Diversity and Climate Art: Shaheen Ahmed

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Born in Burnley Lancashire, Shaheen is a female British Artist whose parents are from Gujarat Pakistan. Shaheen is settled in Birmingham and practises as a Muslim, reaching out to injustices across the globe.

How would you describe your practice/research/work on climate change?

I connect with the earth on a spiritual level. Mountains for example can be seen as more than towering earth. I feel connected to their expansive presence. Primordial earth belongs to the destitute whether they are humans or animals. We have a problem with boundaries and borders. I look particularly at borders, boundaries and structures, displacement on another level with maps. I work with maps to explore and illustrate displacement and belonging. I put a geometric pattern onto the world map, carve it up and put it back together. How is the earth feeling? The earth’s ruptures, techtonic plates, and the movement of people is part of my current my research.

What influences your work and do you have a particular intention with it?

We need nature for the survival of people and communities. Emphasis on a collective shared narrative, caring for others is my approach. History is seen through the person who shares it. Maps are physical pieces of paper that humans generally agree on. I am looking at kindness across the globe. When the time is right communities will merge as one. A simplistic view perhaps, and something that may not happen but one that I feel suits my sensibilitites. As yet some people are holding onto certain power structures. I am creatively navigating around these set ups and maybe defying them at their own game. Whoever has reached a certain space or level of progress is racing towards the next one and sometimes not looking back to see how society remains disjointed.

At school I thought I was going to be a fashion designer, it was at art school that I really got into fashion. Aged sixteen I spoke to my Art History teacher saying I wanted to research Islamic art. She guided me to research the influence of Japanese woodcut prints on Impressionist painters. Burnley College of Arts and Technology didnt have many books on Islamic Art back in the late 80’s. Perhaps I was surprised to hear this one sentence, a lack of information on my culture, my history. I feel a strong connection to Europe and this reflects in my artwork. After completing my degree in Art and Design, I started doing a lot of digital art, it felt like men were mainly at the forefront of this, and I had to take on this challenge. Then I was reading about Islamaphobia and didnt agree with what I was finding.

Do you think you have had an impact with your work and how is it funded?

My recent collaboration with Future Possibilities Lab was funded by Arts Council England. Curator Jose Forrest Tennant approached me, saying she would like to work with me! I deliver creative workshops for various art projects. I also hand make lampshades, using maps from history. As these are time consuming and one offs I take commissions.

Who is your audience?

The wider community , museum audience, academic, diverse communities. I am my own audience as I am fascinated by the topics I dig around.

I remember at University studying computer art, using complex 3D packages. At that time I was saying whatever the boys could do I can do just as well. Now I focus on my research and try to uncover facts around who created which map, where they got their source from etc. My audience is the curator who brings over a pakistani artist, usually from Lahore and then ships them back. I am saying that I am a British born artist of Pakistani heritage. I challenge, not for the sake of challenge. I want to introduce history to the muslim comunity, to show the glory within the 9 colours used by the cartographer. I want to work with all communities. I think we need diverse storytellers telling the story as they all have different perspectives.

Do you think diverse artists/people are less involved in exploring the climate issue?

Yes they are less involved in the UK, or maybe they are not being given a big enough platform. I work with maps and have heard people say is this really art?I am not playing it safe, i.e not creating pretty pictures. Black and Asian artists do look at climate change topics but perhaps play it safe to get into galleries and responding to briefs by ticking boxes. I’m not immune to this and have done my fair share of ticking boxes projects. Creatively more people from diverse backgrounds will get involved as it will be seen as the latest fad.

I recently completed a residency entitled Embodying Geographies at the University of Birmingham Lapworth Museum. Historically, female geographers, explorers and academics have worked in the shadows of their male counterparts. Even today, women are still under represented in these areas of expertise as well as many other academic fields.

Why do you think most of the funded work for Climate Arts projects we see seem to be by white artists?

This platform could be seen as stifling for artists of colour as it often keeps us out of the main arena. There is a focus on community work and diversity is the agenda so we can more easily fit into this. I personally do however find it humbling to work with marginalised communitites, irrespective of colour.

In 2008 I was Artist in Residence at Wightwick Manor House for the National Trust. The artwork I produced was an installation of a Maypole, an English symbol of a time gone by. This piece culminated in combining my childhood memories of skipping round a maypole at Infant school in Burnley Lancashire, along with narratives from the National Trust Property. Would my work have been better received if I created something culturally more associated with someone who looks like me? Perhaps something to reference my father? Thereby ticking the diversity box, and this in turn would attract a more diverse audience. How would the maypole have been received if it was created by an english artist, whose heritage wasn’t from Pakistan?

Do you think we need specific arts projects by and for diverse audiences to widen the impact and encourage change in society?

Yes. An inclusive approach is imminent. Maybe the word diversity needs rebranding within the arts. It can no longer just be polished every now and then. Only to find the diverse artist/ academic is kept at arms length.

In my practice I want stories to be more about the world. There needs to be more platforms and opportunities for everyone. If we say this is for black people only and this group, then the white community feels left out. White working class communities have there own problems, white power infrastructure is another commodity in itself. Having said that black and minority groups struggle to get recognition and opportunities for their work. This imbalance reflects how poorly we are interacting with people who may seem different to ourselves. We need to correct this and look at people as human beings not as different groups. My art practice is looking at global displacement, so I am trying to make links with charities who work to help others especially on my doorstep within the West Midlands.

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www.shaheenahmed.com                                                           www.futurepossibilitieslab.net

Harpreet’s Reflections

Shaheen is proud of her heritage and spirituality but does not want to be defined only by it, or to be held back as a woman, as we often are. She is an artist first wanting to create work about a range of topics for a range of audiences. Shaheen rightly points out that often as a POC it seems you are ticking a box. Once there are a number of people getting recognition and status, it can often seem like there is space for no more. This is a very controversial topic. I started my career in 2001 in South Asian Arts and have worked in a number of places on a range of arts projects but still it feels easier for me to get work related to South Asian Arts in England, even though my interests have developed and are now global. Is this because I am of South Asian origin, or that I have this specific expertise or both? I also agree with Shaheen that most POC do play it safe, and for some they do want to explore certain topics that relate to their heritage and culture, as easy this does make it to tick boxes. I also agree that as important as it is to have diverse people on board, (the highest positions in the arts are still dominated by middle class white men) it depends on who these people are as so many become gatekeepers. Even within diverse circles there is a lot of male privilege and class privilege, but I think many individuals regardless of colour in comfortable positions of power prefer not to discuss this. Perhaps human beings are just not able to function beyond power dynamics.

For an introduction to this series of articles see New Narratives on the Climate Story.

This project has been supported by Creative Climate Leadership, a programme supported by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union.

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