Interview with Rana Begum

The Bagri Foundation started the year with “Is This Tomorrow?” at the Whitechapel gallery supporting artist Rana Begum and architect Marina Tabassum’s new commission Phoenix will Rise. In response to the exhibition’s invitation to offer their visions of the future, Begum and Tabassum presented a space that invites contemplation and solitude. The full press release for this show can be seen here. The exhibition toured to Concrete in Dubai this month, where the duo were asked to recreate the piece especially for The Yard, Alserkal Avenue, which closes in a few days on 23 November. More info here.

The Bagri Foundation asked Begum to share some further insight into the vision and making of the structure that kickstarted our 2019 programme and was beautifully recreated in November of the same year.


BF: In a piece by Ned Carter Miles for Art Asia Pacific, he refers to your childhood memory of reading the Quran in a local mosque and how that unique moment of light, water, sound, space and people coming together was a defining moment for you. It occurred to us that collaborating with Marina Tabassum, who designed Bait ur Rouf, the award winning mosque in Bangladesh, might have a been quite a significant experience for you. Did you hope to create an iteration of your childhood experience with Phoenix will Rise?

RB: I have been a big admirer of Marina’s work, especially since I saw Bait ur Rouf, so this was a very exciting collaborative moment for me. It was inspiring to work with someone that appreciates light and form in a similar way and to see how this would push both of our practices. For me this piece was not about creating an iteration of childhood experiences but more to do with how we might imagine a future that allows us to reflect on nature.

BF: Could you tell us a bit more about the title of the work? Where does it come from?

RB: The title comes from Marina. She found this poem that describes what this proposal means in terms of the project.

BF: Both you and Marina have a strong association with light in your work. Together, how did that fascination merge into the final form?

RB: Marina and I definitely connect through our appreciation of light. I really respect the way that she uses material and form to manipulate light. In my practice I am often doing the reverse – using light to manipulate form and colour. Light is a fundamental part of my creative process. It affects the colour and form of the work itself which in turn affects how each work is perceived by the viewer. What I love about treating light as a medium in itself is that it creates an experience that is temporal. An individual work can change dramatically depending on the time of day and density of light it adsorbs and reflects. As a result the work is continually refreshed and renewed and, therefore, so too is the viewer’s experience. All around us things are in constant flux and motion. I strive to embody this transience and transformation in my work – a feat which would be impossible without the interplay of light with colour and form.

Phoenix Will Rise by Rana Begum and Marina Tabassum, Photo credit: Mustafa Aboobacker

BF: I read somewhere that for you light is absent of meaning. Could you elaborate on this and, generally, how you work with light?

The work itself and how it is perceived by the viewer. By nature, light is ever moving, shifting and changing but also constantly renewing. When I imagine my work, I think about the way light will come in and strike it, activating it and producing an experience that is both temporal and sensorial, making you aware of yourself within the space and creating an experience beyond just visual impact. I work with materials and colours that respond to and interact with light. Light affords a primal sense of time and when that is captured in a work the viewer may feel connected to the infinite. As a work is activated by light, it takes on by proxy its transcendental traits – light renews and refreshes the work interminably and with it our experience of it.

For as long as I can remember, my struggle has been to capture change in my work. All around us things are in constant flux and motion and I strive to embody this transience and transformation. Light allows me to capture the change in form and colour, which it manipulates so unreservedly. More so than any other component, form and colour are at the mercy of light.

BF: In an exhibition that is largely sceptical of a wholesome ‘Tomorrow’, you and Marina come together to create a minimal space that entices harmony and inclusion. Was it natural for you as collaborators to take this contemplative stance? How did the design decisions enhance this experience?

RB: Yes, considering the widespread discord and conflict that is going on across the world, both politically and environmentally, it felt natural to want to create something that was reflective and calm – an oasis amid the chaos. Our conversation started with what was happening around the world.  We both travel for work and live in countries where we are seeing a lot of political change. It’s surprising how much this affects your work even on a subconscious level. The more we talked, the more realised what a strong and intense reaction these discussions about the current state of the world were sparking. Based on these discussions, we agreed to create something that could bring people together and provide them with a space to think, to connect and to contemplate.

BF: You mentioned that the exterior alludes to the present, and interior alludes to the future in Phoenix will Rise. This was an unexpected philosophical approach that felt very relatable. Was this obvious for you or did it take a lot of unearthing?

RB: We kept going back to these contradicting experiences, the exterior present and the interior future. We wanted to create a space that allows people to escape and find truth – surrounded by a different kind of reality than that of their surrounds and allowing the viewer to sense the fragility of their situation. The aim was to create a dual experience.

BF: Could you share what is next for you? “Is This Tomorrow?” is travelling to MAAT, Lisbon in 2020 but is there something to look forward to this autumn?

RB: The show is touring to Concrete in Dubai, which opens in November and touring to Lisbon in 2020. I am currently working on a commission for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and working towards Dhaka Art Summit in 2020.

BF: Thank you so much for taking the time speak with us and we look forward to seeing the new iterations of the work as it tours!

Photography by Jandri Angelo Aguilor
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