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An interview with textile artist Majeda Clarke

Majeda Clarke became a member of Design-Nation through winning the New Designers One Year In award in 2017. As part of her award, Majeda is currently showcasing her work in an exhibition at the National Centre for Craft and Design in Sleaford. We caught up with Majeda and asked her a few questions.

Design-Nation asked: Can you tell us about your practice and how your business began?

Majeda answered: I am a textile artist specialising in weave based at Cockpit Arts in Central London. My work consists of special commissioned projects and artwork handwoven in my studio, art residency projects and small batch production with local weave communities in Bangladesh and the UK. All the mills and weavers I work with have a weaving heritage that spans generations. I make blankets, scarves and fine art panels. It is this weaving heritage that drew my interest when I set up as a weaver, how skills, techniques and stories are passed down from generation to generation. Yet in this era of mass production, those skills are being lost. When I first visited the Jamdani weavers in Dhaka who have UNESCO World Heritage status, they were struggling to retain their weaving tradition in the face of the big garment factories. I knew that my specialist weave knowledge with my broader, multicultural design ethos that mixed European design with Asian could help them create a viable, unique and sustainable product. The rest of my practice followed on from those values and I developed a similar relationship with a Welsh mill where I take a traditional design technique and subvert it using strong colours and geometric patterns.

D-N: Who has been your most influential teacher or mentor?

M.C: My tutor at college, Karen Coughlan, was incredibly supportive. I was a mature student and had to juggle family life with working full time for an art degree, 20 years after my first degree. Sometimes you need people to empathise with your situation whilst still challenging you to be a better artist. Karen did just that, constantly encouraging me to be less safe, take risks, make mistakes but always having faith in my work.

Before I decided to retrain for a textile degree, during maternity leave from work, I went to night school at City Lit to do a textile course for a year. And it was my tutor there, Caroline Bartlett, a hugely respected textile artist who first recognised my talent and encouraged me to take it further. I’ve never looked back.

D-N: What inspires you and your work?

M.C: My experience of growing up in two places, Bangladesh and England, has been at the core of everything I make. There is a duality in my work, where things appear familiar to people yet retain a sense of otherness. For instance, my Jamdani pieces use classic Indian motifs but without the heavy patterning. The space between suggests a European aesthetic. Likewise, my Welsh blankets utilise traditional double cloth techniques but have pops of bright colour, inspired by the saris worn by my mother, grandmother and aunts. I grew up around vibrant colour in a culture where everyone instinctively knew what went with pink or green and unapologetically clashed colours. Yet, the Modernist movements in Europe and America, in particular, Bauhaus have always appealed. I think it’s the straight lines and geometry which strangely remind me of Islamic Art.

D-N: Can you tell us a bit about your design process?

M.C: I always begin with my sketch book or a simple photograph for inspiration then develop several yarn wraps (silk or wool yarn wrapped around small cards to reflect my warp and weft colours). I travel to Bangladesh a lot and always draw and photograph what I see when I’m there. There is a lot of technical information that has to be calculated before I begin weaving, for weaving is as much about geometry and maths as it is about making, and that goes into my trusted graph paper book. Finally I am ready to weave. Unless it is a commissioned art work, I usually make several samples on my loom before I’m happy with the final design and this sample gets sent with a technical document to my mill or Jamdani weavers to produce the blankets and scarves.

D-N: What is your workspace like?

M.C: I have a small studio at Cockpit Arts which is full of designer makers; I love working in such a creative environment. I share a studio with another textile designer, a leather worker and two product designers. Although my space is cramped, I have my loom next to my desk and I spend my day working between the two. My shelves are full of yarns and are all colour ordered – maybe it’s that love of straight lines and geometry that feeds my sense of order in my workspace. My studio space is full of colour from my yarns and blankets and the odd Anni Albers postcard. It used to have lots of plants which I regularly killed so now I have moved onto succulents for my shot of greenery – a much safer option. My studio environment has to be calm and pleasant in order for me to focus.

D-N: Do you work hard on your PR or do you work with others on marketing?

M.C: I really don’t have a PR strategy but have been lucky to have the support of fantastic organisations with incredible reputations who attract the right audience. I am a member or Cockpit Arts, The Crafts Council, The CAA Gallery and now Design-Nation all of which promote and support my work. I suppose in many ways, that has been my strategy, to gain membership to reputable and highly selective bodies which immediately elevates my own reputation.

In addition, every year I do two or three trade shows and make sure I have a presence during key periods such as London Craft Week and London Design Week. These shows and events always generate press and publicity for my practice and have been very successful. I try to update my Instagram every week and have connected with many creatives through there.

D-N: What are the main challenges in your practice?

M.C: It’s very difficult working with both weavers and clients abroad. I travel to Bangladesh every year and more if a special bespoke order is placed. This year I had an order from the US for my Jamdani panels, so you can imagine how complicated it is to navigate between Dhaka, London and Atlanta! I am a sole trader and have to do all aspects of my business on my own, tax, marketing, profit and loss accounts, so it’s been a baptism of fire. It only now that I’ve got an assistant who has been a huge help.

D-N: Where would you like your practice to be in 10 years?

M.C: Ideally, I would like to be able sell all my work directly, either online or through my own store. This can only happen with a strong brand and identity that is unique and easily identifiable. I hope I can reach that level of recognition, reputation (and sales!) in less than 10 years.

D-N: If you could collaborate with someone who would you like that to be?

M.C: I’d like to collaborate with an artist like Sarah Lucas or Rachel Whiteread both of whom explore found objects and ephemera. The passing of time and fragments of memory fascinates me and I’d love a collaboration with a visual artist. I’d also love to work with the dancer and choreographer Akram Khan, the combination of physical movement with storytelling and the impact on visual narratives would be really interesting when two artists from different mediums combine skills. In the meantime I’d like to work on a collaboration with an iconic British brand like Burberry or Mini.

D-N: If you weren’t a designer what would you be?

M.C: I used to be a teacher and I still love teaching people. I think learning can take place anywhere and in any context and I simply feel my weaving is another skill that can be applied to develop understanding and experience.

D-N: Why did you join Design-Nation? What do you enjoy and find helpful from being a member?
M.C: I joined Design-Nation because I like the idea of accessing a range of other makers, suppliers and designers. I like the way Design-Nation links up the potential dots. They always offer interesting opportunities for group shows and creative collaborations.

D-N: Have you got any exhibitions, commissions or events coming up that you are taking part in?

M.C: Yes some very exciting events are coming up for London Craft Week in May. I’ve been selected by Fortnum and Mason as part of a small group of makers from Cockpit Arts to exhibit in their store. I’ve also been selected by Barbara Chandler from the Evening Standard to exhibit at Grand Designs Live as part of a curated group. I’ll also be speaking about the Future of Craft in London in a panel debate during London Craft week.

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