Located in Arlington, Virginia, Studio PAUSE is a space where artist Sushmita Mazumdar writes, teaches, and creates Handmade Storybooks and other mixed-media work. It is also where she invites people to explore creativity and celebrate community. Sushmita’s current project, Thou Art: The Beauty of Identity, was inspired by Afghan artist Sughra Hussainy and her work in the Freer|Sackler exhibition Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan. Below, Sushmita talks about the project and how everything around us can connect to tell one story.
“The Body Needs Food but the Soul Needs Art”
I was captivated by this quote splashed across a wall in the Turquoise Mountain exhibition. They are the words of Afghan artist Sughra Hussainy, a graduate of the Turquoise Mountain Institute in Kabul, Afghanistan, where she studied miniature painting, illumination, and calligraphy. As I read a text panel that tells her story, I found yet more inspirational words, phrases, and ideas.
When I met Sughra in March 2016—and saw her demonstrate manuscript painting and illumination in the exhibition—it struck me that in sixteen years of being a docent at this museum, I had seen only rare and centuries-old examples of this beautiful art, preserved behind protective cases. To see Sughra making this art right in front of my eyes was unbelievable. And then to have her tell me to sit down and try it myself was a whole other experience.
“It’s tracing paper and a mechanical pencil,” she said, offering the tools to me and a nine-year-old boy as we watched her work. “Sit. Try it.” As my fingers traced her designs and she showed us how she made gold paint in an oyster shell, we talked. I told her I was an artist, and I invited her to visit my studio. She agreed happily.
On her visit to Studio PAUSE, about eight miles from the museum, Sughra created a quick and beautiful sample of her work for studio members to see. She also joined me at a workshop I was doing with teenagers called Exploring Identity Through Book Arts. The teens were there as part of an after-school program run by AHC Inc., a local organization that creates affordable housing and runs on-site educational programs for residents. I introduced Sughra to the teens, most of them immigrants, as an outstanding Afghan artist whose work was on view in a Smithsonian museum and who had come from Kabul to show museum visitors how she does her art.
That day’s workshop topic was stereotypes. Students were learning to make a book to help them explore how we see others and how others see us. We each shared our personal experiences, and Sughra shared hers, too—about how people in the United States reacted when she told them she was from Afghanistan. “Their eyes grow big,” she said, “as if I was going to explode.” We were all surprised, but we knew people make a lot of assumptions based on how we appear to them.
“Making art is a link for me with my past—with my family and with those who went before me.” —Sughra Hussainy
When I started my art-making years ago, I wrote down stories from my childhood in India and of family members I left behind when I moved to the United States, and incorporated them into unique handmade storybooks for my children. Since then, my work has been to encourage people to share their stories and teach them how to preserve these stories in creative, handmade books. When you know how to make a book, I often say, you always have a place for your stories to live.
Sughra’s art links to her past as she continues the ancient tradition of miniature painting and illumination. I find her story so powerful. The art that I had always thought of as something made in the past and found in museums is here right now, thriving and bringing beauty to the world. I wondered if we could take it into the future in new ways.
So I asked members of the Studio PAUSE community—everyday people who come to my studio to pause, making time to explore creativity and celebrate community—for their thoughts on an idea: What if we wrote poems about identity and asked Sughra to decorate them with a bit of her gorgeous miniature painting in traditional Afghan style? I could then design a book of poetry unlike most we might come across, print the pages in my studio, and bind them into copies by hand. It would be a book that held something about each of us that is more than what we look like, letting us express ourselves through art and show our individuality. We would be like a big, diverse family making something beautiful.
In October 2016, Sughra and Bilal Askaryar, program manager for Turquoise Mountain, visited the studio to discuss the project. “The book will be called Thou Art: The Beauty of Identity,” I told them. When Bilal explained the archaic grammar of the phrase “thou art” to Sughra, her eyes twinkled. “It has two meanings! I like it,” she smiled.
I created a mock-up of the book to show them. Sughra preferred the Japanese binding style, so the cover will comprise two pieces—the longer back cover tucking into the front cover. Each will be on a different paper, symbolizing the coming together of two forms of expression (writing and art), the people of two countries (United States and Afghanistan), and the two ideas of understanding and celebrating our community.
The next week, some studio members met for our weekly Writing PAUSE session. There were poets and activists, a lawyer and social scientist, an artist and entrepreneur, a dancer and politician, and an educator. They met Sughra and saw her work. We wrote, exploring the project and sharing our ideas on identity. Today, I continue to invite people to join the project.
We plan to launch the book Thou Art: The Beauty of Identity in April 2017, in celebration of National Poetry Month. The handmade books will be available online—each sale including two copies, one for the buyer to keep, and one to give away. We’ll mark the occasion with an event at Oakridge Elementary School in Arlington, where contributors will read their poems aloud. The celebration also will kick off a new school-wide project for 2017, in which families will be invited to share their poetry with students and to form their own community poetry book.
This idea came from Oakridge teacher Dawn Amin-Arsala, who is part of the school’s Mosaic Project. She had been thinking of doing a poetry book project for a while. I took Sughra to meet her at Oakridge (which both my children have attended), and then Dawn came to the Freer|Sackler to see Turquoise Mountain and watch Sughra work.
Once the Oakbridge community poetry book is created, Dawn plans to have her fellow teachers use it in their K–5 classes. The text will support the school’s Mosaic objectives—to help students become better writers and to practice global stewardship. “Global stewardship includes the idea that we all have our own stories that are worth telling and worth listening to. Our individual stories connect us as a community,” Dawn explained.
After that, the students will also make a poetry book. Through this extension of our current project, we could link our lives, our arts, and our stories with more than eight hundred young Americans and their families, who come from every corner of the country and all over the world.
It’s hard to believe this is all really happening, but just writing this post makes it feel so real. I am eager to see how many people will be part of this project and what they think. In a world where we work so hard to get food for our body, here is a chance for us to create art by and for our souls.