Salma Caller was born in Mosul, to an Egyptian father and an English mother. She spent her childhood in Africa and then moved with her parents to Saudi Arabia as a teenager. Her multi-cultural identity has become a great asset to her creativity and is seen throughout her work. She started painting, at the age of six, while living in Kano, Nigeria, when she discovered the her neighbors drawings using pen and pencil to startling effect. Her work has been in exhibitions in London and Oxford since 1996.
ArtSHIFTING: What is the official title of this painting?
Salma: This painting is called The Body of Music. I affectionately call her hybrid musical instrument creature. She comes with a text piece that does not explain her but relates to her meanings. The painting is 114cm tall and 33.5cm wide.
ArtSHIFTING: When was The Body of Music painted?
Salma: I started researching, sketching and outlining concepts about five months ago. I used a 16th century collection of musical instruments at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford as inspiration for some of her forms and patterns although she is a creature of the imagination. I completed the painting at the end of March, but there are a few final touches to be made.
ArtSHIFTING: Where do you do most of your work?
Salma: I painted her in my studio in the conservatory at the back of my house in Reading.
ArtSHIFTING: What type of medium was used for this painting?
Salma: I use a type of water colour paint, St Petersburg White Nights, as they can be very translucent or very opaque, they lend themselves well to being built up in fine layers and are very intense and luminous pigments. The paints let me work in washes and put in very intricate detail that can be either brought forward of faded back. I use 300gsm (140lb) rough water colour paper and a range of sable and synthetic brushes.
ArtSHIFTING: Do you work in other mediums?
Salma: I also work in pencil, pen and ink and have worked with acrylics on canvas.
ArtSHIFTING: What are your paintings about?
Salma: Much of my work uses the hybrid and the ‘grotesque’/fantastical/imaginary and ornamental forms. My theoretical dissertation also explored this group of intricately related forms as being transgressive, disrupting boundaries and not allowing fixed ideas about ourselves, our bodies and identities. These forms allow transformation, ambiguity, flux. They are both concepts and visual forms that are shifting, not absolutes. They incorporate paradox and contradiction.
I am also interested in relationships between a physical/material world and a non-material/spiritual/emotional one, and how we are hybrids of these worlds. Our consciousness is in and via the material body and extends into objects (like musical instruments) beyond our actual body. I am interested in how the imaginative ‘mind world’ extends out into a supposedly separate and ‘real’ world, transforming and altering our perceptions.
The musical instrument painting is about a body that is both physical and non-physical. It is about how emotions, thoughts, ideas, feelings, spiritual experiences, that are all so intangible, are yet inseparable from our tangible and material bodies. In this work I explored the idea that our bodies are metaphors of the musical instrument and that musical instruments are also like embodied presences. Many of the old instruments in the museum I looked at suggest bodies and have carved heads. The intricate rose part of the musical instrument and its strings suggest bodily elements. They are like vocal chords or nerves, or maybe strange complex sphincters or valves, that mediate between some secret inner ‘empty’ space inside us (like the space inside the instrument) and an outer world. Music/emotions/creativity/song/things hard to describe, emerge from this inexplicable ‘empty’ space and alter our perceptions and transform us.
I studied science, medicine and pharmacology for my first degree, and think this feeds into to my work. I find of particular interest the notions in Western thought, of a separation of the body/mind or body/spirit, art/science, hand/mind, art/craft and so forth. So I explore these relationships. I am also interested in synaesthesia and overlap of the different senses. For example, when I listen to music I see/feel substances that are like fabrics or patterns that are like a kind of lace or embroidery. Non physical experience manifest as material.
ArtSHIFTING: What training have you received?
Salma: I am self taught and have built my techniques and skills slowly over many years. I spent many hours drawing plants and natural forms while living in Africa and in the Botanical gardens in Oxford and think these organic and natural forms are the basis of the forms in my work. I have recently completed a Masters of Arts in Art History which has enhanced my conceptual thinking and the contextualization of my work.
ArtSHIFTING: How did the training influence you?
Salma: Although the training in the Masters was theoretical, my creative process involves a strong relationship between images, words and ideas. Postgraduate study enabled me to more fully understand what my work is, and in what ways it carries meanings and in what contexts it might be understood. It has helped to formulate my ideas, and helped me to express myself and my thinking and to communicate this to others. I was always interested in making sets of work accompanied by networks of words or concepts. The philosophical and theoretical aspects feed back into my work in strange and indirect ways that often surprise me, and vice versa.
ArtSHIFTING: How would you describe your creative process?
Salma: My creative process is a strange mixture of looking, dreaming, thinking, drawing, writing and reading. Sometimes a seed of a painting will come from having seen a shape, or from a dream like picture of some indistinct thing in my head, reading a tale or a passage or an idea in a book. All these aspects are interlinked but influence each other in very oblique ways. Words may give me ideas/images that are not related in any direct way. It is very key to then spend a lot of time doodling, sketching and scribbling or just looking inwards or having space.
ArtSHIFTING: What artists have influenced you and your work?
Salma: At an early age I spent a lot of time looking at the work of a female artist, friend of my parents, who lived next door to us in Nigeria. Her work was intricate, complex and mysterious. The shapes she would create were rich, abstract and patterned yet contained with in them naturalistic elements. Faces and houses could be found hidden with the forms.
At home I was surrounded by books about Picasso and Van Gogh, Persian illustrations/illuminations of the life of the Prophet, and African art and carving. I also loved illustrations of fairy tales such as those of Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and Kay Nielsen. I’ve always loved the dreamlike and fantastical quality of these illustrators and their use of nature.
More recently, some of my favourite artists (and therefore I assume they must have some influence over how I think and see) are William Blake (the spiritual, other worldly fire in his work), Samuel Palmer, Kai Fjell, conceptual artists like Cornelia Parker, Joseph Cornell, New World Baroque, Renaissance grotesques. I also spend a lot of time looking at crafts, Islamic ornament, embroidery, folk art and carving. So I think I have a rather strange and multicultural set of influences.
ArtSHIFTING: What role should artists play in society?
Salma: I once heard an African artist explaining how he thought that artists were philosophers, valued members of society who help explain the world, help make meanings, assign and inscribe significance to events and objects in the world, how ever chaotic it might all seem, for the enrichment of his own life and those around him/her.
I very much agree with this view and feel this is what I get out of other artists/writers work and what I would like people to get out of my own work. I think that artists should provide ways to over come cultural and other barriers, to help people see/think/feel in new ways about the world and others they share it with and to challenge conventional thinking, and provide deeper more enriched understandings of what happens to us in our lives.