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28 March 2019

Going further in the name of art

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As visitors to a new art exhibition at QF are discovering, its creator’s dedication to her work knows no limits.

She perfected a form of painting she had been told was “dead”; learns the complex artistic techniques needed to give her works the finishing touch herself, rather than bringing in an expert to do them for her; and was told, when she arrived at one of the world’s most famous universities to study fine art, that there was nothing left to teach her.

Basically, Dr. Veeda Ahmed is an artist out of the ordinary. And thanks to a special exhibition at Qatar Foundation, people throughout Qatar are now finding out why.

‘In the Absence of Shadows’ – taking place in the gallery space at Minaretein (Education City Mosque) until May 15 – is impressive in itself. Visitors are greeted by a diverse array of works, showcasing expertise in traditional Indo-Pakistani traditional miniature painting, and featuring pieces that illustrate the infinite repetition of Islamic geometry with patterns and techniques used in Quranic illuminations.

But the story of the woman behind it – and her sheer dedication to going further in her pursuit of creativity – gives this exhibition an extra dimension. Many artists say that a collection is ‘all my own work’. With Dr. Ahmed’s art, that takes on a whole new meaning.

Visitors to ‘In the Absence of Shadows’ may not immediately appreciate the full extent of how Dr. Ahmed’s creativity inhabits her work. She’s responsible for every single aspect of her paintings – she makes the paper, the materials, and even the pigments.

Combining the Indo-Pakistani painting tradition with Western artistic training, she’s a global citizen in the sphere of art, traveling the world to seek out masters of ancient techniques and approaches. This mindset has its roots in her childhood, when her “very progressive” parents instilled and inspired a love of art from a young age.

“My mother had studied fine arts, and my father had studied architecture in London,” she says. “They encouraged me to learn classical music, classical dance, and fine arts. Because I had an aptitude for painting, I continued along this path.”

That path led Dr. Ahmed to complete her Master of Fine Arts degree with Distinction from the University of the Punjab in Lahore, after which she studied at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at the University of Oxford. By this time, she had mastered the traditional art of miniature painting while in Pakistan, despite a dismayed tutor telling her the practice had died out.

Sense of curiosity

It wasn’t the last time she caused confusion in education circles. “When I arrived at Oxford, I was told: ‘We can’t teach you anything. You have a Master’s – why are you here?’,” she recalls. “I ended up studying sculpture.”

This sense of persistence and curiosity, and a determination to take on new challenges has been a recurring theme throughout Dr. Ahmed’s career. She took 10 years to complete her PhD at The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, in London. Had she chosen a different – and recommended - approach, it could probably have taken a third of the time. That, however, is not Dr. Ahmed’s style.

The title of this PhD was ‘Drawing on Tradition: The recognition and relevance of the elements of Persian, Mughal and Pahari drawing and painting in the contemporary art practice of Indo-Pakistan’. Completing it was a decade-long process only because, as Dr. Ahmed explains, she wanted it to be that way.

“As an artist, you’re often in a confined space, creating. To fly to Doha, be put in a hotel, have an exhibition – it’s all daunting. But it’s been a wonderful experience”

Dr. Veeda Ahmed

“My PhD focused on the Persians, the Mughal, and the Pahari schools,” she says. “That’s because the Persian school influenced the Mughal, who in turn influenced the Pahari. I was told to choose one school, but I said ‘No, I want to choose three’.

“I wanted to transport my mind to the traditional workshops where such art was created. The research took time and brought me around the world, to find masters who would teach me about ancient yet surviving techniques of painting, calligraphy, and illumination.”

Desire to learn

Having almost finished one painting, all that remained was the application of a tezhip – an Ottoman illumination, meaning ‘ornamenting with gold’. “Nasser Mansour, the well-known Islamic calligrapher, told me: ‘Give it to an illuminator who specializes in the process’,” she remembers.

“But I said: ‘No, I want to learn this for myself’. So I flew to Turkey to work with one of the first female illuminators, and to complete the painting.”

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While her life as an artist has seen her traverse the world in search of inspiration, experience, expertise, and enlightenment, the staging of ‘In the Absence of Shadows’ has given Dr. Ahmed her first experience of Qatar.

“Previously, I had only spent time in Hamad International Airport for transit flights; I had never stepped outside,” she said. “I’ve been overwhelmed by what I’ve seen.

“The space at the Education City Mosque for the exhibition is fabulous. I was very nervous beforehand, however. I thought to myself: ‘What if my work doesn’t do justice to this space?’

“As an artist, you’re often in a confined space, creating. To fly to Doha, be put in a hotel, have an exhibition – it’s all daunting. But it’s been a wonderful experience.”

Feeling of belonging

This experience has included an 11-day artist workshop at Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art “with wonderful students who don’t take lunch and work hard all day”, as well as a lecture to mark International Women’s Day at Qatar National Library.

And for all her pre-exhibition nerves, the response to her work has been so positive that she has felt a sense of belonging in Doha – a sense heightened by one particularly emotive experience.

“At the very moment in which I was about to step inside to attend a lecture at the Education City Mosque, the adhan[the Islamic call to prayer] started,” she says.

“I told my husband that it was such a beautiful adhan, it was like a symphony telling me: ‘Maybe I’m accepted here’.”

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