A visual journey beyond the mind’s limitations

Gifted artist and political activist Shahina Jaffer shares her thoughts on art, cultural influences and icon Mahatma Ghandi with The-Latest, writes Deputy Editor Deborah Hobson. This is part one of a two-part interview.

DH: How would you describe your practice? It would be good to hear about your work with Augmented Reality technology

SJ: By harnessing my diverse background in art and marketing, I have produced a body of work based on the intellectual interpretation of these two, distinct experiences. With a focus on the exploration of movement – allowing paint to flow, uninterrupted, without interference – I use paint and water as a conductive energy. By applying imagination, nature and science in a precise fashion, often incorporating weather as both subject and tool, my work breaks traditional boundaries and reveals a deeper meaning that can be easily overlooked at a glance. Ultimately, I strive to the renunciation of limitations, using texture as an important element in my artwork, to make it more tactile and accessible to those with visual impairments and expand the image beyond the mind’s limitation and preconditioning.

I specialise in abstract art and observation. My main focus is the exploration of movement and perception – a fascination informed by my career in consumer marketing. With expansive expertise on human behaviours and tendencies, I really resonate with Degas’ idea that art “is not what you see, but what you make others see”. My image making is centred on the encounter: the crucial moment between the artist and the observer. My artistic output encourages and investigates the encounter between artist and observer. I firmly believe that art should be an interactive experience in which the viewer is sent on a visual voyage to explore the depths of their own perception and ignites their individual imagination.

During the Covis-19 lockdown, I have moved into the realms of virtual reality and I exhibited at the Burning Man 2020 festival. I delved into the omnipresence of hidden imagery in the world around us – in nature, in advertising, in architecture and in art. Now with Burning Man under my belt, I’m looking forward to the launch of the Stereognosis Project exhibition, where we will be curating and exhibiting pieces from the series of art workshops we have been coordinating over Zoom in collaboration with University of the Arts Central Saint Martins College and BlindAid since the start of Lockdown.

DH: What key message do you hope audiences will take away from seeing your work?

SJ: My artwork is reflective in nature and I deploy purposeful abstract techniques such as using customised paint and minerals, like zinc and bronze to create images that allow the viewer to build their own narrative. I hope that my artwork communicates feelings of peace, joy and harmony. Which is what I feel when I make my work. My artwork is inspired by my dual heritage and I want to show how we are influenced by colour, shape and culture. I wanted people to get a glimpse into where I get my inspiration from.

Many of my works incorporate hidden messages that are revelled by careful examination or through illumination, often these messages can be unearthed by shinning a light under the canvas.  I’m now exploring heat sensitivity through thermochromics, which is the reversible change in the colour of a compound when it is heated or cooled. This adds another dimension to my work and they literary change dependant on the environment that they are placed in.

DH: What is your cultural background and has this had an influence on your art practice?

SJ: My multicultural roots span four continents and I incorporate my heritage in both political and artistic endeavours.  My parents were born in Tanzania and I celebrate my connection to Africa by using vibrant colours and tribal patterns.

My grandparents were from India and I deploy lots of influences by traditional cultured artistic practices, such as the Indian practice of Rangoli – Rangoli is an art form, originating in the Indian subcontinent, in which patterns are created on the floor or the ground using materials such as coloured rice, coloured sand, quartz powder or flower petals. I also use powder paint to celebrate colour and much of my work is made from a brushless technique that imitates Rangoli .

My family line dates back to Arabia, that’s why I have an Arabic name: Shahina means a royal white falcon.  Once I reconnected with my Arabian roots, I became fascinated by Arabian artistry, so much so that I spent some time in Jordan and worked with a sandstone Sculptor. When I returned, to mark my incredible time in Jordan, I created a collection called “Postcards from Jordan”. These are a series of watercolours of Jordanian landscapes that I painted from my imagination and memory. 

DH: If you could have dinner and talk justice and equality with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?

SJ: This is a hard one, because I think of three people, that I would love to have dinner with and talk about justice and equality. These are Nelson Mandela, Hilma af Klimt and Mahatma Gandhi. But due to my cultural heritage and because I would enjoy the cuisine, and because Gandhi is from the same place as my Grandparents, I would choose Gandhi. I would ask him over a cup of Chai and a few onion bhaji’s, what he thought about the world today, how he would deploy his philosophy of non-violence called Ahimsa to the current hostile world climate? What he would do to bring about more peace and harmony amongst the nations? What he thought about the current divisive policies we see today.

I’d ask him about what my maternal greatfather Bapo (Grandfather), did to help him and his movement and what advice he would give to me to put into practice his saying:

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”

*Shahina Jaffer is a St Martin’s School of Art graduate with an impressive catalogue of work. Over the span of her career she has exhibited worldwide, including London, Barcelona, New York, Mexico City and Genoa, and has recently added to this impressive list with her exhibition at the Virtual Burning Man 2020 festival. View her website and portfolio.