Kirsty Jukes speaks to Halima Cassell MBE about an ongoing body of work, ‘Virtues of Unity’, on display as part of Reflections at Blackwell – the Arts & Crafts House.
I love Cassell’s sculptures. Having been up close and, on occasion, in the lucky position of handling her work, they give me a sense of peace and grounding through their repeated geometric patterns and a soft yet solid construction. Born in 1975, Cassell grew up in Lancashire after moving at a young age with her family from Pakistan. This imposed dual-nationality has raised questions of belonging and identity for the artist which she addresses throughout her work. When the world feels especially noisy, these pleasingly precise forms are a reminder of the healing properties of art. They are hewn from a variety of materials including bronze, wood, plaster, glass, Cassell’s favourite, clay, and, more recently, concrete.
Our natural world is a constant inspiration, each piece seems to echo rippling water, mineral crystal habits, blooming flowers, insect wings or dappled light across the forest floor. Cassell’s careful study of the sacred geometry of flora and fauna enables her to emulate the untameable forces of Gaia in her work. The Pagan goddess of creation and creativity who arose from primordial nothingness to create this planet’s complex ecosystems is an idea echoed in Cassell’s ability to configure art from the earth. Man-made architecture, textiles and spiritual symbolism also influence Cassell. When viewed from above, I am reminded of Mandala-like motifs used in religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism that concentrate the viewer’s gaze from outside to a centre. Believed to enable a shift from suffering to joy, this repeated patterning is meditative in its effect as the eye is pulled towards a stillness at each centre. Thirteenth century Islamic girih tiles and the golden ratio of Penrose tiling also spring to mind when running my eyes over Cassell’s forms. Tessellating surfaces of works such as ‘Trefoil’ (2014) are reminders of human physicality, here in the form of the womb, suggestive of the feminine as a basis for art.
‘Virtues of Unity’ (2009-present) is an ongoing collection of work currently consisting of sixty clay pots in gradual gradients of colour and texture. Celebrating similarity and difference between people and places, the clay for these works is sourced from disparate countries around the globe. Reflections, Cassell’s current exhibition at Blackwell, the Arts & Craft house in Bowness-on-Windermere, displays ‘Virtues of Unity’ in its entirety, alongside more of the artist’s exquisite sculptures and wall hangings. The building seemed like the perfect home for these works, adhering to the aesthetics of traditional craft and inspiration taken from nature, so I jumped at the chance to visit. In the artist’s own words, this installation shows that ‘whilst we appear superficially different, so we are also fundamentally the same; we are one species, united by our DNA regardless of cultural background, religion or skin colour’.
This type of art-making – as quiet but determined activism – is never more important than in times of division, especially when considering the ongoing rhetoric surrounding refugees, displacement and the so-called migrant crisis. The idea of commonality between peoples, shared DNA and histories is, I feel, an essential part of ongoing conversations about post-colonialism and anti-racist work. In Cassell’s work, we see the possibility of consonance between myriad origins. This messaging is beneficial, not only for the inclusion of a broader viewing public, but also for the ambitions of artists who may feel the art world is still limiting in its hierarchy of importance. As art institutions large and small begin to listen, Cassell occupies an essential position by creating beautiful work that demonstrates what binds us so eloquently. Material differences, although important for individual identity, cannot hide the simple truth that we are all connected.
On the day I had booked to visit the installation, the train from Manchester took me through Lancashire to Preston, but my journey on to Oxenholme wasn’t to be. Line failures, staff shortages and electrical outages meant services were unable to reach the Lake District for an extended period of time. After a number of hours attempting to get on subsequently cancelled services, we decided to call it a day. This demonstrated to me (and not for the first time) how impossible it is sometimes for even the most driven viewers to get to venues further afield in the North. It only serves to further the gap between London and everywhere else. More investment in transport infrastructure as well as a concentrated effort to decentralise the arts might go some way to beginning the change needed for cultural equity across our country.
In lieu of my thwarted visit to Blackwell (though I will be doing everything I can to attend before the exhibition ends in January), Cassell was kind enough to agree to an interview with me.
Kirsty Jukes: As you grew up in Lancashire, has the agricultural and industrial landscape of the region inspired you as much as Indian, North African and Islamic motifs and, if so, why?
Halima Cassell: I feel that I have been equally influenced and inspired by both the topography of my early environment in Lancashire as well as my research and interest in North African surfaces, Islamic architecture, and South Asian jewellery and textiles. Those influences along with my love for mathematics and the geometry found in nature are all brought together in my ceramic practice.
The gentler valleys of Manchester and then the very hilly area of Blackburn, both covered with the many repeating rows of terraced houses, were a very strong visual inspiration for my work, an example of which can be seen in my piece ‘Mancunian Roofscapes’ (2007) which is part of Gallery Oldham’s permanent collection. I loved how the various forms of architecture and differing facades would playfully interact with the changing light across the landscape and into the distance. During my time in Blackburn, I was again impressed with how the similar rows of terraced houses flowed differently across the very much more hilly landscape, creating different patterns and plays of light as I looked across the wide vista of my surroundings there. This inspired the work ‘Blackburn on the Hill’ (2006) which is a part of the Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery permanent collection.
Both these pieces, which are on display side by side at Blackwell – the Arts & Crafts house, are not only influenced by the patterning and play of light on the urban rooftops but also by the movement and rippling flows of the rows of terraced houses built upon the contours of the surrounding landscape.
KJ: Aside from sculpting, what else keeps you grounded and mindful?
HC: Spending time together with my family (my partner and two sons), as well as with inspirational and meaningful friends, is deeply important and restorative for me. I also find that music has an important role in relaxing and grounding me, whether I am sculpting or not. I have an eclectic range of music which I play at different times depending on my mood or activity. Lastly, I try to take important ‘me time’ while doing gardening, which I love, but this can be challenging with the pressures of family and work always calling for my attention!
KJ: Was all of the material sourced for ‘Virtues of Unity’ by you alone or do you have a network of clay collectors to assist?
HC: When I started this project, I collected clay from different countries when I happened to be travelling there for exhibitions or events, and also while on international residencies or scholarships. However, the majority of the clays since have been collected for or donated to me by people who have been inspired to participate in my vision for this installation. Their kind assistance has given the project a lower carbon footprint, through them collecting while either on holiday, travelling for business or visiting family and friends.
I am intrigued by all the stories and information which form the gathering process for the clay of each country – I love to hear what it is used for by local people, potters, industry and artists alike. Details such as the temperature at which it fires, and whether it is wild clay dug out and used in its raw state, or refined locally through a manual process, or refined to an even higher level where both artist and industry could use it, are all fascinating to me. The complexity of the carved design and my technical handling of the clay are dictated by this information received and my instinctive response to the physical body of the clay. I also enjoy the story of why the person is travelling in that particular country and any of the images or videos which they collect to do with the clay. Once all the clays have been gathered from countries where it is possible to get clay from, I plan to publish a book which tells the story behind this installation, ‘Virtues of Unity’, and the stories of the sourcing of the individual clay bodies that create each of the vessels, and also about those who have contributed to the project. The importance of this installation has been far more than I originally expected at the beginning of the project due to the wide and diverse audience it has attracted and affected, in a personal and emotional manner.
While I hope to do more travelling and acquisition myself, I am also greatly relying on people to volunteer their help in getting the clay for me on their journeys. Information on which countries I still need clay for and how much, is on my website, along with further information on the project: https://www.halimacassell.com/virtues-of-unity
KJ: As per your sources locations map, there are a large number of places from which you haven’t been able to acquire raw materials for these works. Can I ask which places you are particularly interested in?
HC: The project experienced a great surge of interest from a wide audience and gathered heart-felt momentum after my year-long show at Manchester City Art Gallery in 2019, which resulted in many clays being brought for me from various countries. However, due to Covid lock-downs, the pace has slowed, so it is wonderful that some recent viewings have rekindled an interest in sourcing clays for ‘Virtues of Unity’. The Watts Gallery, Guildford, and Aberystwyth Art Gallery have both offered wonderful viewings in 2023 as well as huge support from their audience interaction and their publicity efforts, which has created a resurgence of momentum and interest from people who would like to participate and help with this impressionable installation.
Of the many places for which I still need clay, some which would be particularly significant to me with their state of current affairs, are countries with political strife or war such as Russia, Ukraine and Palestine. Also, of great interest to me would be countries experiencing the worst of the climate change such as Syria, Yemen, Chad, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria. This is because I would like to highlight, through making a piece for each of these countries currently in despair and anguish, how important it is that we stand together through our virtues of humanity, and not fight each other or the very earth we share, which supports and nurtures us. I hope that my ‘Virtues of Unity’ installation can promote the message that standing together, we are better and stronger.
In speaking with Cassell, the importance of place and belonging emerged as key factors in her practice. Preserving the histories of populations via conversations with local communities and clay collectors has never been more urgent than now. The planned book that will accompany the completed of ‘Virtues of Unity’ collection will act as subtext to the 195 disparate source countries for each piece. As war threatens to destabilise the ancient existence and lived experience of many, Cassell’s considered forms are moments frozen in time. As the world continues to turn, so artists occupy an important place as truth tellers, their work a capsule for future generations. I would like to thank Cassell and Lakeland Arts for their patience and generosity. I am excited to see where this project can go.
To end, here is a quote from ‘land: bone / ocean: muscle’ by Indian writer and poet Sneha Subramanian Kanta. She is also interested in what binds humanity by identifying links between the natural world, identity and ancestry. I believe she is a verbal conduit of Cassell’s physical manifestations. This excerpt was published in volume V issue II of About Place literary journal –
You arrive a pilgrim in another country:
at its borders you remove your shoes
just as you would before you enter a shrine.
Landscape becomes darkness: you learn
to measure light in context with textures
of different darknesses. Land, like your body
is clay. The ocean is composed of sediments
& water. Both are life-givers.
Halima Cassell: Reflections, Blackwell – the Arts & Crafts house, 8 July 2023 – 1 January 2024.
Kirsty Jukes is an Art Historian and writer from Manchester. @in_the_hanging_garden
This article is supported by Lakeland Arts.
Related upcoming events:
Meet the artist: Halima Cassell
9 December, 12-3pm
Blackwell – the Arts & Crafts house
Halima Cassell: Live demonstration
10 December, 10am-3pm
Blackwell – the Arts & Crafts house