Widely exhibited and considered one of Cassell’s most important works, Makonde depicts a leaning draped female figure, created with forms, curves and design that stem back to the influences and work of the great sculptural and artistic masters such as Auguste Rodin, Constantin Brâncusi, Barbara Hepworth and Georgia O’Keeffe. Rodin’s Monument to Balzac has been suggested as a direct influence by many. Originally created and intended for the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, the leaning draped figure takes inspiration from the Makonde people of south-east Africa, but Cassell brings her own cultural and personal interpretation to her sculpture. The delight of the statue Makonde is in its joyful and palpable uplift. The angle of the bronze starts somewhat precariously moving at a diagonal angle, but then straightens as the uppermost point reaches to the sky, solid and firm.

The facets and shapes of the sculpture, whether they are geometric, angular or rounded, fit together as a whole and just like a people, sitting on the shoulders of their ancestors, they come together as a multi-faceted totality.

The Makonde people are an ethnic group in southeast Tanzania, northern Mozambique and Kenya known for their wood carvings of household objects, figures and masks for ritual use; primarily made of blackwood. The Makonde successfully resisted predation by African, Arab and European slavers and did not fall under colonial power until the 1920s. After the 1930s, Makonde art became an important part of the contemporary art of Africa. The sale of Makonde carvings supported the revolutionary movement to drive the Portuguese out of Mozambique. The traditional religion of the Makonde is an animistic form of ancestor worship and their carvings reflect their expressions of mythology and spirit-forms with animals often signify the spirit realm. They are famous for their carvings of family trees that depict older generations at the base who support later generations – the family stands on each other shoulders, being uplifted and reaching upwards.

Makonde has been exhibited at:

Het Depot Art Museum, Wageningen, Netherlands; Bradford Museums and Art Galleries; Manchester City Art Gallery, Glyndebourne Opera House, Lewes; One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London; Sculpture in the garden at the Harold Martin Botanical Garden, Leicester.

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About the Artist

Cassell was born in Pakistan, brought up in Lancashire and now lives in Shropshire. She obtained an art-based degree in 1997 and an MA in 2002 and became self-employed in 2004. Growing up, Cassell always loved maths and problem solving and this is evident in her work as she maps flat, geometrical designs onto curvilinear surfaces giving it shape and mass. Cassell’s work utilises definite lines and dramatic angles to manifest the universal language of number and create a dynamic sense of movement. To achieve these effects she uses thick, heavy surfaces or solid forms to carve to the desired depth. Cassell concentrates on simple forms as the basis of her work which maximises the impact of the complex surface patterns in combination with heavily contrasting contours, and she creates depth through both carving and the effect of light and shadow.

Cassell’s multi-cultural background directs her work which displays her love of recurrent patterns and strong geometric elements inspired by the repetitive motifs found in Islamic architecture and North African surface design. Her work has distinctive and vibrant links with nature – from the strong pattern of the petals of a sunflower or lotus and the fractiles of a snowflake. Growing up in Manchester, Cassell was fascinated by the architecture of the city, with the hand-carved facets on buildings which collect rainwater and shadows. Other elements influence Cassell’s work: she spent four pivotal months in Italy which introduced stone into her work and she spent time in Japan working in clay which gave her a new element of control and an appreciation for distorted forms which loosened her understanding of design.

Cassell learnt to carve with both hands and she finds that this physical approach helps her connect with her work and create perfect geometry as she creates the compelling drama and playful dynamism that characterises her work. While she designs her pieces she connects to her subconscious and then enters a kind of therapeutic, dream-state while she carves.

‘These all-embracing obsessions of bringing into being the poetry of faceted forms are her creations. They are buried in layers of forgotten history, like subcutaneous memories waiting to be plumbed; like the ocean deep they float in darkness waiting to be revealed by the light. Halima carves out parts of her history, an exorcism of thought forms, a compulsion to make manifest the intangible, transmuting it into something hard and permanent. Like life, everything begins with the energy of a thought.’ (David Coggins)

Cassell’s works are held in many public collections in the UK including the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

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