Obituary: Shireen Akbar
Tuesday 01 April 1997
She was at home in three cities - London, Dhaka and Calcutta - and in three languages: Bengali, English and Urdu. She revelled in her internationalism and the cultural fusion which she fostered. Her life and work was a celebration of the richness of South Asian - especially Bengali - art and culture, not as a pure and closed form but interacting with, changing and being changed by, other cultures.
She was born Shireen Hasib, in Calcutta, a member of the cultured Bengali Muslim family which also produced Begum Rokeya Hussain (1880-1923), a pioneering writer and worker for women's emancipation in Bengal. Rokeya's legacy under-pinned Shireen's fierce commitment to justice and to women. In 1957 the family moved to East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, where Shireen completed her MA and taught at the University of Dhaka until she came to Britain in 1968 to study English at Cambridge.
After teaching in schools and adult education Akbar was employed by the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) youth service in 1978 as a youth and community worker with Bengali girls and young women in Tower Hamlets, where her vision and powers of alchemy have made perhaps the most lasting impact.
Her highly original and innovative approach to the work led her to develop a focus on arts and a series of increasingly ambitious collaborative ventures linking the Asian community with the British art world. The first of these was an embroidery project through which groups of girls created glorious embroidered banners of the Bengali alphabet, displayed in the Whitechapel Gallery, in east London, early in 1979.
Recognising that in a racist climate the cultural heritage of the East End's growing South Asian community was being undervalued, Akbar established a learning resource for ILEA schools. Travelling to remote villages in India and Bangladesh she purchased a remarkable collection of traditional household items and toys from rural markets and craftspeople. The artefacts inspired pottery and other art work by children of all ethnic backgrounds in Tower Hamlets schools and led to an exhibition at the Commonwealth Institute in 1983.
Akbar worked closely with the Whitechapel Gallery in 1979 to mount an "Arts of Bengal" exhibition which gave a new perspective to the presence of the migrant community from Bangladesh. In 1988 she created "Woven Air", the exhibition at the Whitechapel of woven and embroidered textiles from Bangladesh. "Woven Air" both celebrated the ancient traditions of Jamdani muslin weaving and Naksha Kantha (traditional quilts) embroidery and brought them up to date with the presence in the gallery of working weavers from Bangladesh.
As well as working with curators and collectors around the world to create this exhibition, Akbar ensured that local children gained as much as possible from their introduction to the arts of Bangladesh. A book of poems, Kanthas in My Head (1988), produced by children from a local primary school showed how the embroideries had inspired them with love and respect both for their parents' homeland and for their mothers' crafts.
Alongside the Whitechapel exhibition Akbar arranged a selling exhibition at Liberty's, enabling the work of the women's co-operative with she was involved in Bangladesh to gain international recognition and thus more women to become self-sufficient.
The next great adventure was "Traffic Art", an exhibition of rickshaw paintings at the Museum of Mankind in 1988. The streets of Bangladesh's capital Dhaka, although choking under traffic fumes, are a mobile gallery of naive art. The city's rickshaws are decorated with richly inventive paintings: tigers and jackals in scenes of political allegory; reflections of globalisation from Tower Bridge to Manhattan; rural idylls and film fantasies. In 1994 the exhibition travelled to Fukuoka Art Museum in Japan, where Shireen Akbar acted as guest curator.
In 1991 Akbar was appointed by the Victoria and Albert Museum as South Asian Arts Education Officer, working to build links between the museum's Nehru Gallery and Britain's South Asian communities. Joining the museum in the week of a devastating cyclone which killed thousands of delta dwellers in Bangladesh, she made an instant impact by organising an evening sitar concert to fund a cyclone shelter. On this occasion, as in so many of the gatherings she organised, she created an atmosphere of enchantment.
Shireen Akbar was a beautiful woman who loved to dress well, making the most of the textiles with which she worked and enjoying dramatic jewellery. Her fragile beauty never hid the fire within her, whose sparks inspired and sometimes alarmed those around her. She had autocratic charm which she used to great effect to bring her extraordinary dreams into reality.
When her marriage ended Akbar undertook the painful but creative process of building a new life, sustained by the support of her daughter and her many loving friends around the world. This journey was interrupted when she developed breast cancer in early 1994. With characteristic courage she spoke of her experience in Bengali newspapers and television, determined to increase Asian women's awareness of breast cancer and treatments and break the stigma of "women's cancer". She fought hard to recover and was full of life and wit, projects and plans.
The last of Shireen Akbar's magical achievements, the Mughal Tent project, brought together all the strands of her life: her passions for Indian art and cultural synthesis; her commitment to women; her determination to achieve the seemingly impossible and her ability to break boundaries. The exquisite panels which will form the tent have been embroidered by women's groups from Tower Hamlets to Somerset, Madras to South Africa. Many have been created by groups of South Asian women with whom Shireen Akbar worked at the museum, most of whom had never entered such a place before. Akbar inspired them to see the relevance of the Nehru Gallery's collection of South Asian art and artefacts to their own lives and identities and to create their own richly worked and beautiful pieces in response. The result is a unique celebration of women, life and creativity.
Caroline Adams and Annie Rae
Shireen Nishat Hasib, educationist: born Calcutta 30 July 1944; married 1968 Anwar Akbar (one daughter; marriage dissolved); died London 7 March 1997.
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