December Issue 2014
Interview: Sherezade Alam
What does it take for an artist with 40 years of experience and as many, if not more, accolades to opt for a workshop experience in an alien environment? Perseverance, true grit and the desire to explore the boundaries of one’s chosen medium… all qualities that Sheherezade Alam is known to possess.
Graduating as a potter from the National College of Arts, Lahore, Sheherezade won a scholarship to the West Surrey College of Art and Design, UK. She was an Artist in Residence at Yale University; taught at NCA, Lahore and at Bilkent University, Ankara. Her work has been exhibited in numerous solo and group shows in Pakistan, Turkey, Canada and the USA.
She was married to artist Zahoor ul Akhlaq. After the tragic murder of Zahoor and her daughter Jahanara in Lahore, Sheherezade moved to Canada in 1999, setting up the “Zahoor Project” to document his work. Sheherezade returned to Pakistan in 2007, to continue her studio practice and establish the Jahan e Jahanara Centre for Traditional Arts for Children.
In 2013, she took up a 35-day residency at the Pottery Workshop in Jingdezhen, China. During the residency, she produced a body of work, displayed at the Koel Gallery recently with the exhibition, ‘A Pilgrimage with Porcelain.’
Exuberant, articulate and clearly as much in love with matti as she was the day she fashioned her first pot, Sheherezade talks to Newsline about her sojourn in China.
How did it begin, your journey with clay?
From a very early age it must have been written that I would be a potter. Pottery shops would haunt me, I would want to go and touch, bring the pots home, paint them, see what would happen if you put water in them.
There’s something about the handmade pot. Even to this day, my whole body moves when I’m passing a pot. The clay in my body, in my being, responds to the clay outside.
This has been happening for 40 years now, a deep connection with matti.
And the trip to China?
People tell stories of places. That’s why you travel. I went to Delhi, there I met these potters, women with their own studios. Mein un ko apni sakhian kehti hun. They told me about a place called Jingdezhen in China, and how they had worked with porcelain in China. That’s where the journey starts.
The potters told me a company called ‘The Pottery Workshop’ had organised their visit to the city of Jingdezhen in China. I got in touch with the company and booked myself into a ceramics workshop. From Pakistan, you fly to Shanghai and then take an early morning flight to the city of Jingdezhen. When you arrive, the first thing you see is that the whole city is involved in pottery.
In Jingdezhen, you understand that clay manifests itself everywhere. Everywhere you look, there’s something made out of clay, somebody’s painted with it, somebody’s carved it, treated it in so many ways. So much so that you become numb, from wondering what you should do. Halaankay chalees saal say mein yeh kar rahi hun…
I had to tell myself, start with your hands, just start making a pot, do what you know first. Once I got started, I couldn’t stop. There were 55 steps up to that studio and once I had climbed up, I never had the time even to go down to the cafÃ© for a cup of coffee. The work went on at this pace for the 35 days of the workshop.
And you were working with different material…
When you go to China, you are now interacting with the clay there, it’s porcelain, it’s not at all the Punjab earthenware. It has a very different feeling, it’s very fine, it has its own nature, it’s a completely different feeling.
What exactly is porcelain?
Porcelain is actually a soft stone, found in large quantities in China, it’s been used for centuries. The stone is hammered, pulverized to dust. It has the quality of withstanding tremendous heat. It turns back to stone after firing, becoming a much stronger stone. It’s a high-temperature fired clay, well fused together.
How did you determine your palette?
In China there was such a huge variety of glazes; so many of them, it was overwhelming. I thought about the colour of the Jingdezhen sky, going from the whites to greys to greens and I decided to use these colours for my Celadon.
And then I had to offset it with something very dramatic, and I tried black, but the matt black was not breathing enough, it just didn’t have enough energy. I went back to Celadon and then tried copper-red… the colour known as sang de boeuf or ox-blood red.
I had learnt long ago, in England, to make copper-red, following a classical Chinese glaze book. Copper usually gives green, but when it gets reduced, carbon settles on the pot and is oxidised; you get red, it’s like magic. Copper reds are very elusive.
At art school in England in 1983-4, I took a whole semester just testing glazes, because I had never had that opportunity. One of my teachers had written a book on ancient Chinese glazing techniques and I learnt about the Celadon, I could produce the ox-blood.
When I came back, I started to work on the Chinese glazes in Lahore. To produce ox-blood red you need copper and there is plenty of copper oxide in Pakistan.
All you need to do is control the temperature and the reduction, which is taking oxygen out, so carbon is created. With the firing, carbon settles on the surface. It interacts with the glaze, it is oxidised again and then the colour emerges, the red or the Celadon, any of the special effect glazes.
You titled the show, A Pilgrimage with Porcelain.
I was longing to call my show 35 days and 55 steps… but you know, I had never done anything so difficult in my life, it was a trial. I had not been tried and tested the way I was on this journey. The work had to be completed in a fixed time and the process was very strenuous. The clay asks of you, the material asks of you, relentless energy; so you have to give it, it’s not a choice. It’s not an outcome, the process is your pilgrimage, you reach a place and that is your final destination.
In the 35 days, there were three 10-day periods. You do all your making in the first 10 days, in the next 10-day period, you have finishing…. trimming, drying, tests for glazing. Then everything must be glazed and fired in the last 10 days. You go to the glaze man, the pieces go into the kiln and you get your answers back the next day.
As an independent studio potter you can be so careful about every piece…but there you put all your pots down on this dusty floor and the man tells you to just leave them and go. I couldn’t sleep at night thinking about the pots, how they would turn out. The system was so different from anything I’d ever known before… I learned to let go.
There was already a Chinese influence in your work.
Yes, I’ve looked to China, towards Japan for inspiration. But in my work, there’s also the connection to Harappa, most of my work is done on the wheel.
Sadly, we have had no real teaching of our connection to clay, our clay heritage. Our figurines from Mehrgarh date back to 9000 BC, that’s eleven thousand years of clay legacy. We talk about the Egyptians and children learn about Mesopotamia, but we never talk about the Indus Valley. Even if we do, it’s only about its archaeological importance. Nobody’s talking about the cultural aspect, how these people understood earth, fire, water, air and ether. We have lessons to learn from this ancient land. We have a living clay legacy, but we are not aware because it has not been shown to us. n
This interview was originally published in Newsline’s December 2014 issue.
Tehmina Ahmed is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. She is a senior editor at Newsline and head of Newsline Films.