Virtues of Unity: Artist’s Statement

Inspiration and Scope

With this body of work, I aim to reflect on the shared nature of humanity by using the metaphor of a clay vessel. The individual, hand-carved ceramic pieces share a similar curvilinear approach, which incorporates a soft, rounded look, unlike my usual work which tends to have sharper edges and burnished surfaces. They also feature holes, which pierce each piece and allow light to form a penetrative connecting link through from one carving to the next. The clay for each hand-carved vessel originates from a different country and demonstrates a broad spectrum of hues, textures and behaviours. When these clays are fashioned into essentially similar forms and displayed in hue order from dark to light, they resonate together. By adopting a similar style of working throughout the installation, my intention is to implicitly link the individual works in order to embody and reinforce the idea of humanity as a single species within a shared world.

As someone of South Asian origin, who is perceived in England as being of Pakistani origin, or labelled, a “foreigner” or “second generation immigrant”, I am keenly aware of issues of identity.

However, in 2009, whilst visiting Pakistan for the first time as an adult, I was jolted into questioning my own identity and belonging more deeply than I had done before. Although born in Pakistan, I found that I was described as a “British Asian”, or more frequently as “a foreigner from England”. It was through this sense of double displacement that I conceived this work which might speak to anyone who has ever felt displaced or uprooted.

After my trip to Pakistan in 2009, I found myself increasingly asking, “Can we really define who we are, or where our common roots lie? How do we imagine our shared humanity?” This installation is my extended response to these questions. The differently coloured and contrastingly textured clays, hewn from countries around the world, are intended to stand for our common humanity, despite our apparent differences. The installation is intentionally designed to highlight the elementary reality that we are all alike, coming from the clay of the earth and eventually all returning to that same elemental clay it is my passionate hope that this basic concept will resonate with those who engage with my installation.

Whilst we appear superficially dissimilar, we are all fundamentally constructed in the same way. We are united by our DNA, regardless of our individual physical appearance, cultural background, religion or ethnicity. Similarly, like the carved clay forms of the installation and the varying designs sculpted into them, so our own differences can bring a richness of diversity and variety to our lives and to the human species as a whole.

This project is an ongoing journey for me. My intention is to gather many different types of clay from across the globe. I aim to present their exciting diversity through the countries geology and climate, while celebrating the exploration of each one’s own distinctive character and identity.

My aim is to add to the installation until I have created vessels from clays sourced from all 195 countries of the globe. Each piece will be named to suggest a different characteristic, one to which we might all hope to aspire towards. It is intended to encourage a realisation of our commonality as a social species with a moral imagination and the capacity to dream of a better world.

The Connecting Hole

During the initial conception of “Virtues of Unity”, I was pregnant with my first child. It was one of the most important, memorable and enlightening experiences of my life. Like motherhood, the process of making each clay piece is hugely labour intensive, yet also intensely pleasurable in its undertaking.

One of the main reasons I included the holes in the already earthly spherical vessel forms was to resonate with the idea of the womb and birth canal, in connection with Mother Earth or “Gaia”, the name we planned to call our first child if he had been a girl. Each one of us comes from our mother’s womb and returns to the “womb of the earth”. The hole is also intended to represent the inside connecting with the outside, like a mother with child, the spherical vessel forms are intended to resemble the earth, a container, a form which is dominant in my work as a whole. Their curvilinear qualities are earthly, motherly even. In addition, the deeply incised patterns and voids have been carved in a way which reflects femininity and fertility within the overall form, as if they have swirled themselves into existence like the petals of a flower opening, to be pollinated and fertilised.

Pattern

As a species, we draw meaning from the patterns we discern in our world. Pattern is a universal language, interpreted and understood by all of us in our own ways. The diversity of pattern derives from a history of appropriation and re-interpretation. Pattern is based on a series of common principles and through playing with pattern; it may be possible to discern basic forms and rhythms. These rhythms suggest that cultures and communities are part of a “world art”, which underpins my personal vision of unity in multiplicity. Such themes resonate through pattern, much of which also derives from simple, universal geometry.

I hope viewers will be able to project themselves into the work. Whilst one viewer might easily see interlacing Celtic knots or Neo-Gothic elements, another might see Moorish art, and yet another may detect African patterns. In this respect, pattern can say as much about the viewer as the maker.

As a child growing up in Manchester, I was confused but curious to see the mango motif on textiles, jewellery and henna paintings, and hear it referred to as the Paisley design, after the Scottish textile town in Renfrewshire. I later discovered, during a residency in Pakistan, that the earliest dated documentation of the mango motif was from Kashmir. This shows how the motif has altered in appearance and meaning as it has travelled across the globe. Some of its forms have been named buta, boteh, germinating plant, opening flower, flower bud, germinating mango, baby mango, tree of life, new life, tear drop and Paisley.

I hope my installation, subtly, but convincingly, poses questions about belonging and identity. Maybe it will encourage the viewer to examine the basis of the claims of ownership people make to patterns, designs and even nations. By emphasizing patterns’ common characteristics, forms and rhythms, I am seeking to ess of region or era. By incorporating such an eclectic mix of different styles into my designs, I hope that they will have no easily attributable date, period or fashion era, either in formal or symbolic qualities. By giving the work a stylistic thread, it symbolises the fact that there is more common ground that unites us as human beings than that which divides and separates us. Though interpreted in different ways, pattern, as a universal language, is commonly understood.

Process

I work with the exciting notion and awareness that clay changes its properties through the firing process, becoming a permanent form, giving its existence a unique imprint on the world, resembling each and every one of us.

The different clays have been dug from the earth, some crudely by hand, others by machine; some used as they come from the ground, where others have been refined and sometimes heavily processed. Yet, despite these differences, they all remain clay. The properties of each clay, whether earthenware or stoneware, are noticeably different when handling them, working with them and in the way the firing process affects them.

The vessel is an important and exciting form for me. This is especially so when a flat design is mapped over the convex or concave form, giving a new dimension to the design. The process of creating each clay piece is hugely labour intensive and at various stages high risk in the making. The four consecutive stages of making the vessel are:

The first stage is hitting out the basic form by hand. It is important at this stage to handle the clay with great caution. Failure to do so can cause air bubbles to form, particularly with such thick walled forms, which may result in the work exploding in the kiln.

The second stage, I call the “shorthand” of my thoughts, in which I conceive and develop the various design ideas and possibilities and record them in my notebook.

The third stage is where I mathematically divide the surface area of the form in order to map out the chosen design onto the clay.

The final stage is the carving. For me this is a meditative and yet immensely physical process, from which I derive much pleasure. Such enjoyment is possible because, by this stage I have carefully and fully planned the direction of every plane, to the extent that I am able to identify which direction to carve the entire piece.

I seek inspiration from a diverse range of sources. Since childhood, I have been intrigued by buildings from different cultures, especially those with elements which have been sculpted by hand. The facets and shadows created as a result of these carvings are part of this attraction. I try to capture how the play of light dramatizes and gives vitality to the architecture. It is the notion that these structures have a live presence which particularly fascinates me. I imagine basic shapes repeating, distorting and creating form in order to create beauty out of the earth.

Shards

The shards are the pieces of clay left over from my carving process. They are the traces and reminders of my creative effort, derived from excavation and shaping of the form. By referring to these pieces as shards, I am consciously forming connections with the idea of archaeological remains. The broken shards, excavated from my past work, are like previous cultures and existences, those fragments which are important in our understanding of the past and therefore also the present. Memories fade in time, but collecting a selection of the shards allows me to recall and understand the journey which bought me to where I am now. Hopefully, it may also allow others to understand something of my process and my past endeavours.

I would be delighted, whilst on your travels, if you were able to help me source clay. If so, please contact me by email: info@halimacassell.com. Quantity needed of wet clay 12 - 16kg or dry clay 7 - 12kg

Photography: Chris Smart, Jon Stokes, Martyn Eastwood, Ben Boswell, Hayley Johnson, Heni Schneebeli, John Holt and Richard Caspol


  • “The most inspiring ceramic work I have seen in thirty years! Beautiful, mesmerising, powerful and thoughtful. Genius! Love, love, love this work.
    – Judith

  • I really enjoyed the range of materials you have experimented with, and how you are collecting and using clays from around the world to signify unity and togetherness through art. Congratulations, I can’t wait to see what you create next!
    – Mella Moylan

  • Existentially challenging and exciting. The pieces feel like a tribute and simultaneously a warning to humanity

  • “Existentially challenging and exciting. The pieces feel like a tribute and simultaneously a warning to humanity.
    – Anonymous

  • It’s like something had forgotten but always known…Thanks

  • “A Wondrous exhibition, truly amazing structures your dreams deliver out of this world ideas, created with the fabric of the Earth. Thank you"
    – Susan

  • Formidable and strongly female

  • “Beautiful and exquisite work reveals a deep peace I was not expecting to find a new way to think “
    – Ellen