Halima Cassell Catching the Light: sculpture and sculptural ceramics
Halima Cassell has a particular way of working with clay that almost denies its inherent plasticity when wet and therefore malleable. Instead she carves it when past leather-hard – hard enough to cut precisely. Her imagery is founded in her Islamic roots and developed through her immersion and interest in western, Asian and African art and architecture.
Light is important to her and she carves in order to capture it as an integral aspect of her art, as did the designers and builders of both Islamic and African architecture. The vessel is a recurrent theme in her work although she regularly develops other forms that she endows with the same principles of faceted, deeply formed and repeated pattern. Pattern may be geometric or organic, the shape of the object having a crisp profile catching the light.
In 2006 Cassell cast her first pieces in bronze, working with the Pangolin foundry. She has continued to make bronze sculptures alongside her ceramic pieces, as the strength of bronze and the way in which casts are made allows her to work on a scale difficult to achieve with clay. However, not all her bronze sculptures are large, many carry the same principles of her carved clay spheres and vessels. However, the bronzes are editioned – an economic principle – and also may be patinated in a range of hue and texture for variety within an edition.
Always developing new skills, in 2011 Cassell was awarded funds from the Fondazione Sem and the Brian Mercer Charitable Trust through the Royal British Society of Sculptors to take up a residency in Studio Sem in Pietrasanta, Italy, close to the marble quarries of Carrara where for centuries sculptors have used the stone for its white purity, Michelangelo (1475–1564), Henry Moore (1898–1986) and Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975) among their number; more recently Marc Quinn (b. 1964). In Pietrasanta Cassell worked for three months in the studio, where she was taught and assisted by the artisans. She created a number of successful carvings, including Germination, Bow Wave, Inclining Form and Nautilus; all are of 2012 and feature in this exhibition.
Although celebrated as a potter or ceramicist, Halima Cassell’s early ambition was to work with glass, and sometimes she does so. A fine piece cast in lead crystal, Amoeba Pool 2012, was exhibited here. The clarity of lead crystal shows very clearly the three- dimensionality of the original carving used to create the mould, causing the forms in the glass to catch the light, both scattering and reflecting it within the form and on surrounding surfaces.
Focusing now on her ceramics, deeply carved spheres and hemispheres mostly made in clays of differing colour and texture: all reveal the inherent nature of the clay itself and remain unadorned, as Cassell uses neither glazes nor slips. The characteristics of a piece come from the way it is carved and her response to the type of clay she is using. Her approach is particularly clear in Virtues of Unity 2010–13 a collection of thirty hemispherical pieces that she has worked on since 2010, having added twelve to their number especially for this exhibition. The clays used in this multi-element installation come from some fifteen different countries and the pieces are arranged tonally from black to white
and through a range of colour. Shards from the carvings are shown separately; these were also fired and arranged in the same colour/ tonal sequence. The installation speaks of unity and difference and its parallels in mankind.
Diverting from the sphere and hemisphere, Cassell has carved two white clay sculptures Flo-ra I and II 2012, both circular at the base, soaring to a pinnacle. These are partner pieces, reflecting architectural elements carved with motifs garnered from nature. In the exhibition are other columns: Fan Structure 2005, Voyage 2009–13, Crystalline Tower 2010, Makonde 2010, Rubicon 2012 and Unfurling 2013.
Fan Structure, the earliest piece in the exhibition, is also the largest, standing over 6 meters high. It is made from iron and fibreglass, which is coloured with oxide to produce a rusted hue. Cassell is not afraid to experiment, as this leads her into new areas of expression and creativity. A one-off, Fan Structure may not be typical, but it is recognisably hers.
Halima Cassell is undoubtedly one of our great emerging stars showing talented work in a number of other media as well as ceramics. The quality of her work is inspiring and the manner in which she adapts to various media, as seen in this exhibition, with such apparent ease shows the depth of her underlying talent. Brilliant work.
Stephen Dee – Editor