‘The act of doing the art itself’
Nouveaux sit with unorthodox artist, Mo Rana, for an afternoon tea to discuss art, life, family and inspiration.
Within one of London’s many artistic districts, artist Mo Rana, 48, welcomes me to his vast studio/home situated in the heart of Dalston.
A joyous character, Rana immediately offers me a soothing cup of green tea; what will prove essential on a brisk Thursday afternoon in the capital.
Overwhelmed and simply in awe of his spacious studio-home, Rana observes as I stand captivated by his gigantic paintings. Just before I get the chance to ask him about his work, the Wolverhampton-born artist tells me the collection he’s currently working on is “completely made from graphite.”
Retreating to his oak-plank work desk, Rana, almost lost in thought, begins – rather excitedly – to tell me the story behind his graphite-based collection. “I wanted to tell a different story. My work has always been monochromatic and linear”, he says, wiggling back and forth on his swivel chair somewhat childlike.
“So in the sense that it’s not interested in narrative, colour or form – that’s never really interested me.”
Upon arrival, it is quite evident that Rana enjoys (to say the least) what he does. Introducing the topic of occupation; full of charisma he leans back, as though ready to indulge an audience on a story worthwhile hearing.
“I’m an artist. I graduated from [Central] Saint Martins in 1989 and I’ve been practising [art] ever since then”, he says. There’s a spring in Rana’s tone when speaking. It is almost as if there is an undying joy inside him, which is then portrayed through his body language and countenance.
Situated a mere five – no more than six – minutes walk from Dalston Junction station, Rana’s studio-at-day, home-at-night workspace was one of the first chapels built in the borough of Hackney.
“When I bought this space it was a chapel turned community centre”, Rana says, building up to the next chapter of his anecdote. “I was first taken away by the beauty of its size and it seemed ideal for my work particularly because of its height and width.”
Inspiration is essential when it comes to art or anything to do with creativity. While past and present icons inspire some artists, only a few are inspired by the environment around them. Looking around Rana’s studio, it is quite evident that the Central Saint Martins graduate is influenced by his surroundings.
Around the east Londoner’s work desk are various plant pots; it is almost as if you’re lost in a botanical garden. Monitoring the room further, I notice an A to Z road map of London. As I prepare to ask the reason behind this possession, particularly as we live in a digital-age, I recall Rana initially informing me that he doesn’t own a computer nor have an email account. This only more so illustrates his disconnection from the outside world.
Some minutes later and on the verge of asking the important question, what inspires you? Enthusiastic as ever he jilts up as though anticipating my question. Like a barista pleased to serve, Rana grabs my empty cup of tea and asks if I’d like a refill. Going against my tea-drinking ritual, I accept his offer knowing he will come back ready to answer the unavoidable question.
“It’s a rather subjective question you’ve asked”, he says, with an obscure tone while swaggering back to his swivel chair.
As he pours me a round two of Twinings’ green tea, a sudden fright fell upon me. Have I angered this exuberant character that just earlier welcomed me into his wondrous studio-home? Apparently not, as he continues saying “there are so many things outside this room [my studio] that inspire me, which I’m sure filtrate through my work in some way.”
However, there is an obvious mood change as is shown in the immediate transition of his demeanour. Assuming the question has unexpectedly proven to be quite awkward, I attempt to shift the topic of discussion, but determined to provide an answer in its full length, Rana, with a tone somewhat poignant and almost apologetic, says he is still ‘working it all out.’
Following a brief break to tend to some business, the Dalston-based artist returns to his initial mood as the room’s ambiance suddenly feels lighter.
Coming from an Islamic background, Rana doesn’t necessarily correlate the religion to his work nor does he think it has a reflection on his art. Jerking forward on his chair, he begins to give a brief explanation on the notion of religion and an artist’s connection with it.
“God can’t be defined by form”, he says solely. Just before continuing he takes a sip from his teacup, as though what he is about to say requires complete vocal clarity.
“Infinity defines us more than anything like God. So I like that; I like the fact that there is no art in any mosques, just patterns.”
Ubiquitously, art is a thing of sentiment and intense passion – most especially artists’ relationship with their work. Rana appears to be quite indifferent towards the sentiment aspect. With quite a mellow tone he describes it as something that doesn’t tell you what to think or feel. Though in a rather serious manner, he ends saying “In all seriousness, I try to keep religion away from my work.”
They say the greatest sources of inspiration are those who surround you. When it comes to his influences, the West Midlands native admits his family have a ‘profound influence’ on him and inspire him tremendously.
“I lost my father when I was very young; it was a rather horrendous and horrific time”, he says as a grave weight hits his face.
The loss of a family member can have a heavy impact on a person, particularly when you’re the first-born male in a family filled with women, as is the case for Rana.
Stirring his – what would now be cold – tea, Mo rather than Mohamed (as he’s commonly called), speaks of the idea of family as ‘an odd thing.’ As we both sip the last of our green tea, Mo with a lovely smirk on his face, talks about the ‘great connection’ one has with his/her mother – particularly due to the bond developed within the nine months spent in the womb.
Rounding up, Rana reiterates the significance of family as he leans his hand out to offer a goodbye handshake. “I’m all happy for that family connection. I think it’s quite important in society. Family is very important.”
A video interview of Mo Rana can be seen in an episode of Nouveaux’s interview-series, Workspace.
*Last updated: 29/11/2015