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Ceramicist Ashraf Hanna talks to us about the painstaking process behind his undulating – and utterly perfect – pots.
25th November 2017

Crafts Council: Q&A with Ashraf Hanna

Born in Egypt but based in Pembrokeshire for the past 17 years, ceramicist Ashraf Hanna makes shin-high pots from undulating waves of clay, which give a sense of movement and lightness. These voluptuous vessels will be exhibited at the Craft Council and The New Craftsmen's showcase British Craft: The Miami Edit, coinciding with Design Miami in December, and at Collect, the UK’s most influential contemporary craft fair, at the Saatchi Gallery in February 2018.

“For me making is a passion and an important part in forming my identity,” says ceramicist Ashraf Hanna. Born in Egypt to a creative family, Ashraf has been making things since early childhood. His surrounding environment – whether the traditional pottery of his native land or the colour palette of the Welsh landscape – has long been an inspiration. “My early formative years growing up in Egypt were hugely significant in shaping my sense of form and what I now find pleasing as a maker,” he says. “There was something poetic about witnessing the stillness of those strong lines of ancient Egyptian architecture set against the ever-changing undulating dunes of a vast desert.”

This sense of movement is visible in a series of pots with rigid geometric bases that swell into fluid, organic shapes as they reach their rims – almost like fabric blowing in the wind. In some of his vessels, Ashraf has cut through the smooth lines with perfectly straight interjections, adding pops of colour to his normally earthy palette. Given the perfect surfaces of his hand-built pieces, we were curious to find out more about Ashraf’s making process. Here we quiz him about his technique, how Wales and Egypt inspire his work and his experiments with a new material – glass.

Based in Pembrokeshire, Ashraf Hanna is an Egyptian-born designer/maker who works in both ceramics and glass.

Tell us about what you will be exhibiting at British Craft: The Miami Edit…

I shall be showing a group of five undulating vessels exploring form and movement through juxtaposed geometric and curvaceous, fluid lines.

You’re also exhibiting at Collect with Cavaliero Finn gallery, what are you most looking forward to about the show?

It is always wonderful to go back to Collect, a gathering that celebrates objects and material. As a maker, I am always inspired when I visit. It has over the years become the flagship event for Craft in the UK and Europe, showing the best and the most innovative works in an amazing setting which provides makers and galleries with an excellent platform to raise the level of their creative ambition. I shall be making an installation from the petrified forest series as well as a group of voluminous vessels.

You moved to London in the early nineties to study Theatre Design at Central Saint Martins. What prompted you to switch from props to pots?

I met my wife Sue (who is a sculptor and a maker herself) in 1996 shortly after finishing my theatre design course, she invited me to her studio in East London for an open studio event and taught me how to hand build (coil) my first ever pot. I was totally seduced by the material and I soon realised that I have found the perfect vehicle to channel my creativity.

What drives you to make?

I have always made something! As a child, I grew up in a creative household – my father was a painter and my mother often made us toys and we were always taught to make the most of whatever resources we had. I never really had to think about why I made objects, I never stopped making from early childhood. This might explain why I consider myself an intuitive maker; it makes me happy to explore material and its properties and how that can form design and the creative process. For me making is a passion and an important part in forming my identity.

Walk us through making one of your pots… what materials and techniques do you use?

The starting point is always a sketch, a scribble or a doodle on my desk. These sketches are part of the making process. Once I have my starting point I take a lump of clay, place it either in my lap or on the whirler depending on the shape I am trying to make. I always start by pinching the base, opening up the clay to form the base. The form is then developed using soft slabs, modelling takes place as I build up. When the work is leather hard. I start refining with various metal scrappers. After the biscuit firing the forms are further refined with diamond pads until I am satisfied with the various profiles and edges. Final treatment is multiple firings between the layering of very fine coloured slips known as Terra Sigillata, this is applied by spraying very fine layers, building up colour and depth.

The 10 makers selected for British Craft – The Miami Edit have been selected from hundreds of submissions by the Crafts Council, and The New Craftsmen.

How do you think your Egyptian heritage affects your ceramics? And what about your current home in Pembrokeshire?

Early formative years growing up in Egypt were hugely significant in shaping my sense of form and what I now find pleasing as a maker. I have memories of trips to Tell el-Amarna, where the Pharaoh Akhenaten established his capital city. There was something poetic about witnessing the stillness of those strong lines of ancient Egyptian architecture set against the ever-changing undulating dunes of a vast desert.

In my immediate environment, I was surrounded by wonderful terracotta urns and storage jars, classic simple forms that have changed little since ancient times. Their lines and shapes seeping into the subconscious. Later on, as an art student in Egypt I started to consciously observe and scrutinise those forms during still life drawing classes, developing an understanding of the significance of profile and volume, engaging with them as objects worthy of contemplation in their own right regardless of functionality.

Those early years in one’s native country do leave an indelible mark on the psyche, forming the core of one’s identity on a visceral level. While we may not always make work that bears a direct relationship to our native homeland, the influences are there, deeply rooted in the subconscious informing concepts and aesthetics.

Creative identity is now more than ever a multi-layered and complex issue, increasingly, artists are responding to a world cultural heritage, travel as well as exposure to a constant feed of rich imagery through social media platforms have broadened their source of inspiration. Having lived in the UK for almost 30 years, I now owe a great deal in my creative development to my new environment first London and for the last 17 years wonderful Pembrokeshire, which I now call home. The seascape, shades of blues, greys of pebbles of local storm beaches have influenced different pieces of work. I observe the dense forests, the rolling valleys, splashes of yellow and intense greens find their way in to my colour palette too.

This December, British Craft – The Miami Edit will take 10 rising stars of making in the UK, including Asraf Hanna, to Miami

You’ve written that drawing is a big part of your practice – can you explain how it influences your approach?

As I mentioned before, drawing has always been something that I enjoyed and in my current work it  is the first step in visualising my idea, when I doodle, I often look at my drawing and see lines that inform other possibilities.

You’ve recently started working with glass as well – does having skills in one craft translate to the other? And if you had to pick, which would come up on top (and why)?  

I am interested in the concept of ‘material dialogue’ – how the inherent qualities of different materials can inform and influence the aesthetics of design. Some skills are transferable for instance, I model and sculpt my glass forms first in clay before a refractory mould is made of it, this is then used to cast the work in glass. Also, there are some stages in the refining process that are similar but ultimately one has to acquire new skills all the time.

I am a primarily a ceramist with interest in other materials, so clay has always been my first love and I will always work with clay, but my work in glass has been well received, winning the British Glass Biennale and then Emerge award in the USA for the crossover category, so I have enough encouragement to continue exploring this medium as and when I get the opportunity.

Ceramics by Asraf Hanna

What’s next for you after the show?

I am looking forward to a busy year ahead, amongst others, London Art Fair, Collect, Ceramic Art London and a glass residency.

To find out more about Collect, check out this interview with Crafts Council Executive Director Rosy Greenlees here.

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