Over millennia pottery has been shaped to serve a variety of functions and interests that are inextricably linked to the social and cultural milieu in which they were first conceived. One also cannot speak of ceramics without considering the role, process and relationship of the ceramist with his/her medium. Ceramic production involves the use of basic natural elements like clay, water, air, fire but the kind of physical investment, commitment and rigour that is required in order to gain mastery over the medium so as to create something of aesthetic value is what sets it apart from other disciplines. Yet ceramist Sherezade Alam makes this process seem effortless.
Working with clay for over forty years now Alam has been prolific and determined in devoting her life to immersing herself in a discipline that most art and design students, to date, still tend to shy away from. A graduate in Design from the National College of Arts, Lahore (1970) with Distinction and the only student with a specialisation in ceramics at the time, Sherezade Alam’s expansive repertoire, in retrospect, boasts of constant evolution and transformation. As a student she interned at the Shahdara Pottery Development Centre where she learnt the basics of ceramic production. Her thesis topic was titled “Artist/ Designer in Industry”. Alam was perceptive enough to realize, even as a student, the possibilities inherent in exploring, channeling and putting this medium to industrial use but after her marriage to famed artist Zahoor ul Akhlaq she travelled to Turkey, Greece, Japan and Iran from where she imbibed many of the overriding influences that are now prevalent in her works.
In 1983-84 Alam was awarded the British Council Scholarship and completed her Post Graduate studies at the West Surrey College of Art and Design at Farnham, UK. Works from that period demonstrate her interest in discovering the possibilities of material and glazes. In 1990 and the years that followed she worked extensively in both Canada and USA. In addition Alam also helped set up the Department of Ceramics at Bilkent University, Ankara. It was after a decade spent working at Arcadia Pottery Studio in Canada that she moved on to evolve a vocabulary where each series that followed was defined by a distinct understanding of the history of colour and form. Perhaps it was this love for history and shared regional traditions that fascinated her for her series in Cobalt blue drew inspiration from the cobalt hue synonymous with Multani pottery. Experimenting with white low temperature clays, Alam’s bulbous forms and unique selection of blue tones can then be interpreted as a sort of homage to historical regional influences such as those of Turkey and Iran.
Alam’s “Subhanallah” series produced in 1998 as collaboration with Canadian photographer Richard Seck, not only celebrated colour, but also showcased her immaculate skill in working with crackle and crystalline glazes. The wonder and untamed power of the universe and cosmos was captured in her circular plates and forms that bled colour and invoked the primordial; they were marked by textured crackling that mapped its course across surfaces almost like natural geographic formations.
Moved by the attack on school children at Beslan where 150 children died, Alam created the Offering Bowls Installation, which became the basis of her “Laali” series exhibited at both Lahore and Karachi in 2004 and 2005. This series of pots and vessels produced in unsaturated hues of glazes in red was unique in its presentation and referenced history, ritual, votive offerings and tradition in a manner that was deeply embedded both literally and metaphorically in the soil of her region. Rose petals, incense, oil lamps, wedding shawls, pebbles and music were the main components of this almost sacred representation of colour. Harkening back to an age of when man’s fate was intrinsically linked to the primal power of nature, Alam, resembling a priestess robed in red and adorned with jewellery took on a performative role in the sensory experience, becoming an extension of the display itself. “Re-emergence” exhibited at Arcadia Art Gallery in Canada built on these ideas with the motif of the lingam being dominant and was complimented by urns and vessels coloured with an intense, iridescent pallete of saffron hues. The earthy unglazed texture to some of the vessels is a reminder of Alam’s interest in her ancient past that paid homage to earthenware vessels and pottery dating back to the Indus Valley Civilisation. Her “White on White” series presented in 2006, on the other hand, eschewed any such reference to history or colour and interestingly, contained no glazes at all. The austere forms in white carried elements of quiet reflection and sombre introspection.
What has emerged from her travels and experiences is a desire to relocate and revisit the legacy and traditions of the Subcontinent that are now disappearing. “I am very drawn to ancient pottery. I feel as I have lived in those ancient times.” (“Sheherezade Alam Shares Her Story Of Courage” 35:01) said Alam in a recent interview but this consciousness and love of history, which had been her credo for a long time, came to be realised in 2008 in collaboration with Indus Valley School of Art and Design. Inspired by the Indus Valley Civilisation, her Ustad/Shagird Program gave eight teachers and two students from the Citizen Foundation Schools an opportunity to learn about the pottery tradition of the civilisation from expert potters and culminated in a “Chahar Bagh” style display illuminated by perforated dome lamps made by children. The group exhibition “Earth, Fire, Water, Air” that was part of the event paid homage to the various clay arts and crafts of the Indus Valley Civilisation that had been recreated for the event. Similarly also in 2008, the series Not “Lost from View” was Alam’s way of highlighting the pottery tradition and patterns of Mehargarh. Since then she has channeled her energies into the founding and running of “Jashn e-Jahanara” a cultural centre for young children named after her deceased daughter who was murdered in a tragic incident in 1999. The aim of Jashn-e-Jahanara was to provide children with a space to exercise their creativity and become more informed about their rich historical traditions such as dastaan goee (story telling), singing, puppetry, music, calligraphy and working with terracotta clay.
In 2013 Alam completed a 35- day Residency in Jingdezhen, China at the Pottery Workshop where she experimented with porcelain and eventually displayed an expansive collection of 100 works (Salim) at Koel Art Gallery, Karachi in a Solo Exhibition titled “A Pilgrimage with Porcelain”. The use of porcelain is not native to the region of the Subcontinent and marks yet another point of evolution in Alam’s career. Some of her signature forms and vessel shapes in the Show appeared to have absorbed and incorporated elements of the historical pottery traditions of China. Underscoring this was an attempt to reflect upon the porous traditions of a vast region that indicated shared histories of artisanal knowledge. Delicate white lotus flowers, pots with Chinese landscapes painted on them, celadon glazes, metallic colours, cone shaped forms dominated the Show.
Ceramist and educator, Alam’s impressive oeuvre today reads like a work of elegiac poetry that elevates clay to an almost sacred medium. It is homage to earth and the natural environment. In an interview she describes this as an intimate experience where she says “ It is very magical. The clay follows you, you just follow the clay. You touch the clay the clay touches you. You transform the clay, you are also transformed. This is a dialogue.” (“Sheherezade Alam Shares Her Story Of Courage”)
This dialogue has been the secret that has defined Alam’s career.
Yusuf, Ilona. “A Life with Earth: Sherezade Alam.”Artnow, 24 Apr. 20, artnowpakistan.com/a-life-with-earth-sheherezade-alam/.
Malik, Maha. “Sacred assemblage: The pottery of Sheherezade Alam”. The Express Tribune. 29 March 2 tribune.com.pk/story/356988/sacred-assemblage-the-pottery-of-sheherezade-alam/012
“Spotlight Potter: Sherezade Alam”. The Missing Slate. 15 Oct. 2013
Sherezade Alam. 24 Apr. 2019
“Profile: Tested by Fire”. Dawn, Inpaper Magazine, 8 July 2012
“A Clay Odyssey”. Dawn, Inpaper Magazine, 8 Apr 2012
Ali, Amna. “Coming Full Circle.” Newsline 2016
Salim, Sadia. “Pilgrimage with Porcelain”. Artnow
Sheherezade Alam Shares Her Story Of Courage from “Speak Your Heart with Samina Peerzada.” YouTube. 30th Sept. 2018 , youtube.com/watch?v=t_ON80LPDiA.