absorb it and our eye is trained. We can ask ourselves, why are certain geometric shapes used in certain contexts? The hexagon, the octagon, it is obvious that their form and function come together in a beautiful and symbolic way. The dome of a building is held by the octagon, just as the Throne of God is held aloft by eight angels. This is not an accident and, in addition, it functions architecturally. These things are important to pay even more attention to today when much of the knowledge of the past has been discarded. The numbers have connotations, just like words and this is a very ancient practice. The underlying order, the connection with a higher meaning, a greater understanding, it can all start unfolding from a geometric pattern, and it can lead you on a great journey. Although, I often find today it is like a competition. When geometer of today speak about geometry, it has to be complicated; they talk about sixteen-, eighteen-, and twenty-four fold, very complicated constructions. The point and the circle are everything you need to know, the relationship between these two, the rest is not important.
AN: The circle is seen quite a lot in your paintings. Why is the circle so important?
VA: The construction of the circle is always the place to start. Drawing it in the beginning calms you and brings you into the presence of the work. It is about the relationship between the one and the many. The circle holds all of this and so for me it is a good place to start. It all comes quite naturally. I start with a point and a circle and things go from there. This is something new. I didn’t work in this way before I studied at The Prince’s School. One of my paintings, ‘The Tree of Life’ began with a circle, then I started doing a miniature within the circle (which I was unhappy about), then I washed it out and covered it in black and drew the earth within the circle, inspired by Hieronymus Bosch. So, the black had the earth within it. And the tree of life came above with the water and vegetation surrounding it. This is how I work.
Another circle was the beginning of my painting ‘Kukai and the lotus leaf”. Kukai was a single monk who rescued Buddhism in Japan in the 14th century when the rulers of China were destroying monasteries and trying to eliminate Buddhism. My painting shows Kukai as a young man. He received the esoteric doctrines of Buddhism from the only master left in China. He went back to Japan and became the founder of Japanese Buddhism. Here he is sitting within his own soul sphere. Thus spreading this message of peace. The lotus represents the Universe. It is revered as a symbol of purity, perfection, compassion and renunciation. The Lotus is “in” but not “of” this world. Its seed germinates from water and not soil. It symbolizes spiritual growth from the dark, murky waters to pure “light.”
In my painting Tapestry, the design here was taken from an old Persian tapestry (possibly from Nishapur) which had many areas that had been damaged. I completed the intricate drawing on paper and started working on it using 23 karat, shell gold and indigo and other fine hand ground pigments. This painting took months to complete.
It reminds me of something that my great master, Keith Critchlow, wrote in the introduction to Frithjof Schuon’s book, Art from the Sacred to the Profane. He wrote, ‘Art is “doing”—that is, manifesting the outpouring of insight, intuition, and inspiration.’ You begin with the circle, with the doing, and the outpouring will follow.
AN: Finally as we are short of time, is it important to know the History of the painting?
VA: In terms of history and context, in the end, as an artist, it is not important to know the history and context. It is much more important to pay attention to what draws you in, to take account of the aesthetic attraction to a piece of work. In a sense you have to love or empathize with what attracted you or drew your attention to it. Knowing the history may tell you something but in comparison with what moves you to paint an image, it is of little value.