“Housewarming” is a series of virtual residencies created by the British Council Arts and Create London connecting international artists and designers and three East London arts organisations for 6-week long residencies. My partners were Rabbits Road Press, a community Risograph print studio and publishing press founded and run by OOMK. You can read more about the virtual residencies here.

For my residency, I created a wallpaper and 3 tapestries based on my conversations with artists from E. London while being in lockdown in Lahore. My pieces will be installed at British Council’s new global headquarters in Stratford, London.

Risograph printing + digital collage

British Council-commissioned Shehzil Malik, An Island Ruled by Queens (wallpaper); The Louisa Tapestry, The Sadie Tapestry, The Sahra Tapestry (digital prints on fabric). Photos of installation by © Agnese Sanvito

Rabbits Road Press
Create London

Community Engagement

Initially planned as an in-person residency, COVID-19 impacted our plans and the residency became a virtual one. I decided to lean into engaging with the community from afar- both in my project’s methodology and my concept. I spoke with 3 London-based women artists over Skype and interviewed them about their ideas around home and community. I also asked them to share photographs about what these ideas meant to them.

The Wallpaper

The pattern for the wallpaper talks about the community, women and folklore. I thought of scribes writing accounts of far-off lands and court painters painting newly discovered flora and fauna. I then came across the Waq-Waq tree. The tree is part of medieval Arabic mythology- and it’s found on an island inhabited only by women. I imagined an island ruled by queens, where women of all races lived in harmony. I mixed motifs found in Persian and Arabic manuscripts with the very British William Morris imagery to create a pattern of women and new beginnings- stories of an island I’ve only heard about.

Pattern-making experiments with motifs and colors.

The wallpaper pattern was riso-printed at Rabbts Road Press. The scans were then sent back to me and I digitally incorporated them into my artwork.

Riso-printing is old school tech. A mix between photocopying and screen printing, it produces high volume, speedy and low-cost prints. Artwork can be made by hand or digitally so long as the colors are separated because the machine prints a color at a time. Riso was popularly used by schools, prisons, churches and activist groups to mass produce posters, flyers and small books. It’s made a big comeback now- maybe because it feels nostalgic and handmade, and the fluorescent colors are not achievable in digital printing. The inks are soy-based and the masters are made from banana paper so it’s also great for the environment!

The final wallpaper design and color scheme is meant to resemble a classic William Morris design and the traditional Chintz associated with English aesthetics. It is a play on looking closer and reevauating the visuals we have come to accept.

The Tapestries

While the wallpaper talks about a mythical island, the take are a deep dive into the women I imagine living in this far-off land. The tapestries are meant to be portraits of the E. London community; highlighting it’s multicultural nature.

Tapestry Dimensions: 2.4 m X 1.2m (8ft X 4ft)

I wanted the tapestries to depict the women’s lives through my South Asian lens. The border motifs and symbols in the tapestries come from my cultural heritage. I looked at our textiles, blockprints, tilework and embroidery- and these patterns were riso-printed at Rabbits Road Press. I then digitally collaged into the tapestries.

The Louisa Tapestry

“I live in Forest Gate which is the poorest area here and the BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) population is high. There is also a very strong sense of community. London is a transient place where people come and go, but in Forest Gate, they tend to stay put.
This area has also changed a lot with gentrification. The big institutions need to engage with people here and get involved with local schools. When I was stuck creatively, I would take walks around the area and draw. I know all the people on my street because if you walk around the neighborhood, you meet everyone. My art practice was also changed by these walks. Since there’s a lot of construction happening, people are constantly throwing stuff out. I find discarded things and repurpose it into art. I get excited by materials like wood, old stuff, dirty stuff, rejected stuff, material with history. It’s about giving these discarded objects a new life; about seeing things with fresh eyes.”
The Louisa Tapestry is based on the words of artist, Louisa Tock (@walkwithlouisa).

The Sadie Tapestry

I asked the women what home meant to them. Artist Sadie St. Hillaire told me she felt at home in E. London because the whole world lived in her neighborhood. Waves of migration had brought Jewish people, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Indians, West Indians, Somalis and other migrants to the city. Walking the streets, you could find the cultures represented in the people around you, the type of shops, the food, and the languages spoken. Sadie, an illustrator who teaches young people, said she’d been living in Newham for the last 7 years. “When I come back home after traveling, it’s like taking a long exhale- I can breathe here” she said. The borough had traditionally been a poorer district of working-class people, and the low rent had attracted both immigrants and artists. Over the years, Newham’s gentrification has felt disingenuous because the area has started to look fancy- without necessarily serving the people already living in the area. It is also the borough worst affected by Coronavirus.
Living in Newham, Sadie sees herself reflected in her neighbors and friends. And for her, it’s the community that makes her feel she’s finally found home.

The Sadie Tapestry is based on the words of artist, Sadie St. Hillaire (@sadsthil).

The Sahra Tapestry

I asked the women how their work was shaped by their identity and surroundings.  Artist Sahra Hersi talked about how cities are designed around class and gender. “In England, we experience implicit bias. It’s subtle- it’s in the way people talk to you, or if you’re not hired for a job, or paid less than a co-worker. The image of the West is that we’ve solved everything because things seem okay on the surface. But the problems are there- hidden in the closet, shoved under the carpet, lying beneath the surface. Cities and buildings are also designed around class, race and gender. Women and minorities are squashed into systems that were not designed for them. Our cities are designed specifically for adult, able-bodied, white men.

After the Grenfell tragedy, I asked myself- what kind of architecture do I want to do? If systemic racism lives within the established institutions, maybe the way forward is to build new institutions that reflect the rest of us. I think of the saying, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” So, if the table has no room for us, well we just need to build our own.”

The Sahra Tapestry is based on the words of artist, Sahra Hersi (@sahra_hersi).

The background of the tapestries is also made from riso-prints from RRP’s archive of community-made prints. Thus, the whole piece becomes an ode to vibrant E. London- as seen by a Pakistani artist witnessing it from afar.