Fatema rolls thin strips of coloured manila
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The East African

Saturday June 24 2017

Fatema’s turning point in her artistic journey happened some years ago when the late Dr Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, the spiritual leader of the Bohra, visited Kenya.

Fatema Qureish has enjoyed art since childhood but never imagined that one day she would be the leading paper artist in Kenya.

It was during a visit to Dubai in 2004 that she first came across elegant artwork made from paper. “I was fascinated by its exquisiteness,” she says.

Consequently, she enrolled at an art institute in Mumbai, India, and learned different forms of artistry, including paper quilling.

Paper quilling or paper filigree is the art of rolling thin strips of paper into circular shapes that are glued together to make decorative patterns, ornamental artwork and functional pieces.

The craft originated in Europe among religious communities during the Renaissance period where it was used to decorate books and sacred items. It then became a popular pastime with upper class women before being employed as a decorative technique on furniture and high-value accessories. As a Dawoodi Bohra Muslim, a sect that places great emphasis on traditional family values, she credits her artistic growth to the community’s strong support of women’s empowerment.

The turning point in her artistic journey happened some years ago when the late Dr Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, the spiritual leader of the Bohra, visited Kenya. “Being a proud mwananchi, I impulsively made a paper art piece of the Kenyan national flag,” says Fatema. “His Holiness admired it and encouraged me with a prayer.”

Ten years later, she is now a professional art sculptor producing diverse decorative pieces, paper drawings and three-dimensional items such as jewellery boxes, flower vases and tissue box holders.

Working in her home studio, Fatema rolls thin strips of coloured manila paper rapidly with a special metal quilling tool that has a slit on the top. Depending on the finger pressure exerted during rolling, one can produce loose or tight coils.

Using two fingers, Fatema then moulds the round coils into different shapes such as tear drops, diamonds, squares, eye shape, leaf shapes and more.

She makes it look very easy but depending on the complexity of the item, it can take her anywhere from a few days to several weeks to produce one piece.

I found her artworks based on the natural world particularly interesting. On one wall is a golden-orange quilled beehive on a branch with realistic paper bees fluttering around.

Around a wooden window frame, Fatema has hung a trail of green paper vines with red cherry fruits. Striking orange and gold paper butterflies adorn some ornamental birdcages. These and many others of her creations allow one to enjoy nature indoors.

Fatema also creates flat designs on canvas fabrics or on greeting cards. “I also create custom-made items,” she said, showing me a business desk organiser. The materials she uses can all be obtained locally.

She makes some of the conceptual art pieces to create awareness on social and economic issues. On a low table is a paper sculpture of a tiffin — a stainless steel container originating in India used to deliver freshly cooked food. “I have made it to symbolise the importance of food security, which is a basic human right and one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals,” she explained.

Fatema is sharing her creativity by teaching art classes to pupils in low-income schools where there is little or no exposure to art. “The students are amazed to see their own creations and deserve to explore their creativity,” says Fatema.

“Paper quilling also improves hand-eye co-ordination and helps strengthen motor skills in all ages,”

She also offers paper quilling and painting workshops for art teachers who want to learn different forms of creativity, or people looking to learn new skills.

Fatema believes that art is psychologically soothing. “It channels unexpressed energies and releases anxiety,” she says, adding that some of her adult students are now selling their items and making money.

Her artwork has been shown at different exhibitions and her showcase art pieces are displayed at art galleries. Her quilling business website Amathus Arts, has sample of her work. She also shows her work through social media.