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Shaheen Merali

Born, 1959 in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania

image of Shaheen Merali

Shaheen Merali, an artist, writer, curator and archivist, was born in Tanzania, East Africa in 1959 and came to London in 1970 at the age of 11. He was for a number of years head of the Department of Visual Arts at the House of World Culture in Berlin. Previously, Merali lectured at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design and was a researcher at the University of Westminster. He has exhibited and published nationally and internationally, over a period of several decades.

Shaheen Merali was born in 1959, in Tanganyika – now known as Tanzania - in what was then known as ‘British East Africa’, which comprised Tanganyika and the two countries on its northern borders, Uganda and Kenya. Like other artists such as Zarina Bhimji, Symrath Patti, Alnoor Mitha, Said Adrus and many others, Merali’s family arrived as part of the British colonial project to import large amounts of South Asian labour to its East African possessions to assist with the building of the railways etc at the turn of the 20th century. 

Merali is a hugely important artist who emerged in the decade of the 1980s. Over the course of several decades his practice has evolved, though his wider commitment to activity in complementary fields has remained constant. He now functions as a curator, lecturer, and archivist alongside his art practice. In the early years of his practice, Merali’s preferred method of art production was batik. Merali’s batik work of the time was astonishing, for a number of reasons. At a time when the demarcations between what was regarded as ‘art’ and what was regarded as ‘craft’ were as entrenched as ever, Merali effectively made such demarcations redundant, by utilising what was commonly considered a ‘craft’ medium in a decidedly ‘fine art’ context of artistic practice and gallery exhibitions. Furthermore, Merali wrestled batik away from its rigid associations with decorative tribal arts, and its synonymity with certain non-European ethnicities. Similarly, with batik being widely considered to be women’s work, Merali singularly dismantled such gender demarcation. The other hugely important significance of Merali’s batik work was that he used the medium, with enormous effect, to comment on a range of personal, social and political narratives, thereby downplaying or questioning batik’s primary association with the purely decorative. His batik portraiture conveyed important political messages.

One such batik was a work from the late 1980s, based on an old family photograph. The photograph showed a group of Merali’s family members, as they were about to embark on their own epoch-making journey from India to Dar es Salaam. Shaheen Merali utilised this family photograph and rendered it with enormous effect and sensitivity as a sizeable batik. Instead of rendering the family portrait in colour, Merali remained faithful to the monochromatic values of the original photograph, by rendering the batik in shades of brown. The artist’s decision to remain true to the original, and avoid colour, ensured that the work maintained – and indeed, may well have accentuated – the clearly discernible moods of apprehension and uncertainty on his relatives’ faces, as they were about to embark on their journey of migration. Behind the group, the aeroplane to carry them stands, a symbol of the travel, relocation, upheaval, displacement and migration which has played such a significant part in world history and the history of nations, several hundred years ago, as much as within more recent decades and indeed, up to the present day. Towards the end of the 20th century and on into the 21st century it became somewhat fashionable for critics, art historians, writers and lecturers to formulate their ideas around the notions of exiles, diasporas, and strangers. But before the widespread popularity, almost to the point of banality, of such ideas and notions, Merali (and indeed, other artists) offered compelling and engaging commentary on the conditions, experiences and consequences of migration and Diaspora. Within the piece, Merali illustrated something of the physical strains and turbulence caused by his family’s history of migrations from India to East Africa, to Britain years later, then on to Canada. Such histories of multiple migrations have exercised Merali and other artists such as Said Adrus, whose own family has been caught up in similar patterns of multiple migrations.

Another of Shaheen Merali’s fascinating batiks was PG Tips: 80 Exploitation Flavour Flow Tea Bags. The work featured, in somewhat disturbing rendering, the familiar and decidedly benign image of the young, sari-adorned Indian woman picking tea in an Indian tea plantation. The image, one of the most iconic of British food packaging and advertising provides a comforting and reassuring vision of the diligence with which tea is picked for the British consumer. Concurrently, the image provides a reassurance of economic provision and stable employment for women such as the picker, in what might otherwise be a life of poverty and hardship. The image is of course a myth, a fiction, and an untruth almost, that masks – some might say deliberately – the hardships of tea-pickers’ work. In some ways, Merali’s critique of the PG Tips tea-picking imagery mirrors the sorts of critiques of cotton-picking and the sharecropper existence of African Americans in the agricultural south, in the decades of the early to mid 20th century. At first glance at Merali’s piece, the viewer might not notice or realise the unequivocal judgement and condemnation of the piece and its text: PG Tips: 80 Exploitation Flavour Flow Tea Bags. The way the piece reworked and subverted the familiar PG Tips packaging was both a damning testament to the tea industry’s exploitative practices, and a tribute to Merali’s skill as an artist. Within a few years, he would once again return to the subject of the largely unseen ways in which tea cultivation and production has a part to play in the violent histories of South Asia.

One of Merali’s most important contributions has been his running of the One Spirit Batik Workshop and Gallery in a Haringey, North London community centre. From here, Merali ran batik-making workshops for a range of community groups, and programmed several important solo and group exhibitions of artists, some of whom lived close by. Over the course of 1990-1991, Merali programmed solo shows by Chila Kumari Burman, Tam Joseph (“The Local Man”). Also, a group show from South Africa, Artists with (dis) abilities. This initiative of Merali’s remains a fascinating, compelling and highly effective model of an artist’s engagement with his or her community.

In teaching batik, Merali took the view that a medium like batik was not intimidating and was much more accessible than one which apparently needed years of training and carried the weight of its high art associations. Similarly, Merali believed that batik was both a calming as well as a cathartic process that was well suited to helping people to relax and explore their own creativity. Beyond this, the lack of affirming or empathetic portraiture of African and Asian people meant that Merali (and other artists) had compelling reasons for producing the sort of work described above.  One of Merali’s most poignant assertions was that the work of the new generation of Black British artists was then – and perhaps still remains - the only thing that properly documents, without prejudice, the presence of Black and Asian people in Britain.

From his batik work, Merali moved towards mixed media work, gallery-based installations, and the use of both found imagery and new technologies to make his work. For a time he collaborated with Allan de Souza, whose family history was not dissimilar to Merali’s, the two of them setting up the arts initiative Panchayat.

Shaheen Merali was part of the Curatorial Debates since the 1980s panel at the Shades of Black conference, 20 April 2001, Duke University.

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