• Sun. Dec 5th, 2021

INTERVIEW WITH SHAMILLA AASHA

Version: Italian

Shamilla Aasha, an artist born in 1977originally from Hwange, Zimbabwe, began her artistic career as a painter, after training at the Bulawayo School of Art and Design with a diploma in Textile Design.

In 2018, the artist decided to resume her passion for textiles, starting to use sewing as her media of choice and creating tapestries that incorporate weaving and painting, or an idea of painting, with a more strictly conceptual intention.

Shamilla has participated in numerous regional and international group and solo exhibitions.

In addition to her artistic practice, she is also a promoter of the Asha Children’s Trust, an organization dedicated to creating safe spaces for young artists to train outside the formal education channel.

Finally, it is worth mentioning her most recent solo exhibition at the First Floor Gallery in Harare, where the artist exhibited the core of her most recent textile works.

“Beneath the surface”, 2021, Embroidery and found fabric on canvas, 81 x 85cm, copyright Shamilla Aasha

For some years you have dedicated yourself to painting. Is there any reference to it in your textile works?

Yes, I think there are definitely some references and connections to painting, even though it might feel like I have a 180-degree turn. The process began with me using the fabric as a painting surface and support, and trying to create new patterns with paint and layers and textures and tactility with the fabric. But this evolved as I began incorporating embroidery to build texture instead of paint. I found it more satisfying because I am using the fabric as it is meant to be used and it is not static and stitching is part of the work. But in many ways stitches emerged in my work as mark making and so very much connected to the idea of painting.

However, having begun stitching and embroidery, I realised that it is very easy for me to make visual what I am thinking or feeling through stitching because there is such a range of textures I can develop. I also would like to point out that I am using stitching and embroidery as an artistic medium in a specific way, rather than engaging in an embroidery exercise.

 

The stitching approach which really inspired and assisted me in developing my process is the Japanese Sashiko embroidery style. I actually first began researching many years ago and it is really fascinating that it filtered into my practice only recently. Sashiko is built up by regular even stitch marks, which made me realise that you can be very expressive with simplicity of stitches. It also incorporates boroboro, another Japanese technique related to Sashiko and involves layering of fabrics that have outlived their intended usefulness but are not discarded.

I am also using a lot of artificial or not naturally grown hair, used by women in Zimbabwe to augment their natural hair as wigs and extensions. The hair adds texture and it is easy to manipulate and stretch and it is also so symbolic of both a feminine and a Zimbabwean identity – defined by resilience and flexibility/adaptability.

“Beyond the folds”, 2021, Embroidery and found fabric on canvas, 180 x 140cm, copyright Shamilla Aasha

“Entangled Myths”, 2021, Embroidery and found fabric on canvas, 95.5 x 96cm, copyright Shamilla Aasha

What is the central theme that you develop through your artworks?

I am drawn to themes of identity, spirituality and history. Trying to understand where things come from and how they have grown and the layers imbedded in family, community and society.

In engaging with these themes, I am doing so as a woman, telling the woman’s side of the story. This is becoming my key focus. A lot of what we see in society and what we hear is not a true reflection of what is happening because women are not given a chance to tell their stories and their contribution to history-making has not been told – in Zimbabwe in particular.

I don’t see enough women telling their stories and that is the central theme of my work at the moment. | am looking at intersections of these things to build a narrative. These are the stories I want to tell.

These stories usually happen where women are not observed and are not seen – the small spaces. I feel that many women operate in very limited space. During quarantine many women said that the lockdown limitations were not very different to the way they lived before…the limitations of life are the default not a change.

Gender based violence and femicide are starting to get public and political attention here in Zimbabwe and around the world but women are violated in small ways in smaller less obvious spaces on a constant basis and are not taken seriously. There is street harassment and stalking have been somehow normalized in daily life. And this is also a theme in my work.

“Solace in Silence”, 2021, Embroidery and found fabric on canvas, 90 x 95cm, copyright Shamilla Aasha

Breathing Time solo exhibition, Shamilla Aasha, First Floor Gallery Harare

Shamilla, you dedicate part of your time to the Asha Children’s Trust project, an organization aimed at creating safe spaces for young creatives who move outside the formal education sector. Can you tell us about how this project came about and what it actually does?

I started the trust while still teaching formally with the idea of starting an informal teaching community centre. A few things happened to change the progression of the project. I did a few projects which included very young children and kids in high school and this felt too similar to formal teaching and I decided to take a break and re-establish my art practice. So now the work I do with the trust is more about facilitating rather than teaching and there is a focus I want to pursue to support young female artists and to support their development.

I am looking at young women of school age, which are made vulnerable by the pandemic and thinking about creating income generating projects for young women. Using local culture – Matopos cave paintings which can inspire contemporary use. Similar to what Esther Mlangu is doing. Bulawayo artists.

I facilitated a young artists workshop in Gweru last year and it really gave me an idea of how it can work with a collective of young girls aged 16 to 25 working toward an exhibition with the National Gallery.

Breathing Time solo exhibition, Shamilla Aasha, First Floor Gallery Harare

Breathing Time solo exhibition, Shamilla Aasha, First Floor Gallery Harare

Among your works, is there one that you are particularly attached to or that represents an important moment in your artistic path and career?

I don’t get attached to my work in a sense that I want to hold on to it. Once a work is done, I am ready to move on to the new path I have created from that work. So, one project will inevitably lead to the next one. If I had to point to think of an important moment, which had a major impact on my career, it would be the one-month First Solo residency with First Floor Gallery in 2018, a boot-camp residency, where invited artists are asked to create a new totally experimental body of work to present as a solo exhibition at the end of 3-4 weeks. That one month changed my process and how I process art. I am more deliberate how I choose materials and subject matter and that was a particularly significant point for me. I started created the ropes from there in the ‘Ties that Bind’ exhibition, those rope works totally changed how I express myself and revived my interest in stitching as well.

“Anchored in Faith”, 2021, Embroidery and found fabric on canvas, 90 x 90cm, copyright Shamilla Aasha

In June your solo exhibition was held at the First Floor Gallery in Harare. Can you tell us about the theme of this exhibition: “Breathing Time“?

This was the most difficult project I’ve had to develop because I had to make it during very concentrated blocks of time during lockdown. If I think about it now, there is no way I would have done it like that if the situation was different and I had more time. It would not have been as intense. Sometimes working alone on a body of work it is hard to appreciate how the work will communicate once it is in the exhibition. I was really surprised at how a lot of back stories in my work, which I did not anticipate would come through, did in fact communicate, once I began speaking to people who came to the exhibition.

My process is as follows – I don’t start with a sketch, I start with a thought and so I am talking to the work through the process of making – it is a meditative exercise. There is an uncensored version to this exhibition. Trying to reclaim my body for myself, from society, from family from culture and to empower myself and other women through this process. To re-see what makes us a woman from the beginning, girlhood, to look at initiation rights. Also to relate to the masculine without the idea of opposition or negation. Recognising the balance in the duality of masculine and feminine. Lockdown has brought a lot of these issues to the fore for me in making ‘Breathing Time’.

I had to fight for this space to make the work that I did and other women don’t find the need for that kind of freedom beyond the domestic space.

When you are home, making weaving and stitching and you think that you are doing women’s work and you don’t necessarily feel that you are making art until you see it up on the wall. So it took me a while to process, what I have actually made. So ‘Breathing Time’ is not only about finding space but also about deciding what to do with that space, which was also important. Because sometimes doing nothing is something, reclaiming a voice in the noise and being yourself on your own terms.

Boundaries”, 2021, Embroidery and found fabric on canvas, 140 x 95.5cm, copyright Shamilla Aasha

Nostalgia, Part 2”, 2021, Embroidery and found fabric on canvas, 243 x 243cm, copyright Shamilla Aasha

Nostalgia”, 2021, Embroidery and found fabric on canvas, 243 x 243cm, copyright Shamilla Aasha

What are you working at the moment?

At the moment I am doing a lot of research. I want to incorporate beadwork into my work but to use beads not as a decorative element but as a more symbolic and spiritual elements and it is something that I am familiar with and a personal element that I can work with. I also would like to work more with hair. While popularized and commercialized, hair has a ritual purpose both in the way it is used in India and here in Zimbabwe in birth rites for example and I want to engage with that.

I am doing research around fabric and blankets, layered and incorporating this into the stitching, crocheting and stitching. I can see myself making some really large works and some really small works. Being an artist making work is both taking the journey and building the road you are traveling on at the same time.