Arabic calligraphy helps women explore culture and identity

An exhibition exploring Islamic art, women and creativity, has been launched at Arts Centre Washington.

Srijoni – meaning (the) creative – is the culmination of a project involving women from ethnically diverse communities in Sunderland and South Tyneside.

They worked alongside artists Padma Rao and Roohia Syed-Ahmed to explore the notion of culture, cultural entitlement and identity through Arabic calligraphy, contemporary drawing and writing.

The project was set up and run by Sangini, a Black and Minority Ethnic (BME)-led, multi-cultural women’s organisation based in Sunderland.

srijoni artist arabic calligraphy
Artist Roohia Syed-Ahmed

Using ‘srijoni’ to tackle isolation

Padma, Sangini’s project manager, said: “Srijoni means creativity in Bangla and the aim of the project was to reduce isolation within BME communities by engaging women with arts and crafts activities.

“Participation in the arts within these communities is very low, but we’ve had terrific feedback from the women we’ve worked with. 

“The activities we introduced them to, particularly the Arabic calligraphy, meant something to them, it was relevant and gave them a voice. 

“It was also important to us to raise the profile of Islamic artists and art through the project. These artists and their work can sometimes be invisible within Sunderland’s wider cultural landscape.” 

Padma Rao arabic calligraphy
Artist and Sangini project manager Padma Rao

Project unlocks hidden artistic talent

Twenty women took part in online workshops run by Padma and Roohia over several months to produce artwork that is now on display at Arts Centre Washington, alongside work by Padma, Roohia and other local BME women artists.

The exhibition is also on Sunderland Culture’s website – 

In a video introduction to the exhibition, Roohia explains how it has inspired and strengthened her and developed her into a “newfound artist”.

She also explains why Arabic calligraphy means so much to her, saying: “Arabic itself is so versatile as a language and writing it is even more rewarding. Every letter and word has a meaning.”

Her contribution to Srijoni is inspired by the word Iqra, which is made up of four Arabic letters.

It is the first verse or command of the Quran, revealed in chapter 96 (Alaq, Verse 1), and means to “read” – or seek knowledge.

Padma said: “There’s been some great work produced during the project. One woman had studied art up to GCSE but had then dropped it, and her talent has shone through. There’s a sense of pride in their artwork being displayed in a venue as prestigious as Arts Centre Washington.” 

The exhibition features graffiti, abstract Arabic calligraphy, photography, drawing and painting.

Kai Javed, assistant project manager at Sangini, added: “Another aim of Srijoni was to demystify perceptions of Muslim women for a wider audience. We wanted people to see them as individuals, something other than a stereotypical media image, but as real people.

“Through the art they’ve produced we hope to help change perceptions, revealing their identities not as hidden Muslim women but people with artistic talents with something to say.” 

Srijoni receives praise from funders

Sunderland Culture, Sunderland City Council and The Cultural Spring, an arts organisation working to increase arts participation in Sunderland and South Tyneside, funded the project. 

roohia syed-ahmed arabic calligraphy
Artist Roohia Syed-Ahmed and some pieces inspired by Arabic calligraphy

Rebecca Ball, creative director at Sunderland Culture, said: “Srijoni has been an important project for us to support and I’m looking forward to seeing the artwork produced.

“Part of our role at Sunderland Culture is to shine a spotlight on art from different cultures – and to encourage and promote artists from different backgrounds, and this is exactly what Srijoni has done. 

“The project has also introduced women to the well-being benefits of arts activities, and hopefully made them feel more connected to the local community.” 

Emma Horsman, project director at The Cultural Spring, added: “We’re delighted to have been able to support the work of Padma and the Sangini team, and that through the exhibition people will be able to learn more about Islamic culture through art.” 

Sangini, which means ‘friend’ in Hindi, works with women from different communities to engage, create, share and build stronger voices by removing barriers they face in their everyday lives. 

Srijoni runs until July 6, 2021. For more information, click here.

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