The multi-coloured world of Halima Cassell by Andrew Lambirth
Halima Cassell (born 1975) has made a remarkable installation of clay sculptures which is really a work in progress. Entitled Virtues of Unity, it is about the human condition and, fundamental to our perception of this, unity through diversity. Halima’s idea is to make at least one sculpture to represent each country of the world. (Sometimes, the clay from different regions of the same country differs so much as to demand separate representation.) There are said to be 195 countries in the world today. This total comprises 193 countries that are member states of the United Nations and 2 countries that are non-member observer states: the Holy See and the State of Palestine. So, with more than 150 to go, there are still plenty of countries to be embodied in clay. Clearly, for Halima, it’s a long-term project, perhaps a life-work. But that too is significant - Virtues of Unity is something she considers important enough to spend her life getting right.
This is political art with a small p - these works have nothing to do with political parties or ideologies. They are only political in the sense of dealing intimately and directly with the relationships between individuals and their surroundings. Of course, this should be the basis of all public affairs and good governance, but is in fact rarely the case. All too often, the word political means ‘relating to or affecting interests of status or authority in an organization rather than matters of principle’ (The Concise Oxford Dictionary). Art suffers just as much as government from this aspect of the political. Personally I have never been much interested in overtly political art, agitprop or protest - mainly because the politics usually get in the way of the art. I have a golden benchmark for judging this: Goya. He could make art that was politically relevant, but was also art of the highest order, a great and timeless statement about humanity, not a faction-ridden slogan about yesterday’s news. Halima Cassell makes art which is just art: engaging utterly with line and colour, mass and form, pattern and symmetry, perfection and the human touch which enlivens it. But her art also has other, less obvious, meanings and resonances.
Her work is about nature and man’s creativity, about material facts but also spiritual aspirations, and fundamentally it is about relationships. Certainly it is about visual and physical relationships - how one section of a sculpture relates to the others to make a harmonious whole - but it is also about the relationship of the maker to the world, to the environment. And about how the artist relates to the rest of humanity (her potential audience). From there it is but a short step to the question of how each of us relates to our fellow beings and this is something that concerns Halima deeply.
We are all one species, homo sapiens, though quite how wise (sapiens) we are remains a very debatable point. We vary widely in colour and creed, but the only hope for our survival is a world consciousness, a group understanding, which can transcend our differences of skin pigment and religious belief. As the world grows smaller and more claustrophobic, with its billions of inhabitants, resources and the power over them are used less and less to benefit mankind as a whole. As John Berger so passionately argued, the greatest problem facing humanity today is migration, displacement and homelessness. Personal identity is in danger of being lost in the struggle for survival. Humanity is under threat.
Unlike so much political utterance and maneuvering, Halima’s work has a moral commitment underpinning it, based on a real sense of connection with others and a responsibility to the planet which nurtures us. In Virtues of Unity, she is determined to be positive, and each piece is named after a virtue, such as charity, tranquility, clemency. Halima has herself experienced problems of identity and belonging. Although born in Kashmir, she was categorized on a recent visit to Pakistan as ‘a foreigner from England’. Meanwhile in the UK she is described as ‘a foreigner or second generation immigrant’. If, in terms of a homeland, she exists between two countries, this should double her sense of belonging, but in fact it brings the whole issue into question. As an artist, to a certain extent she can live in her art, regardless of national territories or boundaries, but we all need a sense of where we belong, where we fit in to the bigger picture. Halima’s experiences have led her to empathise with the question of identity. She says she wants to speak for anyone who has ever felt displaced, whether they be Asian, Jewish, Eastern European or from any other ethnic or cultural group. Virtues of Unity is a metaphor of the human condition. Each carved ceramic piece is made from clay, the common ground (literally) of humanity, despite the evident diversity of texture and colour. This is profoundly symbolic: it is Halima’s belief that there is more that unites us as human beings than that which separates and divides us. Thus her work is a message of optimism and hope, a plea for the triumph of our shared humanity over the divisiveness of human nature.
The creation of man from clay is a recurrent theme throughout world religions and mythologies, from the Sumerian to the Chinese and Egyptian, from the Greek and Maori to the Inca and African. The story features in The Bible and The Qur’an. It is a universal and deeply meaningful narrative. We come from clay, and we return to it: ‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust’, as the 1662 Book of Common Prayer has it. In Virtues of Unity Halima has worked with a white clay from Israel, and a black clay from Germany, and many tones and tints in-between. She works from light to dark, and from dark to light. The material used is always clay, and the predominantly curvilinear style of working it bears close similarities. These vessels resemble sculpted bowls, vaulted and pierced forms, endlessly suggestive of architectural and mineral structures, and of organic growth of all kinds (fruit, bodies, leafage), with light like a revelation coming through the apertures from one piece to another, helping to unify the groupings.
She can’t work with a tiny dollop of clay, a tourist handful; ideally, she needs between 12 and 16 kilos (wet weight) of every clay she wishes to make into one of her ceramic sculptures. She has made pieces with clay from Marrakech and from the Mississippi, from Jordan and from Cuba, the textures and colours reflecting the geology and climate of their places of origin. We see here distinctive character and identity, but superficial differences are played down in favour of fundamental similarities. No one else is doing work of this universalist temper. It is like some great diplomatic mission to unite the world, carried out by one courageous woman prepared to speak up on behalf of humanity’s better nature.
Her installation offers a whole new take on WH Auden’s belief that ‘Art’s subject is the human clay’; Halima Cassell’s subject touches the whole world, all of us.