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Shahbaz Afridi, Director of the Afridi Gallery in Chelsea, sits down with award-winning textile designer Neisha Crosland for a discussion prompted by an arrangement of objects and furniture at his gallery. This is the first feature from the Afridi Gallery’s ‘in conversation’ programme, an ongoing series that invites prominent figures of the art & design world to visit the gallery and take part in a dialogue that explores our encounters with art. The Afridi Gallery is an exhibition space for ‘objects to inspire’, and these conversations arise when we pause and reflect on the aesthetic forms that surround us.

SA: I normally try to group things from different periods but these objects are all mid-century apart from the table, which was made especially for the Afridi Gallery. (Paul Philp footed vase, a David Leach ‘Willow’ plate and a wooden Sculpture by Robert Adams grouped on a table designed by Chester Jones).

NC: They really could be much older couldn’t they? The wall hanging could be modern, but it could equally be ancient. It reminds me of the Andean feather pieces that are BC. Each piece says something to me. The plate looks very Japanese and it reminds me of old 16th or 17th century kimonos. Those designs wouldn’t be very specific or detailed, minimal brushstrokes gave maximum impact which leaves you with a bit of space for your own imagination to come in and project your own feelings onto it. It doesn’t crowd you out, but brings you in. Can you see those little orange dots near the edges? They are so jewel like. Early Japanese kimonos would have minimal brush strokes but then they’d focus in on a leaf, or a caterpillar, or a dew-drop.

SA: The great thing with the plate is the use of colour. It gently guides your way because the focus is as much on the dots as the composition. Maybe not at first, but eventually the curved form draws your eye out. It’s very subtle, without having design all over the plate.

NC: The rim of the plate is the same colour as the tree’s branch and this emphasises the slight movement as your eyes are swept by the matching curves of the stem and the outside of the plate. It is quite dynamic without being busy.

SA: In Japan, a wilting tree is a sign of humility. It’s very true to the Japanese aesthetic.

NC: The surface of the table with the direction of the wood grain and the circular form which mirrors the plate, then the V-form in the legs... it’s really beautiful. If that same plate was placed on a carpet, we wouldn’t pick up on the same things - it’s circular form, it’s matt texture compared to the shine of the table. But if we didn’t have the wooden sculpture to give some balance, the composition would be unbearably centered. Something that I find interesting about the carpet is that it’s all beiges, which could look really boring but it

doesn’t. That’s intriguing to me. Often with colours, I try to think of the most ugly combinations that you can possibly imagine and then try to make them beautiful. This should really be revolting, it could look like an old towel or dressing gown, but it doesn’t and why doesn’t it? The designer has had to get the shade of beige just right. It also strikes me that this is not ancient or tribal, but Swedish.

SA: But they would have taken from that, of course. This is by Ingrid Hellman Knafve,  the doyenne of Scandinavian carpet production.

NC: Totally. Often my work is about stripping away, about what I can take out. At first I crowd my patterns and then see what I can take out before it collapses. There’s that tension, that point where it’s perfect. The African inspired sculpture could be a Brancusi, or even a Henry Moore or Giacometti. There was an exhibition of Giacometti at Tate Modern last year and the first room had a large display of busts with very flat faces. Now when I look at this I think of it as being a person rather than a shape, so seeing that show has influenced my interpretation. I suppose you’re always up against what other people have brought to the table before you got there and you’ve got to produce something fresh or you’re just a pastiche of what came before. How do you go about bringing these objects together?

SA: The pieces are chosen individually. Each of these was chosen at completely different times and without consideration of how I might place them. Now the focus is on grouping, not concentrating on one thing or another but using the gallery space to bring together a style.

NC: Yes, it’s like you are creating a still life. The scene really reminds me of the Italian painter Morandi. Do you bring the objects in from a warehouse?

SA: Yes, I bring them to the gallery and play around with them. I think there is some uniformity in the choice of the objects, it’s not as though I take whatever people throw at me. It comes down to what ​you ​like and focus on. I’ve noticed that with people I admire, even when their tastes are completely different to mine, it works because they are doing something unified. How people come to different styles, or create different styles... it’s all very subjective in the end. You could even look at something the first time around which doesn’t appeal, your mind is focused on something else, but three years later it’s completely different. We were focusing on carpets and textiles, yet I didn’t realise that it was all building up to other objects and eras as well. Focusing on the detail has

helped me see the bigger picture, and with carpets I’m used to engaging with such intricacy that I find this kind of scene quite soothing. There’s much less design going on.

NC: Exactly. If I’ve done lots of flowers for a while I quite simply feel like a change. I’ll start doing geometrics for a bit.

SA: That brings a lot of relief. You can’t just have pattern on pattern on pattern. Ceramics for example can be quite monotone but they’re also much more reflective so light is playing a part. That’s not the case with carpets. In a different environment, all of these objects would look completely different.

NC: It’s a bit like having a harddrive in your head, you’re accumulating all these images and sensations that you feel when you’re looking at things. It’s not all just visual, it’s also the feelings you get. That’s really important to me. Is it a nice feeling? How can you bring it out? Then the colour and scale inform the choreography of pattern making.

SA: And you’re drawing on the past all the time, the elements and symbols start to mean different things to you.

NC: Yes, but how can you know what these objects were like when they were made? What parts are faded and what was intended? We get inspired by the past, but if we go to Pompeii we’re not actually seeing what the Romans saw. When I realise I’m looking at a faded version, in my head I instantly imagine the stronger spectrum of colours. Not just what I’m seeing.

SA: Newness has value, you wouldn’t create something to look old, but we’ve developed an eye for the patina and the slightly faded. I think it’s actually a progression for us to be appreciating something that’s aged and has a maturity to it. Even vegetable dyes fade, people say they don’t but they do. They mellow and settle. I think you have to give something three or four years to let it settle.

NC: There was an exhibition on the Ice Age at the British Museum in 2013, and it featured ancient patterns carved into flint stones. Even cave paintings are symbolic, zigzags might indicate a mountain range which might contain the figure of a bison they hoped to catch. With carpets, flowers might refer to nomads crossing the desert and hoping to find an oasis while star patterns relate to their use of astronomy for navigation. Visual patterns were a language, a means of communication that wouldn’t have needed explaining.

SA: Absolutely, it all had a meaning. It’s not simplified, it’s very open and it also expresses a lot of feeling.

NC: You could almost see pattern as passing feelings on through the ages. The pattern-maker themself feels a pleasure, an emotional investment in it.

SA: My reaction to a pattern hinges on that idea that something has been invested into it. If you’re taking the time to look at it, it’s amazing what radiates back. What was originally invested in the piece is still there.

NC: I recently did some research on shells, and read that shell-collecting was very fashionable in Japan. The collectors would put the beautiful unseen shell on a pedestal, all sit around it and talk about what it reminded them of. It was a serious contemplative gathering.

SA: That’s very Japanese, seeing the world in a grain of sand.

NC: It warms my heart that today we are carrying the baton for other cultures, that the same ideas are getting passed on but just infused with different influences. I find it so uplifting to think that things from different eras still work together. If everyone who made them was still alive, I believe we’d all be having a lovely time and talking to each other. It’s the human element. There’s been a human hand doing that and now I’m taking the baton and it’s passing on and there’s continuity. It makes me quite optimistic about the world.

A Portrait of Pattern - The Fine Art of Neisha Crosland

October 2019 at the Afridi Gallery 

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