Inspired by the stories of the generations that came before her, Nilupa Yasmin’s first exhibition at MAC Birmingham combines the historic practice of weaving with archival family photographs to create beautifully handcrafted works of art. 

Nilupa’s new piece, Tera- A Star, celebrates the life of her Bibi - her paternal grandmother - and has been commissioned by Here And Now, a national project uniting 40 arts centres across the country in a celebration of culture within communities. Tera- A Star will be exhibited at Midlands Arts Centre (MAC) alongside two of Nilupa’s previous bodies of work: Grow Me A Waterlily - a series of self-portraits exploring her own identity - and Shekah, which delves into her lost family history in weaving, using images of her mother. The three pieces of work come together to tell the story of three generations of the artist’s family.

Much of Nilupa’s work studies notions of culture and anthropology, and she explores her own identity through gender, religion and her British-Bangladeshi heritage. The practice of weaving is an integral part of this, but it also links to the storytelling that runs throughout the work she produces.

“I first began weaving as part of a project for my BA, when I was studying in Coventry,” Nilupa explains. “I was working in Foleshill, which is an area in Coventry where the weaving industry thrived. But I was also interested in Foleshill because it’s a place that is heavily migrated. After the Second World War, a lot of the people who migrated to Coventry were placed there. So it wasn’t just a project about weaving, it was looking at migration, too.

“Towards the end of that project, I was weaving one day at home and my mum mentioned that my great-grandmother was a weaver in Bangladesh - she used to weave utilitarian objects and make a living out of them. So weaving connects to my own personal background, but also my interest in the arts and history.”

Preserving stories around heritage and culture is important to Nilupa and to her work, and has influenced her decision to share her own family histories with a wider audience: “In Britain, we’re a community of people that come from all over the world, and I’ve found that telling these stories can show people that they’re not alone in feeling, for example, too Asian to be in one community or too British to be in another. It’s about trying to make these stories relate to people who feel like it represents them.

“A lot of stories about heritage and culture are dying out with the generations that are much older than us. I think it’s so important to cast a light on these stories because if we don’t do it, who will?”

The importance of celebrating the lives of older generations takes centre stage in Nilupa’s newest piece. Tera- A Star combines storytelling with an exploration of the grieving process by retracing parts of the life of her Bibi, who passed away in January 2020. 

“I lived with my grandmother my whole life, and she was a very prominent figure in our family. There are a lot of things in my day-to-day life that I relate to her - like the different kind of saris she’d wear - and they’ve been implemented into the exhibition, too.

“When I first began working on the piece at MAC, it was about trying to get her involved in the arts, as well as getting her out of the house a bit more.”

Around the same time as Nilupa first began the project, she was working closely with MAC’s Culture Club, a monthly arts gathering for people aged 65 and over. Originally, her exhibition was intended to involve making work with the Culture Club members, but owing to Covid restrictions, things didn’t quite turn out that way.

“I had only just started working with the Culture Club, where we were having all these conversations about weaving and about gender roles and identity, when my grandmother passed away. So I took a bit of time off, but when I did get back into making work again, it was lockdown. A lot of the members were vulnerable or shielding, so there was no way to try and get around to doing something with them.

“At that point, I went back to the drawing board and I realised I wanted to do something about ageing. But because I had to make the work on my own, I turned the lens back on my grandmother and used it as a way of grieving.
“I never intended the work to be so universal, but after the year we’ve had it’s not just talking about losing a grandparent anymore, and for that very reason I think this work is going to be quite relatable to many people.”

Creating work that relates to people across the country is an integral part of the Here And Now project, which has commissioned Nilupa’s newest piece. The national initiative aims to celebrate culture within communities through a variety of art forms - including exhibitions, films, theatre and music - and in so doing build a picture of modern Britain.

Each project tells the story of the place and the people, and Here And Now promises to be the most representative large-scale art project ever seen in England, recruiting people from a diverse range of backgrounds. Nilupa hopes her piece represents communities in Birmingham, and further afield, by drawing upon both her South Asian heritage and her position as a British Bangladeshi Muslim woman.

“Because I make work that deals with identity and culture, I get a lot of comments from people who say how nice it is to see people who look like them up on a wall, or to see someone with a name like theirs making art. I’m hoping that many people who are South Asian or Bangladeshi will walk into that space.”

Tera- A Star fuses cultural identity with gender politics, set within personal stories of loss and belonging. While there are lots of elements to unpack in this exhibition, Nilupa is confident that it’s a piece with which every audience member will be able to connect: “What I really hope people will take away from this exhibition is that there’s no standard way of grieving. Everyone’s coping mechanism is different, and that’s something that’s very prevalent in this work and something that I want people to understand.

“Everything ties in together with this project, so I think each person who visits will be able to take something from it. Even if it’s not from the piece commissioned by Here And Now, there’s something to take away from the previous works that are on display as well.”

Though her involvement in the national project is a big achievement for Nilupa, she is perhaps more delighted at the prospect of her work being housed in a venue right on her doorstep: “I’ve visited MAC since I was a child, and it’s a place that my family are familiar with. I’m the only person in the arts in my family, and although they’re very supportive of my practice, they don’t necessarily understand it. Having an exhibition in a place they all know is quite a big deal. This is my first solo show in Birmingham - my home city - so the experience has been really fulfilling. I’ve had a lot of support from the venue, and being able to have my artistic voice heard there has been so uplifting.”

Nilupa Yasmin: Tera-A Star তেরা shows at Midlands Arts Centre (MAC), Birmingham, until Sunday 7 November. For further information on Yasmin’s work, visit nilupayasmin.com