Crystalline works

by Salwat Ali

I enjoy the challenge of controlling this process with extensive record-keeping, experience, observation, and attention to detail. My ceramic surfaces are my canvas where my artistic acumen is at play.

Unlike traditional clay craft, which dates back to Mehar Garh and Indus Valley civilisations, studio ceramics is a nascent post-independence genre with limited progress. At the recent Chawkandi Art exhibition in Karachi contemporary ceramist Salman Ikram spoke at length about his show, ‘Crystalline works’ and the sporadic existence of studio ceramics.
A growing number of qualified contemporary ceramists, triennial events and interest levels, have not generated the expected increase in solo shows or production of ceramic art. What is retarding the flowering of studio pottery/ceramics?
Public awareness about studio pottery is not rising in tandem with its development as an art form amongst contemporary ceramists. Studio potters are innovating but are not consistent in their efforts.
The current socio-political upheaval is also not conducive to production. I, too, have come to Karachi for a solo after a lapse of five years. Maintaining a private studio is expensive and constructing kilns and making wheels also requires a great deal of interaction with the technicians. There are no local centres that can provide these facilities to visiting ceramicists. The non-availability of suitable ready-made materials is a constant drawback and clay bodies and glazes have to be self-prepared from locally available materials. This taxes the creative process, making production long and arduous.
If there are impediments how did you as a ceramist overcome them?
I have made a determined effort to establish my art practice. Setting up a studio with a kiln was my first priority after graduation. I continue to upgrade it and now have a couple of kilns. I constantly wash my clays to create compositions suitable for my category of work, as there are no refined products available here unlike the West where prepared clays and ready-made glazes can be ordered from the market.
What is your work process?
Primarily I throw to create a sculptural form and my emphasis on shape or surface textures is a pre-planned effort. If I am highlighting form then I opt for dry glazes in attractive tones but when accent is on glazes then the shape is simple. My colours are oxides and I purchase them from wherever I can. Your works are distinguished by their unusual and varied glazes, can you elaborate on this?
I have experimented with a lots of glazes including dry, matt, volcanic and crackled varieties but presently I am concentrating on crystalline surfaces. Glaze crystals spontaneously form and grow in the molten glazes while the pieces are cooling in the kiln. Many opaque and matt glaze textures are the result of multitudes of micro-crystals, so minute that they are invisible to the naked eye. The macro-crystalline glazes, or more commonly known as crystalline glazes, have crystals that grow large enough to see. They develop ‘growth rings’, halos, star-bursts and auroras, which record changing conditions within the kiln. I do not embed the crystals on the porcelain, nor can I see them growing in the kiln.
A piece's relative quality can only be judged after the firing cycle is complete. I enjoy the challenge of controlling this process with extensive record-keeping, experience, observation, and attention to detail. My ceramic surfaces are my canvas where my artistic acumen is at play.
Are you exhibiting internationally?
Recently a collection of my work was shown in an art fair in Madrid, Spain. The feedback on my web page was very positive and another show is in the pipeline. I am part of the American Forum of potters on the web where there is a constant exchange of experiences they work with electric kilns and are really amazed how I manage to achieve crystalline effects through firing in a gas kiln. The ongoing sharing of knowledge on the web energises one’s art practice, one’s work is given larger exposure and one gains from the insights of others. Unfortunately this interest and dialogue is missing within the ceramic community here.
Originally presented in Dawn Gallery, Sunday, 09 May, 2010