Spending time at Rana Begum’s exhibition is an experience akin to cloud-gazing, watching the sea, or observing one’s surrounding with a discerning eye. Begum’s ostensibly straightforward renderings of form and colour come alive, transforming as the daylight illuminates her works. With her new work, the British-Bangladeshi artist strays from her characteristic geometricism and flat applications of colour, incorporating organic forms, softer curves, and spray-paints that blend into each other. She also experiments with new materials — nylon fishing nets and marble. Yet, Begum remains consistent in attempting to conjure an environment that privileges phenomenological experience over the mere construction of a minimalistic visual language.
The gallery’s walls feature artworks that incorporate fluorescent spray-paints on foil, paper, and Jesmonite, a construction material. These works are juxtaposed against a series of marble sculptures, entitled Floats, which depict ovate and sphere-shaped objects. A nylon fishing net painted in incandescent tones, is stretched out and suspended over an expanse of the gallery’s floor. The works capture the essence of the all the landscapes that Begum has inhabited. In an essay accompanying the exhibition, Diana Campbell Betancourt articulates that the artist finds “poetry in the geometries of the everyday experience – from scaffolding she comes into contact with while building her new studio in London, to fishing nets and floats she encountered over the last two years on residencies by the sea in Cornwall (England), Bataan (Philippines) and Istanbul (Turkey), to hand-woven baskets that inhabit her childhood memories of growing up in Bangladesh.” Begum expresses over a phone call that despite their seeming incongruency, the sculptures and wall-based work were made synchronously. “Working on them simultaneously, helped resolve questions concerning form, colour, and material,” she states.
While Begum continues to employ repetitive gestures to explore notions of regularity, she admits that she has loosened up her practice “to stage moments where the works have the ability to change”. In the Folded Grid series on foil, she has folded sheets to impress ordered-forms that are subsequently disrupted by crumpling and spray-paint. Her paintings on paper also explore the contrast between lines imprinted by irregular yet explicit folds, and less-defined applications of paint. While her Jesmonite blocks form a grid on the wall, Begum casts uneven creases on their surfaces. Even the fishing net’s geometric form is stretched to reveal soft curves and gathers. This work evokes her childhood in Bangladesh, where she remembers observing light streaming through fishing nets at sea. In the Floats series, also inspired by coasts, Begum has chosen Italian marble and defined its shape, but left the patterns formed on the sculptures to chance. She exercises control by selecting her media and employing specific techniques, but her works are ultimately contingent and subject to natural light. Looking out of the gallery’s windows, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and the Gateway of India come into view. As their symmetry is dismantled by layers of scaffolding, traffic, and fluctuating light, the sea in the background subverts the structure. The dualism between form and chaos that Begum proposes in her works becomes evident.
Begum’s palette is inspired partially by Bollywood films and the vibrant clothing she grew up wearing in Sylhet. These luminous tones also resonate with sights across the gallery — traffic cones, balloons sold on streets, and vests worn by policemen stand out. Begum adds that her two-toned paintings on foil have also been compared to candy wrappers. In her works, she attempts to “transform colours associated with urban aesthetics or warning signs, into something calmer”. She uses her palette to expose the innately organic nature of neon colours. Interacting with daylight, her glowing colours momentarily spill onto the walls beyond the boundaries of the works, revealing their fleeting yet ubiquitous nature that is often overlooked. The dynamic works “reveal the subtle movements of our planet as they draw attention to the way that natural light (also a moving entity) impacts our perception of colour,” Betancourt suggests.
Begum aims to “understand the complexities of materials by subverting the functions they are associated with”. For instance, the Jesmonite work appears weightless, resembling crumpled paper. In contrast, the heavy marble sculptures attached to their pedestals represent light floats used by fishermen in Cornwall. Begum constructed similar forms using plaster last year at a residency in St Ives, where she engaged closely with Barbara Hepworth’s modernist works. In Begum’s current creations, marble challenges the function of the floats, while also “enabling the works to connect with ideas of landscape”.
The formation of marble recalls time, summoning the action of sediments folding against one another. Such gestures are represented seemingly by the crinkles and creases in Begum’s Jesmonite and foil-based works. Additionally, her paintings on paper develop from layers of over-spray over the course of several months. These works are procedurally analogous to the layered processes that form the surfaces (of marble in this case) that we perceive. The light activating the works within the space reorients our focus ultimately to the present. Taking a short walk from the Colaba-based gallery, Begum expresses how she encountered piles of fishing net and floats by the city’s coastline, a happy coincidence considering she conceptualised her works at other sites.
Through her quiet and introspective works, the artist compels viewers to look at the world with a keener eye. While most contemporary art emphasises the cerebral, Begum’s works robustly return attention to our senses. Betancourt concludes, “We can only really feel the movement around us by knowing where we stand.”
Rana Begum’s show is is on at Jhaveri Contemporary, Colaba, until November 2.