Making Space:Sensing Place

In October 2009, along with artist Thurle Wright, I was awarded a Making Space:Sensing Place Fellowship; part of the HAT: Here and There International Exchange Programme, managed by A Fine Line:Cultural Practice. The Fellowship includes residencies with Britto Arts in Dhaka, Bangladesh, with Arts Reverie in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, with The V&A Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green, London and with The Harley Gallery, Nottinghamshire. Working and collaborating with artists and craftspeople from the UK, Bangladesh and India, responding to the collections and spaces we encounter and sharing these experiences through a touring exhibition and educational workshops.

This blog, which is still developing and being added to, is a record of my experiences during the MS:SP Fellowship. Steven Follen.

Monday, 15 February 2010


The notion of collaboration between artists is sometimes perceived along the lines of two paint brushes and one canvas. Today was the realisation of a different type of collaboration. The last two weeks have been about personal discoveries and contextualisation, but also about sharing experience and ones enjoyment in visual things to do with materials, ideas and process.
l've seen a selection of artisans and craftspeople from across Dhaka and the sourrounding areas, not all of them, but the ones that are important to Britto artists and their working practice. I haven't been taken to the national monuments nor other regular tourist attractions, Instead I have been shown what makes the Britto artists tick and what they enjoy about Bangladesh and Dhaka, a very personal sense of place. Today was about a shared experience fueled by a interest in the craft of making, a respect for craft workers and their skills at working with materials.
Initially Riaz and I went to the Shilpakala Academy, where he is setting up a conservation centre, a research workshop for the restoration of paintings. The plan for the rest of the day was to look at the countryside outside of Dhaka, to see more of the wonderful forms of the brick kiln chimneys and to see and learn a bit more of the brick fields, to see the preparation and drying of rice and maybe some more workshops, to see how makers make a living in Bangladesh. 
We headed out towards Dhamrai and turned off the main road when we spotted a chimney . Riaz asked the owner if it was ok for us to have a look around, he agreed and we began a journey of discovery that was more than either of us had expected. We got lost in the process of brick making and firing. The sounds and the rhythm of the work, the patterns, the processes. I came away with an high regard for the skill, hard work and team work involved in making bricks.
I had seen images of the brick fields by Ayesha Vellani in an exhibition of photography at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London. I had also caught glimpses of them on the flight as we came into land at Dhaka and on the earlier trip to see the metal casting at Dhamrai.
I liked the forms, they reminded me of the gently tapering curves of my early vessels, and of the chimneys of the London Brick Company near Eye in East Anglia, near to where I grew up.

In Dhaka and the villages I had visited I was drawn to the names embossed into the bricks. Many are named after the owners of the brick fields, some after their children, others have just a number. Some have a humour that may not have been intended. Some have a deeper reasonance, in a country where many live in extreme poverty, are illiterate, don't have homes nor own the soil beneath their feet.

We saw the process form blending and mixing the clay.

Watch: Brick making in Bangladesh - Clay making
Watch: Brick making in Bangladesh - Blending the clay.
(The clay blending was recorded later in the day, at a brick field, between Dhamrai and Dhaka).

Much of the work is seasonal with parts of the country flooded during the wet season.

I was drawn to the rhythm of working, the sound and co-ordination between the workers.
Watch: Brick making in Bangladesh - Brick making 01
Watch: Brick making in Bangladesh - Brick making 02

As the bricks dry they are turned on their side and then later stacked, again the visual rhythm and pattern was of interest.
When dry, the bricks are transfered on cycle-rickshaws to the kiln to be stacked and fired.

The kiln is shaped like a walled oval track with the chimney in the centre accessed through a vented wall in the middle( known as a 'Bull's Trench Kiln' with a fixed position chimney).

Through the use of sheet steel shutters, the kiln can be constantly firing, working in a rotation around the central chamber and the chimney.

The leading face is packed with fresh bricks, the central section is firing whilst the rear is being unpacked. There are 14 walls or lines of bricks, each section contains 3,400 bricks.
The top of the kiln is sealed with a thick layer of fired clay and brick dust to insulate and retain the heat.The men fill the baskets from a central pile then drag them and pour the mix over the stacks of unfired bricks.
Watch: Brick making in Bangladesh - Sealing the kiln
A perforated wall with vents is placed after every 4 lines of bricks to allow for the feeding of the fire.

Watch: Brick making in Bangladesh - Feeding the fire

The boy that fed the fire wore thick cork soled shoes to protect his feet from the heat.Coke and wood are used to fire the kilns.

The kilns are unpacked by hand, stacks of ten sometimes twelve bricks are piled on the mens heads and carried 40-50 metres before unpacking into piles or directly onto a waiting lorry. 

Watch: Brick making in Bangladesh - Unpacking the Kiln 01
Watch: Brick making in Bangladesh - Unpacking the Kiln 02

Limited natural rock resources results in a use for the bricks damaged during the making and firing process. They are crushed by hand using a hammer to form graded aggregates - small chippings of different sizes which are used in concrete,or as a base for roads.

Improvised gloves are used to protect the fingers, the workers sit on the pile of bricks, protected from the sun by an sun screen.