The eternal river: a fabric and glass installation tackles migration, memory and loss

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Following an exhibition at the Fabrica Gallery in Brighton earlier this year Stephen Iliffe interviewed Omeima Rowlings to discover the background to her innovative experiments to combine fabrics and glass to stunning effect in a bold installation that dissolves artistic boundaries: ‘A River Runs Through’, an Unlimited (adminstered by Shape and Artsadmin) R&D commission.

Two portraits of Omeima Rowlings and Mike Barret side by side

Omeima Rowlings and Mike Barrett. Image © Stephen Illiffe

“I weave these elaborate textiles,” smiles Omeima Mudawi-Rowlings, “only to watch Mike dissolve them between two layers of hot molten glass until there’s hardly a trace of my work left to see!”

Installation shot of a River Runs ThroughHer collaborator Mike Barrett nods: “We call these ‘flying carpet sandwiches'” he laughs. “I heat the glass to 1100 Centigrade and watch Omeima’s handiwork disintegrate into flames.”

So, delicate cottons meet white-hot liquid glass. Why’s that? The answer lies in Omeima’s childhood memories.

“I was born hearing but went deaf aged four,” says Omeima. “I grew up by the River Nile in Khartoum, Sudan and then the middle east. I went to school in England. My family has Arabic roots but I’m British too. It’s been a very, very long journey to find myself. Like a river with unexpected twists and turns…”

The latest twist brings us to Brighton’s Fabrica where Omeima and Mike are staging a joint installation. As I walk into the converted-church arts venue, the initial impact of River Runs Through is sensuous yet mysterious.

Gentle Arabic music tints the atmosphere – violin and flute. A looped video projection of the River Nile flickers on the walls. And then three exhibits – linked by multi-coloured fibre-glass strings that rise and fall like the cables on a suspension bridge.

As with all good audio-visual installations, one first has to stop, listen and stare. It tickles your curiosity but doesn’t instantly offer its secrets on plate.

A little context helps: The first exhibit (below left) by Omeima turns out to be a laminated panel that seals multiple layers of opaque and transparent fabrics. A rich fusion of east-west colours and textures. The warm violets and earthy browns of her Sudanese childhood, the cooler shades of England’s south coast. Under soft light falling from the Victorian church’s skylights, Islam’s embossed golden crescent shines out. “I’m deaf, a woman, British, a Muslim,” explains Omeima. “All these different identities link together here.”

Just below this panel, another fabric (above right) flows like river of liquid blues and greens, encrusted in foam-specked greys. The Nile, as it were, tumbling to the wooden floorboards, decked with fishing lines and weights.

Onto the second exhibit (above), a rectangular grid of Mike’s glass tiles. As I walk around it, the tiles dance and shimmer with Omeima’s delicate brushstrokes – pigments and dyes worked onto the glass in various states of cooling back to solid state.

Omiema Rowlings rests on her artwork

For such a bald exhibit, Omeima’s story gives it a powerful emotional undercurrent. It echoes her Sudanese pilgrimage last year as part of research and development for the project. “When I arrived, the old Khartoum seemed to have disappeared. I couldn’t recognise it… New roads, new buildings. Favourite places seemed to have disappeared. Everything’s moved, there’s roads everywhere. New junctions, new bridges.”

Close up of glass artwork“But when I was on the boat on the Nile, that’s still the same… Lots of people walking past the river. Families, friends, neighbours, picnics… The most massive orange sunset on the water which feels so close, that’s the same. It’s a very powerful thing to know that has not changed. The tiles celebrate Nile as an eternal presence, a permanent life force”.

“After your return from Khartoum, we began talking about what you’ve learned from your travels,” says Mike to Omeima during a Q&A session hosted by Fabrica’s director Liz Whitehead. “We discussed how we could feed all this into our fabric n’ glass mash ups”.

The third exhibit is perhaps the most ground-breaking one. If Mike is destroyer to Omeima’s creator, the effect is sublime. As the glass slowly cools, Mike deftly shapes it into surging waves that melt the fabrics into inky blotches of sky blue, indigo, crimsons, sandy browns. Or colours evaporate leaving barely perceptible imprints – like a fossil of a sea anemone with only a shape or texture to indicate where it used to exist.

The result is an utterly gorgeous series of wave-like slabs of glass (examples above) that ooze with subtle inky colours. The glass still and frozen, yet full of movement – roaring and twisting currents. I could almost ‘hear’ the Nile, almost place my hand inside and feel the water through my fingers.

Side on shot of glass artwork

Throughout the project, Mike plays a vital and empathetic role in uncorking Omeima’s emotions: “Glass was the right material,” he says, “because it reflects and mimics the quality of water. And when it traps the fabrics within it, it also captures Omeima’s memories too”.

“We had to experiment a lot,” says Omeima, “and try out different temperatures and materials and processes. There was a lot of trial and error. But the wonderful thing about the hot glass is how the fabric catches fire and when we swept up the ashes, they made me feel as if I was wiping away old Khartoum. It had disappeared but still left traces behind in my memories.”

As with any installation, how much you get out of it, as a visitor, is proportionate to how much you put in. I noticed a few puzzled-looking folk ambling in off the local shopping street and 15 seconds later heading for the exit. But mostly, people lingered to savour the experience, ask Omeima and Mike questions, take mobile shots.

I enjoyed my hour walking around the exhibits. Seeing how the colours and reflections changed as the sun played hide and seek with the clouds outside. In the same way that a river’s surface appearance is continually evolving with the ambient weather.

Like all great artworks, the power of River Runs Through is both specific and universal. Yes, it tells Omeima’s story, but it’s also a river that runs through our own lives too: the past and present: the river of time, of memory, migration and loss. A process of transforming that loss into something new and unique. Something lost, something gained. We can all relate to that.

Ultimately, Omeima and Mike have created something special here. As Liz Whitehead (below left) reflects: “When artists work alone, they have a singular vision. ‘I know what I want and how to achieve it’. When two artists combine, each has to be open to new processes, new outputs, to experiment, make mistakes, accept chance elements and intermittent failures on the road to success.”

In doing so, the best artist collaborations (be it Lennon/McCartney or whoever) alchemise something unique that neither artist on their own could realise. And that is the extraordinary achievement of River Runs Through.

Long may this river flow…