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WORK by SURJEET HUSSAIN

Surjeet is a textile and embroidery artist who migrated from Punjab to the UK from India in the 1960s to do a degree in Fine Arts at the Croydon College of Arts. Her work is outside the mainstream of both heritage and the arts in the UK. Her embroidery and textile work fuses traditional techniques into original contemporary artworks that are pioneering for the South Asian diaspora context.

Returning to India in 1963, Surjeet worked in Persian carpet manufacturing for five years. There, she found it difficult to apply modern techniques and kept to colours as set by precedents within Persian design. Nevertheless, the experience provided her excellent training in the finesse and dexterity of weaving and composition.

In 1968, she got married to a musician who was travelling from Karachi, Pakistan. They had initially met on the ship sailing to the UK. Surjeet recalls how music enabled them to bond due to its intrinsic harmony and unifying resonance. Both migration and music brought them together.

 
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Travel remains her inspiration for sketching, painting and design. ‘Magenta Magenta’ was inspired by a large garden centre in Los Angeles. Surjeet uses techniques of felt-making, beading and shisha (mirror work) with free stitching on a variety of materials - handmade felt, cotton thread, beads and mirrors. Their lavish interpenetration brings out a depth of colour and vibrancy to frame the flowers and foliage. 

Surjeet’s extensive collection of Indian embroidered textiles shows her predilection for phulkari designs, known for their floral motifs and the primacy given to bagh or gardens. The bright colours of phulkari on evenweave cotton has been used in her works to break up traditional designs to give a more contemporary aesthetic.

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Demonstrating her love for abstract work and the rich vitality of nature, ‘Colour Fusion’ takes its inspiration from sunlight shining through foliage that is representative of many of her works. A blend of stitches on applied fragments of silk and shisha, and cotton ground and thread infuse this piece of textile art. 

Surjeet fills her spare time observing the play of light in nature while listening to Indian and western classical music and thinking of rhythmic patterns in her artworks. She says that sketching plants and the play of colours are therapeutic for her, triggered by the couple’s love for listening to music – ranging from the raags of Ravi Shankar, regional gharanas, to western classical music such as Edward Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations’. 

Talking of inserting shisha in her stitches and patterns, Surjeet mentioned how the mirror material instantly reflects one’s mind and blends with other techniques such as kantha – a form of stitch that is traditionally used to build the socio-cultural narrative or the weaver’s story in embroidery works. Sketching in silk, shisha, and blending with the rhythm of music in her heart, Surjeet is able to weave her passion through an interplay of different artistic mediums, variations of stitches, and the infusion of vibrant colours. Her work is also enriched by her in-depth training, love for travel, and her prolific imagination.

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Inspired by her extensive travel primarily to learn different indigenous techniques from different parts of the world, Surjeet brought out the bright colours of Rajasthan in a formal design as is apparent in the ‘Sparklers’. Using cotton ground with woollen thread and mirrors, an interplay of reflection and storytelling is brought out by the stitches of Bengali kantha that she learnt in Rabindranath Tagore’s craft centre in  Shantiniketan, and shisha works when travelling to Rajasthan and Gujarat in western India.

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Altogether, Surjeet’s textile artworks demonstrate a deep observation of nature and the changing seasons. Such sources of inspiration are found in many of her works that  depict seasonal festivals and celebrate her dual heritage. There is a sense of social engagement in her embroidery panels that reflect critical thinking about nature and polluted rivers such as in ‘Holy Water’, which was inspired by her boat journey on the Ganges. Layering papers with fine cotton fabrics and kantha, she shows the Indian pot for holy water as a symbol of life floating on a polluted stream.

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From antique subcontinental textiles to exploring ‘free’ designs and the variation of stitches, she pioneered a contemporary look for diasporic textile artists. In doing so, her experiments navigate both the worlds of art and craft labour. As she worked for the International Labour Organisation, she travelled to depict the laborious work in scaffolding sites. While visiting the Jaipur Palace and other ongoing construction works in 2004/05, she created a layered look of mixed media by staining fabrics, cutting and rolling paper, and free stitching in what she described as ‘Working on a Large Scale’.

 

Surjeet was employed as a textile tutor in south west London for many years. Alongside her regular teaching, she published three workbooks that carry the imprint of traditional designs. Her ability to create new mixed techniques were popularised through community activities that reached out to younger artists. She remains attached to her community outreach works, visits the local gurdwara (Sikh temple) close to her residence, and sustains her artworks embedded in friendships with other women in diasporic community embroidery groups and local guilds.