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Nilupa Yasmin on the influence of heritage, family, and identity in her mixed-media work

The lens-based artist incorporates photography and weaving to create work that explores her Bangladeshi-British background

You’d be the odd one out if you walked past Nilupa Yasmin’s work without looking twice. At first the overall beauty of the weaving and the blend of colours caught my attention, but then I questioned – are they photographs? As a mixed media practitioner, Nilupa identifies primarily as a lens-based artist who incorporates the ancestral craft of weaving into her work, in order to explore her heritage and identity as a Bangladeshi-British woman.

Initially filling out an application to study Maths at university, thankfully Nilupa’s college lecturers in Art and Photography saw something she didn’t and encouraged her to follow a more artistic path. She was offered an unconditional place to study Photography at Coventry, graduating with a First and was approached 6 months later to lecture at the institution she had just left. A talent clearly recognised in both commercial and academic circles, I was incredibly fortunate to get the chance to interview her.

Courtesy of Nilupa Yasmin

Your heritage, family, and identity have clearly had a great impact on your art. Can you tell me more about this?

It’s true, I often incorporate photographs of myself and my family in my work, along with a focus on Bangladeshi dress and aesthetics. However, I came to weaving almost accidentally. When I first started during my second year at uni, I was sitting at the kitchen table working away and my mum walked past and commented “oh, my grandma (Nilupa’s great-grandmother) used to weave.” I’d never known this before! I found out she used to make a living from her weaving, and there’s something really emotional about the idea that me, her great-granddaughter in a totally different country and culture, is also making a living out of it in a very different way. Weaving is a skill often passed down from mother to daughter in Bangladesh, but it missed my mum when her family moved to Britain. It feels wonderful to have continued the legacy.

Weaving is a skill often passed down from mother to daughter in Bangladesh, but it missed my mum when her family moved to Britain. It feels wonderful to have continued the legacy.

I’m very fortunate that my parents have always encouraged me to do what I love. This support for a career in art and design can be quite rare in a South Asian household, so I guess I’m especially lucky. Whilst there were definitely fears that I’d struggle to secure a job in the future, once I started lecturing and exhibitions were scheduled, they definitely relaxed. It helps that my art is so centred on my heritage and my family directly, I know for my mum that means a lot.

Courtesy of Nilupa Yasmin

What do you think is distinctive to your experience as a mixed-medium artist?

What I really appreciate about my work is that I get to tap into a lot of different industries. For example, if I’m approached to do a textiles-based project I have experience doing that, and if I'm commissioned to do a photography piece then that’s what I’ve primarily trained in. I do identify as a photographer or a lens-based artist first and foremost. Art and what art can be is forever changing, and even if I’m working on a piece that looks like it belongs in the fine art category, a lot of the theory behind it is grounded in photography.

“My photographs are about representing unheard voices.“

Whose work has inspired you the most?

My photographs are about representing unheard voices – a huge part of my work is influenced by the fact that I don’t see representation of many South-Asian Muslim women like myself, to inspire me.

Saying that, there really are some amazing artists who I’ve taken some inspiration from – El Anatsui, Lala Abaddon, and Raisa Kabir to name a few. However, I recently attended a talk by Amak Mahmoodian, an Iranian, Bristol-based photographer, and it almost made me cry. For the first time, I heard someone describe the way I think and feel when I’m creating my work – someone who’s conveying what it means to be a South Asian woman living in British society.

Courtesy of Nilupa Yasmin

What’s been the work that has meant most to you so far?

I think it would have to be the ‘Grow Me A Waterlily’ series. Whilst it’s significant that it’s the piece of work I’ve displayed the most, it actually really represents a turning point for me and how I understand how other people perceive my work. When I first showed it as part of my final-year art show, I didn’t like how people would look at it and just say it’s ‘pretty’ – the work held so much meaning about how I identify individually and as a Bangladeshi-British Muslim women. I complained about this to my lecturer and he turned and said: “that’s their way of making your work relevant to them.” I realised then, observing my work as ‘pretty’ would be some people’s first step into understanding the meaning and my intentions behind it too. A lot of the pieces I’ve done since have come from the emotions I carried when I was working on that display.

”The work (Grow Me A Waterlily) held so much meaning about how I identify individually and as a Bangladeshi-British Muslim women.”

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve got a few exciting projects coming up with the Midlands Arts Centre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. My projects are very personal at the moment – sadly, my Grandma passed away in January and I’ve been weaving together a lot of her images. We’ve been going through her things (she was quite a hoarder!) and I found a huge collection of fabrics that she’d saved from her saris. So along with her images, I’m using this material to make something – I’m quite nervous, as I’m really going with the flow and I’m not sure what it will look like. Whilst it’s for an exhibition, for me this is really part of my own grieving process – crafting really is therapeutic.

Courtesy of Nilupa Yasmin

The current situation with COVID-19 is heartbreaking for the arts. Has this affected you personally and what would you say to other artists during this difficult time?

It’s tough, but I completely appreciate the need for these measures at the moment. Currently, 2 of my exhibitions at both the Walsall Art Gallery and the Birmingham Hippodrome have been closed down. There’s an exhibition on its way in July… but who knows what will happen with that! I’ve also had a lot of workshops postponed, but at least they haven’t been cancelled.

It’s time for solidarity. My message to other artists is to take the opportunity to check in with fellow creatives and see if everyone’s OK, both financially and mentally. I know how utterly disheartening it must be to have worked so hard for exhibitions that are no longer happening. However, I think every artist has a bucket list of things they want to do whether it’s a project or learning a new skill – this time will allow that for people. Also, if anyone ever needs a chat, as a fellow artist and lecturer, I’m available to bounce ideas off or just a talk about anything at all!

Check out Nilupa’s work on her website and Instagram.

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