The curatorial and editorial project for systems, non-objective and reductive artists working in the UK

Website: Chestnuts Design

Interview with Rana Begum by Patrick Morrissey

August 2015

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

PM     Rana, can you tell me something about the influences, both artistic and otherwise, that have been significant in the development of your practice?

RB     I remember one particular day as a child in Bangladesh reading the Quran at the local mosque, in a tiny room dappled with morning light. The light, the sound of the water fountain and the repetition of recitation, all familiar elements, suddenly came together into a strong feeling of calm and exhilaration. It is one of my strongest memories.

This combination - an experience of calm and exhilaration simultaneously - is what I try to capture in my work. These contrasting feelings are interconnected in a fragile balance and, depending on your position or focus, one or the other can become enhanced.

When I imagine my work, I think about the way that the light will come in and hit it, activating it and producing an experience that is temporal and sensorial, making you aware of yourself within the space and creating an experience beyond just visual impact.

During a subsequent visit to the Alhambra in Granada, this original memory was rekindled and I became even more keenly aware of the way that light can play a decisive role in activating elements, whether colour, form or an interaction of the two.

I should say that as a child I grew up in beautiful surroundings, in a landscape of rice fields and coconut trees bordering idyllic bathing pools - a landscape that had a very powerful and calming presence.

It is these experiences which have caused me to notice the transcendental potential in the alignment of things around me, and which have instilled the desire for my work to carry those feelings.

PM     Inevitably, the grid is a format that is usually identified as the primary tool in the repertoire of geometric/ systems artists and their associates. Does the grid have any role in your own approach to making work?

RB     I think about repetition. This naturally gives rise to grid patterns and overlaps. I work in a systematic way, using simple units. For example, my box work uses a unit of 5cm, which is the width of the box section. I use the same width for the spacing between the sections, and I try to stick to multiples of 5cm for the various dimensions employed in the work. I keep things very ordered and systematic to minimize distractions from the repetition and the pattern.

The way that I break away from this hard edge is by layering the geometry. I use asymmetry or controlled misalignment to create a contrast. What I want is a balance between the symmetry and the asymmetry.

Work in progress, 2013 -15

No. 575, 2015 (left view / right view)

PM     Most of your work has a sculptural aspect; for example, in the folded pieces.  Are the traditions /distinctions between sculpture/painting of relevance to you when considering or developing a project?

RB     My work is in a constant state of evolution, with 3D work giving rise to drawings and vice versa. It is not the distinction that I am interested in, but more the blurring of the boundary, or bridging the gap between these two disciplines.

Defining my work as either sculpture or painting is never the focus when creating a piece of work.  For me, I am interested in the essential elements of light, colour and geometry. These elements combine to create a multitude of forms, both sculptural and two-dimensional.

PM     Is technology something that stills you, or inspires you?

RB     I look to my surroundings for inspiration, which, as a London-based artist, are of course filled with technology. However, I generally find inspiration in the tangible, the material rather than the virtual.   

Technology provides me with design solutions and offers machine processes which in themselves can often inspire a series of work.  

Currently I am doing a month of Instagram posts for the Contemporary Art Society. This offers an insight into how my studio runs, but also provides a tool for me – a virtual sketchpad of ideas.

PM     Historically, whereas geometric and/or systems art has been popular in mainland Europe, it has been routinely overlooked in the UK. There has been a recent resurgence in interest in it that projects such as Saturation Point are responding to. Do you think that this type of work is becoming increasingly more interesting to people and if so, why?

RB     I think people like to attach labels and follow trends as it makes it easier to associate with various movements in art. I am not really interested in this approach.


There is a common language that flows through my work, which draws inspiration from constructivist and minimalist art. However, I don’t think the desire to create work is pushed by the desire to be labelled - it’s more about finding a visual language that expresses what you are trying to say.

For me, geometric abstraction is a tool to create a particular experience. I don’t know if people are more interested in geometric art in general. There has been growing interest in my work, but that could be due to a natural development of my career and exposure.

PM     There may be a belief by some - which may account for some of systems art’s current unpopularity - that employing a ‘rational aesthetic’ in art produces uninteresting or limited work. What do you think is the relationship between art that consciously adopts a logical process and the personal expression of the artist?

RB     An artist who I am greatly inspired by is Agnes Martin. Although she adopts a very rational and logical process, I do not find her work to be limited in terms of expression - quite the opposite. There is personal expression in the sense of calm and serenity her work instils upon the viewer.

In my work I use systematic and repetitive principles. I find this distilled way of working best expresses and captures a sense of the transcendental.   

For me, logical processes and personal expression work in tandem to produce a multi-faceted experience.

No. 372, Bench, 2013

PM    Geometry and colour... what precedence, if any, do you give to these factors in the development of a project?

RB     Geometry, form and colour are the cornerstones of my artistic practice and inform the very earliest stages of my work’s development. For me there is no hierarchy between form and colour.  They are interconnected: one can’t survive without the other.

PM     How do you use colour in your work?

RB     I am very interested in the way that colour exposes light and makes it visible through reflection. Currently I am interested in how colour and light mix to create a third layer of geometry.

When creating my box works, even though the colours that I use are quite instinctive, there is a method involved. In order to create this third layer, I need colours that will interact with each other, e.g. fluorescent colours that reflect onto pastel. Although I use block colours, they blend with each other to create unexpected and surprising combinations.

With my folded works, colour is juxtaposed with white and black to accentuate the geometry within the form. I also use fluorescent on the reverse of the folds which create reflections, giving the work a sense of lightness.

PM     Can you briefly describe the processes you use?

RB     If I am excited by a visual effect, or a particular material, I start off by thinking about how to incorporate this into my work, and what the visual experience is that I would like to achieve.

Following this is a long process of research of techniques and testing out the chosen material to examine its capacity to produce the desired effect. I take many aspects into account, such as how light will affect the material or the form. As the basic properties are established, new elements are added to the work: colour, geometry, scale and so on.

I see my work as research, so one work informs the next.   

PM     Philip Guston said: “What I’m always seeking is some great simplicity where the whole thing is just there”. Does this in any way resonate with you?

RB     Yes, I am trying to make work that is visually simple but has a complex layer of experience in it. There is always the desire to create something which is distilled and pure.  

No 573, 2015 (detail)

PM     Can you comment on your recent project in Bangladesh, and can you explain why you became involved, or why was this important to you?

RB     In 2013 I was asked to propose a project for Dhaka Art Summit, sponsored by the Samdani Foundation, which would make use of that region’s produce. Weaving baskets as a child in Bangladesh, and reading the Quaran in the local mosque, are two experiences which greatly informed this work.

I wished to create a calm and contemplative environment reminiscent of the Mosque-Cathedral in Cordoba and Louis Kahn’s National Parliament House in Dhaka - spaces which, on visiting, gave me a great sense of calm and serenity.

PM     Can you comment on whether you agree that the emphasis for the ‘visual’ in art is now long overdue? Does one’s work need to be universally accessible to the demands of an increasingly media-enabled audience?

RB     I think it’s great that it is now so much easier for people to have access to art now through Instagram, Facebook etc. – it is no longer just for the privileged few. Whether or not this truly does justice to the work is another question.

PM      There have been two recent shows in London addressing the concerns of geometric/formalist abstract artists in the 20th century. Both have, to a degree, referenced political and social developments that were at the time associated with them, either intentionally or by default. Do you have any such social or political intent in your practice, perhaps your recent international basketry installation project in your homeland, for example?

RB     I don’t make work to address social or political concerns. I make art that focuses on spatial and visual engagement, reflecting more universal feelings of presence and contemplation. In order to achieve this I use elements that transcend nationality, class and gender - such as colour, form and pattern.

However, as previously mentioned, I draw inspiration from my surroundings and experiences, which are of course influenced by political and social developments.

PM     How do you see the role of an artist such as yourself in the contemporary landscape of abstraction, both nationally and internationally?

RB     I am drawn to the work of minimalist and constructivist artists and their concerns, which I feel are more valid than ever in the frenzy of daily life.  

This is not a pursuit which has reached a conclusion. As our social and cultural landscape evolves, so does the necessity for new answers to these concerns. It is this which motivates me to continually push my work. Through this I hope to contribute something new, which allows the viewer to see their surroundings in a different way.

I find that showing with other contemporary artists raises new themes and questions, which greatly contribute to the landscape of abstract art, and ensure that there is continued dialogue surrounding it. Recently I had work exhibited at the Vienna Biennale and at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, N.Y., entitled Geometries of Difference: New Approaches to Ornament and Abstraction.

Ultimately, as an artist, you address your own concerns. If these concerns tie in with those of other artists and create a cohesive and interesting landscape, all the better. It is important to feel that your work is part of a greater picture.

PM     Finally, would you agree that the language, or otherwise, of formal abstraction can induce a transcendental response from an audience? How do you hope your communication works?

RB      Yes, I do agree. It is something I have experienced myself through viewing the work of Donald Judd and Agnes Martin at the Dia Foundation in NY. Their work succeeds in surpassing materiality to communicate directly with the viewer. This encounter greatly influenced me – it made sense of what I am searching for in my work.

My use of repetition gives rise to the idea of the infinite, which in turn evokes a sense of the numinous. From very early on, I wished to create work that was not static. In life we are in constant motion, seeing things change and shift around us. I felt the need to reflect these transitions and changes within my work. I rely upon both natural light and the interaction of the viewer to achieve this.

The colours used in the work change dramatically from the beginning to the end of the day as they absorb and reflect varying densities of light.  The viewer also plays a vital role. Loud shouting colours become subtle hues as the viewer moves across the face of the work, experiencing form, colour and pattern simultaneously.

PM     Thank you, Rana Begum

No. 528, 2014 (Photograph taken by Ian Bartlett)

No 555, 2014

No. 490, 2014 (detail)

No 473, 2013