x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Wearable art

Philippa Kennedy meets the Dubai-based artist Patricia Millns to talk about her installation for Issey Miyake in London, and her fascination with Islamic art and how it has has influenced her style over the years.

Patricia Millns at her home in Dubai Marina. The artist likes to be near her work. Randi Sokoloff for The National
Patricia Millns at her home in Dubai Marina. The artist likes to be near her work. Randi Sokoloff for The National

From a distance it looks like a row of frothy designer organza, soft grey clouds of femininity ready to sashay down a catwalk. All that's needed are the models to complete the image. The models are deliberately missing, however, and a closer look reveals that what appears at first glance to be a beautiful garment is in fact a scrunched and twisted piece of steel mesh. It's a beautiful piece of work, a prototype for an installation recently commissioned by the main Issey Miyake store in London's Conduit Street, conceived and assembled by the Dubai-based artist Patricia Millns.

A long-time fan of the 72-year-old Japanese designer who pioneered a new method of garment pleating, Millns has been given free range to do what she likes in the bright, airy London store and has been working on her concept that she says links the simplicity of the Arab thobe to the Japanese kimono. "I have been buying Issey Miyake garments for a long time. They know me and they know my work and they invited me to do a large installation in their main London store. I'm always inspired by light and a space," says Millns.

"What I have in common with Miyake is that we have a basic form and we create structure from a very simple, basic format. It's about changing the form. You take a very simple piece of fabric and by twisting and folding it, create a piece of art. "I think people have forgotten how simple the Arabic form is. The idea is to take two things that are similar in basic shape but totally different, expressing all the messages that women send through their clothes. The mesh 'dresses' won't be on mannequins and will hang on rails. Once you take the woman out of the clothing her absence gives an extra dimension."

The mesh dresses are just one example of the work Millns has been doing based on the experiences of womankind, especially in the Islamic world. Her light-filled studio overlooking Dubai Marina doubles as a living space and it's clear that she sees art and clothing as an integral part of her life. In one corner, an installation features hatstands decorated with Arabic women's headgear and silver jewellery. Another features 1930s-style women's hats. A beautiful black pleated men's underskirt from a Chinese hill tribesman's costume lies on a shelf and it wouldn't be unusual for Millns to pick something out of one of her art works to wear to a party.

"It's art that you can wear. I don't feel there's any barrier between you and the art. Anybody can get involved. It's why I fell in love with Issey Miyake's clothes," she says. Millns makes a statement about the lives of women with every new piece she constructs. An acrylic cube, for example, features pearlised hearts and tightly packed strips of paper covered with script. If you get a magnified view you will see it's the Atkins Diet, which Millns abhors. Turn the cube around and the message is clear, as you realise that the pearls were actually sharp pins.

Other works are more straightforward but nonetheless intriguing. Most of them feature Islamic script. Millns loves to use paper in her works, often in repeated sequences. A tray of 100 tiny bottles is part of her Love Letters series. Millns explains: "Inside each bottle is a love letter, the kind that a woman writes to herself to remind her to pick up the cleaning or to collect the children from school, or any aspect of a normal life."

Another piece looks like an unusual brown necklace, but further inspection reveals it to be made out of used tea bags, once again covered with script, the result of hundreds of interviews with women about what they chat to their friends about. The piece is aptly called Chai al dahar or "afternoon tea". Her fascination with Islamic art started in art school in Belfast where she grew up, although she was born in England.

"The school provided a solid grounding in the practicalities of art. They really taught you to think but also made sure we knew technical methods like how to use a screwdriver and a drill or an acetylene torch, so that once you had a concept you would be ready and know what to do. "I learnt to weld and actually had a job in the summer as an arc welder. It keeps your feet on the ground. There are a lot of artists who think they are somewhere above the rest of humankind. I don't think like that. It's the concept that makes the artist."

She later transferred to Birmingham to study history of art. "I did the medieval period and if you do that you realise the importance of the Islamic world. That's what brought me to the Middle East. In particular, I was fascinated by the repetition of imagery and the simplicity of the geometric form. It's a bit like origami. You take a piece of paper and you fold it to become a bird but it's still a simple page."

Millns was drawn to the Gulf area in the 1980s at a time when the world-famous Al-Sabah Collection was being assembled in Kuwait. The collection, assembled over three decades by Sheikh Nasser Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah,comprises more than 24,000 works of Islamic art spanning the seventh to the 19th century. It includes jewelled arts from the Mughal era. "It changed the way a lot of the world perceived Islamic art," says Millns, who worked as a teacher in the arts centre built to complement the collection under the patronage of Sheikha Hussah, the wife of Sheikh Al-Sabah. "They had an enameler and a ceramacist and somebody who made those big copper pots and students could see exactly how the pieces were made."

Millns travelled extensively in the Middle East and was away from Kuwait when the Gulf War began. She visited Oman at a time when it was difficult for foreigners to enter the country and still has a home there, but now lives in Dubai. "I first came here for six months and stayed 28 years," she laughs. "I have never lived in one place and I still don't, although wherever my studio happens to be I call home. There is definitely a Bedouin side to my nature."

Millns likes to live close to her work. "It means that I can work when I want to. I often get up in the middle of the night to finish a piece and sometimes never go to bed." There are no traditional paintings on her walls, although she did paint for five years and several of her works hang in the offices of the British Council both in Dubai and Kuwait."I used to do traditional painting, but I never felt happy with it and always felt there was something missing."

She prefers using mixed media such as the three papier mâché dressmakers' dummies based on an Arabian version of the Three Graces and covered with tiny pearls and Islamic symbols that she is working on. Two years ago, visitors to Art Dubai would have seen one of her larger installations, featuring 500 hanging ghutras with the word "light" written on them. Says Millns: "They were hung in such a way that you could walk through them and eventually you don't see the frame and they looked as if they were floating."

Another large work shown at the DIFC featured 500 black agals, and Millns spoke to hundreds of Arab men about why they wear the agal when they could quite easily secure their ghutras by tying them. "There was so much individuality about the way they wear them but most of them said it was because of tradition," she says. Her work has also been exhibited in the British Museum, including textile pieces based on old Talismanic shirts. She has also taken part in Biennales in Sharjah and Egypt and exhibited her work at the United Nations and New York.

She is currently working on a series inspired by the 13th-century poet Rumi. "He was a poet and philosopher and a lot of his poetry was written in celebration of God in a very Sufi and mystical way. The idea of turning and the circle was very important to him, from small units you create a circle that is stronger. When she is commissioned to do a major installation, such as the Issey Miyake project, she will work with a team of experts, including an architect, sound, music and lighting specialists. It will take about a week to install some time next year and will remain in the store for three weeks.

After that, like most large installations, the work will be dismantled. It may go to a client, or a piece of it might find a space in Millns's studio. She says she doesn't mind it being broken up. "It's like a performance. When it's over it's gone, but that doesn't matter."