Artist Rana Begum On Her New Exhibitions

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Art form

Esteemed artist Rana Begum reflects on early life in Hertfordshire, as well as her new exhibition currently on display in St Albans

Open to the public at St Albans Museum + Gallery and curated by University of Hertfordshire Arts + Culture, Rana Begum’s Ordered Form exhibition is focused on the celebrated artist’s repetitive geometric patterns and the interaction between form, colour, shape and light. Concentrated on geometric works produced by Rana over the last few years, it encompasses a number of art forms, with paintings, sculptures, screenprints and relief works all available to view. Sketches, studio experiments, maquettes and a panel painting installation created specially for the exhibition are also on display, while the site-specific No. 670 Mesh will be on show from 20 January.

rana begum no. 670 mesh 2016. at sainsbury centre copy andy crouch
Rana Begum, No 670 Mesh 2016 at Sainsbury Centre – Andy Crouch

“The exhibition is very much geometric based, but it also looks at colour and the different strands and exploration in my work at the moment,” explains Rana, who spent much of her early life in St Albans and whose education includes St Albans Girls’ School and the University of Hertfordshire (UH). “I’m thinking about layers as well, and colour interaction. I would say there are four or five different theories in the show that give you an idea of what’s happening in the studio and what I’m thinking about.”

rana begum no.1141 zigzag 2022 copy maxwell anderson 2
Zig Zag, 2022 – Maxwell Anderson

Featured in collections including the Government Art Collection and that of the Ashmolean Museum, the artist is renowned for her work that includes painting, architecture and sculpture, with her practice looking at the interplay between colour and light and shape and form. She is influenced by the geometric abstraction of minimalism and constructivism, and her use of repetitive geometric patterns with her language of minimalist abstraction is said to produce a visual and spatial experience. Inspired by the urban environment and childhood memories of the patterns of traditional Islamic art and architecture, Rana uses materials like aluminium, glass and stainless steel to create sculptures and reliefs exploring geometry, light and colour. In 2020, she was elected as one of the Royal Academy of Arts’ Royal Academicians – a group of artists and architects responsible for the running of the institute.

rana begum no.1142 zigzag 2022 copy maxwell anderson

“I love the fact that you can go somewhere like Beirut or Bangkok and you can start seeing the similar language or directional geometry that is used,” she says. “Squares, circles, rectangles – these are all basic geometry that everyone around the world recognises, and I feel that they bring down barriers, if you like. With my work, I’d say you don’t necessarily need to really understand abstract or minimalist work to really experience it. I feel that for anyone that’s interested in a visual interaction or sensation, as they walk around my work or look at my work, they’ll see things that trigger their experiences in daily life.”

rana begum with family crana begum
Rana Begum with family

Rana was born in the Bangladeshi city of Sylhet, moving to Hertfordshire with her family when she was eight-years-old. “When I first came to the UK, it was to St Albans,” she says. “I went to a school where I struggled to speak the language, and I remember it being quite tough. I remember a lot of racism, a lot of abuse. Things changed a little bit when I went to secondary school, though that was quite tough as well.”

The Royal Academician notes that art was a form of communication for her when she moved to the UK. “I realised that I didn’t necessarily have the vocabulary to really express or articulate what I wanted to say, and I felt like a lot of my works did that for me,” she recalls. “When I started off as an artist, my work was very figurative and more representational, and then later on, it got more and more abstract and minimal.”

However, Rana also has positive memories of her early life in St Albans. “I loved the fact that I had jobs where I was able to build up friendship outside of school, as I had various jobs part-time,” she notes. “Every holiday, I worked at Woolworths during the week and weekends, and I had an amazing manager there as well.

rana begum at st albans girls school crana begum
Rana Begum at St Albans Girls School

“From a very young age, I also had incredible teachers,” she adds. “At secondary school, Mrs Morley and Mrs Insley were the two art teachers that I had, and they were amazing. If I hadn’t had their support, I don’t think I’d be where I am now in my career – they really saw something in me that I didn’t realise. My headmistress and Mrs Morley [even] came over to my house to convince my parents to let me study further.”

rana begum studying at university of hertfordshire crana begum copy
Rana Begum Studying at University of Hertfordshire

Before gaining an undergraduate degree in fine art from Chelsea College of Arts (which forms part of University of the Arts London) and a master’s degree in painting from Slade School of Fine Art (part of University College London), Rana undertook an art foundation course at UH. She describes her experience studying here as “incredible”. 

rana begum no.1277 relief panel 2023 copy phil white

“I was so wowed by all the different possibilities of art,” she remembers. “Every little thing I did I wanted to go into in depth, and it made it really difficult at the end of the foundation course to choose what I wanted to do. I realised that doing a degree in painting gave me the freedom whereby if I wanted to go into sculpture, I could, and if I wanted to go into photography or printmaking, I could, whereas if I did something else, it would be quite limiting. I knew that even at that point, I wanted to be able to draw on those different disciplines in the creative industry, and it has made it easier for me to collaborate with musicians, designers and architects.”

rana begum print 88k 2021 copy maxwell anderson

Now living in London and speaking ahead of the exhibition, Rana says that while it feels strange returning to St Albans for the show (which is supported by Arts Council England and extended through resources and events like artist talks and live workshops), it is something she is looking forward to. “Normally, I come and see my family and then I whizz back – I don’t get a chance to hang out any more,” she says. “It’ll be nice to spend a little bit more time in St Albans and see faces that I haven’t seen for a very long time.”

Rana Begum: Ordered Form runs until 14 April at St Albans Museum + Gallery, with No. 670 Mesh available to view from 20 January-17 March. Admission is free. For more information, visit stalbansmuseums.org.uk

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