Rana Begum is an urban Romantic. A sensibility that evolved in opposition to industrialisation and urbanisation has come full circle. In 18th century Europe the Romantics sought refuge from a vulgar future in awesome nature, finding in its inhuman majesty authenticity, purity and wild, profound beauty.
In 2008 humanity officially became an urban species with more than 50% of the global population living in cities. Now the urban environment is our most common habitat. In it Begum finds her moments of transcendence in the myriad, hard, surreal, aesthetic wonders that emerge during any journey through a city.
The essence of the urban experience lies in the human need to find meaning and order in amongst the chaos and complexity of the city. If we, like Christopher Isherwood leaning out his window in Berlin in 1930, imagine ourselves to be a camera or an eye, disconnected from thought, and stood at the heart of our city, then for us the city would become a vast, constantly shifting stream of colour and form, a visual puzzle without end or aim, full of random and momentary meetings of signs and symbols. Transient relations emerge, configure, dissolve and reconfigure as the parade of the mobile passes against the backdrop of the static.
Begum’s work is crystalline, simple, pure and hard-edged. She takes her experience of the vibrant collage of the urban environment and concentrates it through a process of refinement and filtration. Her work, minimal in its formal language, imposes order and system, as all art must, by abstracting those moments of accidental, aesthetic wonder. We find bands of deep colour that slowly bleed into each other or else, sit hard by each other. Each mini-colour field might be imagined as representing a momentary visual memory, the remembrance of a colour seen in a specific place and at a specific time, reified, becoming a perfect version of its self.
True to the complexity of urban forms, Begum’s works are both sculptures and paintings. Though static they are activated by the mobility of the viewer, using relief and perspective to present the moving eye with shifting patterns of colour and form that ripple, brake and reform. Often formed from repetitive, rectilinear units that bring the wall into the visual play, they remember the fragmentary nature of our visual environments and the contingency of the visual relationships that they generate and yet articulate the human desire to draw out meaning from chaos.
In every aspect Begum’s work displays a subtle and acute intelligence.
Amongst the many ends that art can aim for, is an end that Begum’s work achieves. That is the articulation of experience in a purified and heightened form that, if properly understood, brings us to a heightened awareness of the original subject that carries within it, into all the messy, imperfect contingencies of life, a memory of the hope that is crystallised in the perfection of art.
Text by Nick Hackworth