12 granite bollards, St Paul’s Way, London, 2012. Sand-blasted granite, detail of installation. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Passion To Connect: A Conversation with Bhajan Hunjan

Bhajan Hunjan was born and raised in Kenya. After moving to the U.K. to study fine art at Reading University, she went on to gain a postgraduate degree in printmaking from the Slade School of Fine Art and to study ceramics at the former Central School of Art in London. For several years, she has collaborated with well-respected arts and education charity Bow Arts to deliver community projects and workshops. Working in mediums such as printmaking, painting, and sculpture, Hunjan employs a variety of materials in her work, including ceramic, metal, stone, and concrete. She was recently shortlisted for the prestigious Max Mara Art Prize for Women in collaboration with the Whitechapel Gallery, which offers the winner a six-month residency in Italy to create a new body of work.

12 granite bollards, St Paul’s Way, London, 2012. Sand-blasted granite, detail of installation. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Romina Provenzi: How did you feel about being shortlisted for the Max Mara Art Prize for Women?
Bhajan Hunjan: It was overwhelming, and I was very surprised. It knocked me off my feet when I received an email asking if I would accept the nomination to be shortlisted. First, I wondered how they came to know of me. Then, while looking at the other, younger shortlisted artists, I felt that, being in my 60s, it was good to be recognized for my work. I could have decided not to accept the nomination because of the time and effort required to prepare a presentation, and I had to consider if I had the time to spend six months in Italy, too. But I am glad I decided to go ahead with it, despite not winning the prize. It has been an amazing experience, including attending the prize event at the Whitechapel Gallery, where I was among so many other professional women artists, curators, collectors, and gallerists for the first time. It was a real treat for me.

RP: You use a range of materials that require excellent tactile skills. How do you choose the materials for your sculptural works?
BH: In my work, you are looking at four decades of practice. At some point for me, it became a question of what materials are better at delivering certain projects. I have always worked with clay, sawdust, stone, and, of course, paper for my prints. But I had never worked with concrete, so when an opportunity to experiment presented itself, I decided to use concrete for an outdoor work as part of a community project. Although initially I proposed to use ceramic only, I decided to combine it with concrete—that possibility was in my head after having seen the Gaudí works at the Park Güell and around the city in Barcelona.

While exploring the idea, a friend showed me how to make a precast with concrete, and soon after that, I started to work on the project jointly with a women’s group. These women weren’t artists, and I felt that it was a collaboration between us. When we worked with concrete, it was revealing to me how they handled it like clay or dough. Like clay, you can coil concrete, and then handle it like when you work with dough in the kitchen and roll it out. Subsequently we made a relief on top of the concrete—as if we were making a dough—and I have been working with reliefs on a lot of materials since then. At the end, it is all down to my interest in creating permanent features for outdoor spaces, which require solid materials that won’t wear easily, yet that I can handle.

Words in Stone, St Paul’s Way, London, 2012. 10 sentences selected from 220 put forward by members of the community. Photo: Courtesy the artist

RP: When and where do you get your ideas? What is at the heart of your work?
BH: Touch is really important to me—to make things that speak through material. I have always experimented a lot. I am a maker. Starting from my college days, I did not fit into any very clear category of painters or printmakers. But printmaking had a texture, which meant an exploration to me. I think that’s at the heart of it all. Nowadays art education privileges concepts and ideas, while the making comes afterwards, but I received an art education in which the making had priority, which also meant connecting with something deep inside myself that I don’t necessarily know the source of. I believe makers feel a strong connection between their minds and their bodies. People connect all the time with things around them, like with nature and the forms that they see, with anatomy and with materials. There isn’t a specific moment when you have ideas because your mind is taking things in all the time. Color, texture, the making, and the time are all very important elements for my work, and they already are all around us in our environment.

RP: You have been involved in a number of community projects over the years. What have you gained from them, and have they influenced your studio work?
BH: They’ve definitely influenced my work. It is like with fragrance: it goes on to the next one. A number of years ago, a group of artists called Coventry Arts Exchange invited me to work on a participatory project with a group of women and children in Coventry. For a month, they made a tent available to us. The project consisted of making panels to fill holes in the brickwork of a local bridge. Those holes were made during World War II to allow fire engines to stick their hoses through and access the river to fill their tanks. For safety reasons, the local authority wanted the brick recessions to be filled and therefore commissioned the community project. While I was working on site for three days a week, women and children would come around and work with me. They made tiles with embedded jewelry, shells, and other objects, and then we put them together to create panels for the bridge. After completion, the children and women felt very proud of their work, which meant a lot to me.

Three Mills Pontoon, London, 2011. Laser-cut stainless steel, installation view. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Although many artists don’t like to get involved in participatory projects because the participants might not be up to a certain standard with their skills, I strongly believe that you can learn as you go along and collaborate with people. Allowing a certain period of time, things can develop and a meaningful exchange can happen. It’s very enriching because it pushes you out of your comfort zone, and it’s really satisfying to experience how people benefit from being part of something like that. Even if they haven’t worked with an artist before, it offers them a way to realize that everybody is different and can still contribute to a joint project. It also demonstrates to the artists how ideas grow from collaborating with communities. Therefore, it is relevant for artists to connect with people and wider society. Given the increasing cuts to art education since 2008, it is also important to talk to young people about opportunities for working as a professional artist and the possibilities of earning a living as an artist, despite people still having certain views about what artists do. On top of that, we live in a society where money is a priority and certain jobs seem more attractive because of the high earnings they offer. We shouldn’t lose connection with our personal passions, and it is still important to find ways to connect with the inner soul through, for example, art, music, and dance. I always knew I wanted to work as an artist, and I feel that working with people has to go beyond teaching a technique. For instance, participants in community projects aren’t taking away only what they made during that time, but, more importantly, how they connected to each other with kindness and generosity. I think that special feeling born within them during that time is what they will go away with and keep inside them for a long time. They may well keep making because of that feeling.