The last five years have been busy for Rana Begum, the 42-year-old British-Bangladeshi artist whose work, after many years of practice and experimentation, suddenly appears to be everywhere at the same time.
In the last two years alone, Begum has been the subject of major solo shows at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich and Tate St Ives, Cornwall, as well as participating in international group shows at The National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, UK, and Gemeente Museum Den Haag, in the Netherlands.
So far, 2019 is no exception. Since January, Begum has been busy in her role as one of the guest selectors for the annual open submission for New Contemporaries, an organisation that supports emerging artists from UK art schools. February saw the opening of Is This Tomorrow? at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, which featured Phoenix Will Rise, Begum’s collaboration with award-winning Bangladeshi architect Marina Tabassum, while March saw Begum return to Dubai exactly two years after she unveiled No. 695 Abraaj, her commission for the 2017 Abraaj Group Art Prize.
Begum was back in the emirate for another appearance at Art Dubai, where she spoke with the writer, editor, and commissioner of the Global Art Forum 2019, Shumon Basar, about Perception and Reflection, her fourth solo show at The Third Line since 2007. For Begum, the show marks a return to the material she has explored most consistently since a Bangkok residency in 2006, and with which she is most associated—commercial reflectors of the type used for road markings and traffic signs.
The artist has worked with many materials throughout her career—manufactured, found, and otherwise, including perspex and stainless steel, copper and brass, concrete and extruded aluminium, even drinking straws and adhesive tape—but in many ways reflectors have come to epitomise her practice. Light sensitive while being pure of colour and line, they provide Begum with a material that blurs the boundaries between drawing and painting, sculpture, and architecture. Most importantly, however, they allow Begum to work at speed.
“I’m quite impatient and I want to see results fast, so I wanted to find a material that would allow me to work through ideas more quickly. That was instinctive,” she tells me. “They’re plastic; you recognise the material and it has a function, but there’s something about them when they’re up on the wall or in the studio, they became these precious objects. They come to life, especially when there is some natural light.”
Echoing the directional designs of road signs, pieces such as No. 831 Reflector mirror the repetitive patterns that can be found throughout urban fabrics in buildings and on pavements, but given Begum’s history and heritage, they also appear to reference Islamic geometry. Born in Sylhet, Bangladesh, Begum moved to the UK with her parents when she was a small child and has lived in London ever since. Where Perception and Reflection represents something of a departure, however, is in Begum’s creation of three-dimensional columnar works, which were inspired by a 2018 visit to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and Begum’s engagement with the work of the American sculptor, Anne Truitt.
One of the many Minimalists who Begum cites as an inspiration, Truitt’s studio-based sculptures were executed at a human scale and were hand-painted in a daring palette that ranged from deep reds and blacks to pale yellows and lavender that react with the light in a way that had a profound effect on Begum. Whereas Truitt embraced the ideas of the French novelist Marcel Proust to produce works that were designed to transport the viewer by engaging with their memory, Begum’s works operate on a more immediate, less conceptual level. “It’s not about having a spiritual experience, it’s not about going somewhere else. The materials bring you back to reality,” she suggests. “The repetition of form and the gird system in the work, coupled with the way the light reflects and flickers, allows you to take a moment.”
That desire to take a moment and her decision to return to reflectors is fuelled, Begum admits, by a desire to escape the hectic pace of her schedule and to spend time focusing on a single body of work. It’s an impulse that has also had an effect on the way she perceives the show. “I don’t normally say that this is necessary, but in this instance, I think you need time in the space to engage with the material, to understand how it reacts with the light.”
In their colour and repetition Begum’s works flicker, drawing the eye and the mind inward as both drift between their broader composition and cellular intensity. If the effect is not spiritual, it is certainly mesmerising—a moment of calm confusion that is the product of Begum’s command of nothing less than colour, form, and light.
Rana Begum's Perception and Reflection runs at The Third Line until May 9, 2019.