While henna is often associated with pre-wedding bridal parties, for some it’s not only art, but a doorway to making social change. Amal Awad speaks to Somalian-Australian artist Idil Abdullahi about her work.
A few months ago, in one of those odd, kismet-like moments, I was asked at the last minute to facilitate an event for a Muslim association that was hosting street artist eL Seed. (Who is, incidentally, supremely talented.)
Giving it a more local flavour, the association had invited some other talented creatives to join eL Seed on a panel – designer (amongst other things) Peter Gould, author and activist Randa Abdel-Fattah, and henna and ceramics artist Idil Abdullahi. I’d met Peter and Randa, but I’d only heard (good things) about Idil.
She’s an exceptional talent and, because I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler, her henna work floors me. And because I’m a shameless sucker for creativity in all shapes and forms, I wanted to explore how Idil goes about unpacking her ideas. To claim she is a henna and ceramics artist is remiss – she’s much more than that. She’s self-employed and is a community advocate, finding ways to give her creative endeavours a social impact.
Idil arrived in Australia in 1993 as a refugee from her native Somalia. She uses the creative arts as a tool in her work – to build stronger and resilient communities. She says she’s a ‘story teller’ by means of the visual arts, communicating issues and ideas that are significant to her and the communities in which she works. In particular, symbols of faith and culture filter into Idil’s work as she examines her personal ideas of identity and belonging.
‘Whether its architecture, poetry or henna, generally speaking art has always been an integral living part of every community’s life. It is a great method that demonstrates the creative cultural expressions of individuals as well as communities,’ she says.
‘It can be simple or complex, it can also be historical, practical or conceptual and all at the same time. All creative expressions have their places and all are really important for a balanced individual as well as a society that prospers and moves forward together as one.’
While Idil works primarily with henna and ceramics, she says if a particular project calls for her to use other mediums alongside them, such as photography or illustration, she’s happy to incorporate them.
Idil says her art serves others in many ways, including community development projects – henna art can be used to bring women together, to start a conversation, to connect and to even break barriers between groups.
‘Design is the last thing in my mind in those situations, and I find it very humbling to be of service to another human being in that manner. To be so close to them, to see them trusting me to create art on their body, and later on seeing them pleased and thanking me always makes me very thankful.’
I commission a henna tattoo from her one day. Watching her hand as she easily glides the henna tube across my wrist, I’m a little in awe of the precision and flow. I’m curious as to whether it’s like the writing process, a descent into trance mode, unthinking, only feeling, almost exhaling.
I ask Idil in more vague terms if it’s an intuitive process, and she says there are times it’s very organic, and intuitively driven. But sometimes commissions or deadlines call, and Idil says she works best according to a schedule.
‘Other times, no matter how hard I try and organise or brainstorm ideas, nothing seems to work, especially in the early part of sketching and idea development.
‘I usually have idea books, where I put down most ideas related to future projects, so I can start working on them if nothing else comes to mind. I find once you start working, things just come together in a beautiful synchronicity, and seemingly unrelated stuff you have been collecting or drawn to starts to make sense, which is why I love making art.’
It’s a creative journey that began at a madrasa in Somalia when she was about eight years old.
‘We used to hand-make our own ink and wood pens to write the divine word and I remember being lost in composing the Arabic scripts even though it wasn’t my mother tongue,’ she says.
‘I was introduced to henna as a body art and the intricate patterns fascinated me. I guess I have been hooked ever since.’
Despite being discouraged from making art – it wasn’t considered a valuable pursuit in the long term – Idil says she found herself continually coming back to creating, in different ways.
This led her to increase her skill set and enrol in the College of Fine Arts at the University of New South Wales. She recently completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts, majoring in Ceramics, and she says it was the best decision.
‘Many things started to fall into their places after that, and it just felt very natural for me to be there and gave me the confidence to continue exploring my creative abilities.’
While it all began as a passion or a side hobby, it evolved into a full-time calling, and an area of natural strength.
‘Additionally, art has personally been a source of healing and until today offers me various possibilities for self-growth, and therefore it feels very organic.
‘Another great thing about art is that I can bring together many parts where I like to make a difference.’
Part of Idil’s wonder is that henna is perceived as less art than other ‘fine arts’, she says, but to her it’s the bearer of many blessings to herself and others.
‘Henna is also very different to my ceramics practice, which I usually do alone. With henna I am making it on a person’s body right then and there, and many times others are watching and that adds to the beauty and mystery of it. With my ceramic work, I am amazed at the endless possibilities of clay and there are so many ways one can use it to express themselves.’
As for the next step of the artist’s journey, Idil is exploring the impact of enforced separation from familiar places in her current work, and that of building new connections and relationships to a new environment.
She’s also in the process of setting up a small ceramic jewellery line, and further down the track, dip into objects and home wares.
‘It’s a very exciting journey, and I am really enjoying the process of actually making those works and growing with it.
‘I feel I am in a really good place to make what I have always wanted to and what is really important to me, so I can’t ask for anything more.’
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