What really distinguishes London’s neighbourhoods, Idris? What determines that this is Stoke Newington as opposed to Islington, for example?
IK: I don’t think it’s a social divide. Islington’s a borough that’s definitely become more gentrified, more middle-class. But it wasn’t when I first moved to Islington in 2002. It was very much an area that was changing. Islington was always an area where a lot of writers were, and artists …
The Bloomsbury of the twentieth century.
IK: Yeah. Now house prices have become ridiculous. London Fields has become much more gentrified. Now that’s being pushed more towards Clapton. We always feel that artists actually create an area.
AM: You see pink hair and you know that’s where you want to be.
IK: Kingsland Road really creates the shift between East London and Islington. Kingsland Road was always called Murder Mile, and it’s not any more. Dalston is super-trendy.
Annie, where were you were born in London?
AM: I grew up in Chelsea, which was not like it is now, also. It was always a really beautiful area. There is such history there.
IK: Kings Road, the ’60s, ’70s…
AM: When I was fourteen, maybe even younger, around eleven, I had a stall on Portobello Road with my friend, which was a lot of fun, selling my parents’ stuff, these really nice things … I would say, ‘Oh, you don’t need that and you don’t need that.’ People would bargain me down …
And your dad would come and scream, ‘That was a so-and-so that cost a —
AM: — a fortune!’
Idris, are you a Londoner?
IK: I don’t know what I am, actually. Yeah, I would probably class myself as a Londoner. I mean, I’ve been here twelve years now.
And you were born where?
IK: I was born just outside of Birmingham. There was no real cultural relevance there at all, in terms of art. Annie had everything on her doorstop. I’m not talking about the middle class, just about what’s available to you in a city.
Where were your parents from?
IK: My father came from Pakistan and my mother was Welsh. They met in Cardiff.
And what’s your background, Annie?
AM: My father’s a businessman. My mother’s …
… well-off, we could say.
AM: Yeah, and my brother’s unbelievably clever. He was at Oxford; he was the Creative Manager of the Old Vic. He started there when he was twenty. So I grew up with a lot of creativity, in the sense that my godfather was Israel Horovitz, the playwright. My mother used to work
in the theatre with him.
You are from a Jewish family, then.
In their studios, the duo (opposite) prepare for shows of their starkly differing oeuvres. Morris draws inspiration from such artists as Louise Bourgeois and Picasso, while Khan looks to figures like Mark Rothko and Richard Serra, incorporating his own writings inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche.
So you two have the perfect relationship …
IK: Perfect. The wedding was very –
AM: We were married by Israel Horovitz!
IK: We were married by a faux rabbi, and my father was the faux mullah at our wedding.
What I’m trying to get at is the core of what makes this city or undoes it, if you will. This mixture of everything and everybody …
AM: But of course, Idris and I have art in common.
IK: I think that’s what brought us together.
But art doesn’t make you live together and have children.
AM: It’s such a strong connection to have though.
IK: It’s a starting point. Creativity is the starting point. It’s the understanding. I don’t think necessarily we make Islamic art or Jewish art. I’ve always said that my work has to stem from somewhere and you can’t ignore your upbringing.
Well, why would you ignore it?
IK: It’s not about ignoring, but I’d like to make a comment on it. I still have that ideology available to me, to make connections with.
I’m intrigued that you used the word ideology.
IK: Yeah, because it’s something I understood from a very young age. But it’s a difficult thing to express. It’s not like I am a practising Muslim. Annie’s not a practising Jew. We still do the holidays — something fun, it brings families together — but it’s not like you are really brought up in that way, to understand that culture. You didn’t always surround yourself with Jewish people, did you, Annie?
AM: No. I went to Westminster School, where there was no Jewish …
IK: You didn’t go to Jewish schools, and I didn’t go to Islamic schools.
I think it’s different now.
AM: I was pretty much the only Jewish student, maybe one other –
IK: And can I just say how outstanding that is? Because when a girl gets into Westminster, it can only happen in sixth form. It was her creative talent that got her in.
AM: On the subject of Westminster, because it was something spectacular, I would wake up and go to Westminster Abbey every morning. It was pretty amazing …
IK: … to see that. We have kids now, and we’re in London. I look at their upbringing and future here and the things they’re surrounded by. It’s something that’s unique to England.
AM: To London.
So, Idris, you made the pilgrimage to London…
IK: Yeah. I left Birmingham when I was eighteen and went up to Derby. People outside of London always see it as this massive metropolis; it’s a difficult place to get into. London is great if you’re doing really well, but it’s a struggle if you’re not. So it was always me thinking London was this place that’s so far away. I never had the courage to apply to a London art school when I was eighteen, nineteen. So I went to Derby and studied Photography, and then all the tutors there said, ‘You got this. Try at the Royal College.’ I had a year out, and then I came to the Royal College,
and that absolutely changed everything.
Did it change your own psychology?
IK: Absolutely. When I came to the Royal College there weren’t many people from outside of London taken into the course. It was amazing to me to go to openings. Really as basic as that. You would open your eyes to this trendy East London world. You always used to go to the Vyner Street Gallery; now that’s not really happening any more. You know, modern art came to town… It was so cool to see. I felt like I was in something for the very first time. It sort of opened my eyes.
Annie, when you were growing up, did you get the chance to go to galleries?
AM: I did a lot of that, a lot of staring at vitrines. I met an artist when I was about thirteen or fourteen called Ann Stokes, who was a potter. She lived in Hampstead. She was really important to me in the sense that she was so creative. She was self-taught. I used to spend a lot of time at her house. She taught me pottery, to make things.
IK: She was a very old-school artist, very Bloomsbury Group-esque.
Where did the spark of art come from in your case, Annie?
AM: I used to always make things. My concentration was a bit lacking; I had it when I was drawing or painting. From such an early age, I always wanted to do that. I used to leave drawings and paintings outside my parents’ room, and they would wake up and look at them. I would spend hours drawing; my brother would always be reading. At the school I went to before Westminster, the art teacher took me under her wing. She told me that I shouldn’t do any of the sciences, which I wasn’t so good at, and just focus.
The British Museum is one of London’s principal cultural and touristic draws. Opened to the public in 1753 by an Act of Parliament, the museum is an apparently endless repository of art and artefacts from earliest times to the present. Khan and Morris, frequent visitors, in the Great Court among the crowds, alongside curator Venetia Porter, who commissioned Khan to create his installation Seven Times as part of the 2012 exhibition Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam.
Teaching is so critical, isn’t it? Somebody along the line picks you out …
AM: It’s so important. When you find a teacher that nurtures you and sees something in you, you suddenly feel the way they see you.
And later you went to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
AM: I did. I started at Central St Martins. I wanted to go to Paris. I loved the idea of learning French. The school was so fantastic. But then I came back and went to the Slade.
IK: Actually if you don’t go through art education in London, it’s very hard to get back in afterwards. You finish at the Royal College, your work is out there.
Do you regret choosing Paris, Annie?
AM: I regret it a little. But I’m happy to speak French. It’s cool to go to Paris when you’re young.
So you’re from different backgrounds, different cities. Do you influence each other’s work?
IK: Actions speak louder than words. When I first met Annie, I was doing only photography. Since I met Annie, I’ve made sculptures, I’ve made paintings. I’m drawing now. It can’t be an accident.
Let go back to the geopolitical lineage of your work, Idris. Today, the bulk, if not the vast majority, of the West believe that the Koran is the instrument of an indentured teaching of Islam. But you treat it in a benevolent, non-involved manner. You almost could be doing Shakespeare. Is that how you see it?
IK: I’ve never set out to make a political piece. I never say that I’m a political artist. The very nature of making something, of creating a piece of art, is to put it in front of viewers for people to then question their own political motives. So if I make a piece of work with Arabic and English on top of each other, it’s poetic, it’s beautiful; there is a translation there between English and Arabic, meeting them together. You might say, ‘Actually, there is a political motive.’ I don’t think there is. But the fact that you’re talking about a piece being political makes it political. So.
Do you believe that art as practised by people like yourselves can act as a means of discourse that transcends cultural differences?
AM: Maybe by seeing some beauty in a religion that is not violent.
Idris, if you were back in Pakistan, you’d be stabbed, quartered, shot in the face and anything else.
IK: I don’t know whether I actually am doing anything sacrilegious by using Arabic and layering. I’m not making imagery from the Koran.
If I may push this angle a bit, I want to mix it in with what we were talking about earlier with Annie. Annie, would Idris’s work resonate against your learned Jewish family background? How is it received in your extended family circle?
AM: That circle is very entwined in art. So it’s seen in a more poetic, less aggressive, less political way.
IK: Can I step in? Are you asking if Jewish people collect my work?
I’m asking how it is received.
IK: I have so many Jewish collectors, it’s unbelievable. Will they buy my Arabic works? I’m not sure. There is some way in which some people probably wouldn’t want them on their wall. But it doesn’t matter. It’s not about the creator, it’s not about the artist, it’s about having an empathy towards a piece of work.
Main image at top: Husband and wife at an artistic crossroads: Idris Khan and Annie Morris outside their adjoining studios in Stoke Newington. ‘We bought the studio for Annie from a lovely lady who made hummus for Harrods!’ Khan explains.
London Burning: Portraits from a Creative City, Author & Editor Hossein Amirsadeghi, Executive Editor: Maryam Eisler, is published by Thames & Hudson: 19 October 2015, priced £58.00 (hardback). All images are copyright Transglobe Publishing.
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