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A Touch of the Divine

As a kid I had always heard a lot about her beautiful silk paintings and exotic handcrafted ceramics and glassware, but it wasn’t until the summer of ’98, on a trip to London during which I actually got to spend time with her in her home studio on wet, lazy, tourist-unfriendly English afternoons that I finally understood the true magnitude of her work and diversity as an artist. And it wasn’t just because she was my aunt that I found myself completely beguiled by her incredible work, art repertoire and person; there is something strangely soothing and edifying about her company as well that makes Parveen Zuberi an absolute delight to know and have learned from.

Today, after all these years, I’m still easily charmed by her every new creation, each palpably more stunning than the previous and reflecting in their own right the basic principles of Islamic spirituality such as awe and discipline leading to the form and geometry; divine love and grace in the form of colour and the arabesque; and finally, remembrance of the Divine presence through the Word of God in calligraphy.

“According to a Hadith, ‘Allah is beautiful and loves Beauty’” She reminds me with an air of serenity about her that hints at pure soul satisfaction, “So I think it’s extremely important to be able to see beauty in everything which enriches one’s everyday experiences. My aim is always to take each day as it comes, enjoy my work and be able to produce what is destined for me to produce in the time allocated for me by Allah.”

Parveen acknowledges that she had been exceedingly passionate about the arts from the days when she went to St Lawrence’s school and St Joseph’s College in Karachi back in the 50s. “I used to sketch, embroider, paint, and even did some silk painting while growing up.” She affirms, “and as fate would have it, I got married to a doctor who was also very much into the Traditional Islamic Arts himself!” Mohammed Mustafa Zuberi, the personal physician of the Sultan of Lahej in Aden at the time, who was later honoured with the Order of the Federation of South Arabia Award as well as the Commander of the British Empire Award, is a keen Arabic calligrapher who has actively helped his wife transfer his striking inscriptions onto clay.

It was after moving to the UK in the summer of ’68 after spending seven years in Aden prior to its independence that Parveen finally took up some formal painting and drawing courses. “UK is a vibrant centre for the arts with a host of museums and visiting exhibitions that I frequented since we came here which obviously provided inspiration.” But it wasn’t until she went to Yorkshire that she got her first real taste of hands-on pottery while on a BA course in Visual Arts at Ilkley College. “The moment I touched clay for the first time I realized I had found my medium! I found it to be the most effective medium to express myself as it let me combine my love of painting and the art of geometry in my ceramics.” She explains. “The art of pottery has its own unique mystery. A musician can hear his notes as he plays and a painter can see the result of his brush strokes immediately, but a potter has to wait for his kiln to cool down, sometimes for days, to reveal the often quite unexpected results of the interaction between the elements. A potter therefore remains in a state of humility.”

And that was something Parveen could essentially identify with. There was something extraordinary about this raw, exhilarating substance that had her completely hooked, and her budding love affair with clay gradually started to intensify with time. After moving to London, Parveen enrolled herself in more vocational courses specializing in Ceramics at a local college in Watford before going on to do her MA in Visual Islamic and Traditional Arts in 2000 at the Prince’s School of Architecture, now called the School of Traditional Arts.
According to Parveen, pottery is simply the interplay of the four elements: earth, water, fire and air, resulting in transformation of a very basic substance into an artifact of beauty which can also be quite useful in our daily life. “My aspiration and prayer is that whatever I shape and mould with my hands conveys the message: ‘I bear witness to the Divine Beauty’, and like to bring this barakah (blessings) into the home of the buyer and their daily life.” She confides. Besides making decorative tile panels, pots and plates, Parveen takes pride in the fact that many of her ceramics are functional and can be used in daily life either as a decoration or on the dining table. “There is no less value in items that are in daily use. In fact, to use a beautiful object daily is uplifting to the soul!”

It’s a pity Parveen hasn’t been able to showcase more of her work these last few years because of ill health, however. She’s only contributed to a few small local exhibitions since her last major exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London as part of the events surrounding the opening of a new Islamic gallery there in 2006. She also exhibited at a larger event, ‘Islam Expo’ in London’s Alexandra Palace earlier that same year. Before that, she was invited in 2005 to take part in a large annual show called ‘Art in Action’ which takes place in Oxfordshire where she demonstrated some of her prominent decorative techniques. She also went to New Delhi in 2004 on invitation to exhibit at the Blue Pottery international exhibition entitled ‘Peace and Harmony’ where she lectured on her work and Islamic Arts in general. The Arts council of Pakistan invited her to speak about her work in Karachi in April 2004. In the Autumn of the same year she was at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London at the ‘Shakespeare and Islam Festival’. She has also regularly exhibited at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts and some other galleries around Britain including the Windsor Castle by invitation from HRH the Prince of Wales.
Parveen has a few pieces on permanent display at the Prince’s Foundation but now mostly just shows her pieces at her workshop at home or exhibitions at local galleries. She has always had a tremendous response from the public and is always pleased by the level of appreciation and general interest in Islamic art in the West. An optimist at heart, she believes the world’s perception about modern Islam and the way some negative elements have demeaned our religion in the recent past has not necessarily affected the way learned individuals view Islam and Islamic traditional art. “I believe people are still generally quite appreciative of it for its beauty and spiritual nature and don’t associate it with political or modern perceptions of Islam. There is a huge difference between Muslim and non-Muslim art collectors as well. Most of my pieces have been bought by Western collectors, generally non-Muslims who have an appreciation for handcrafted work.” She explains, “At one of my exhibitions I had a favourite item of mine which I did not intend to sell—it was a ceramic bottle with a Quranic inscription on it. An American collector from California insisted on buying it and the gallery owner sold it without asking me. The gentleman later wrote to me saying he and his family and friends were beguiled by the work and wanted to learn more about the inscription and its meaning and asked to be kept informed of similar items I produced in the future. On another occasion I received a surprise letter from the British High Commissioner to Brunei who had seen a photograph of one of my calligraphic panels and he wanted my permission to allow him to print it on his official Eid card.”

It is such small tokens of support and appreciation that would keep any artist going, and Parveen is certainly no exception. She has also been rather lucky in that her family has always been immensely supportive and accommodating of her art, giving her the time and space she required to achieve her present stature of a revered ceramist in the UK. And even though her four children are now all grown ups with families of their own, she is quick to admit that it is “usually very hard for full-time mothers to pursue their passion like me. I could only dedicate sufficient time to my work after the children had grown up. It has been extra helpful to have my workshop at home.”