If you haven’t seen Dina Razin’s fabulous exhibition in our second-floor Art Gallery yet, you are in for a treat. The exhibition features 20 portraits of artists’ muses created by Dina. They were commissioned for Muse, a book by Ruth Millington, who we caught up with last month to explore the lives of artists’ muses.
In the following conversation with Dina Razin, curator Henrietta asks her about the inspiration behind her work, and what it’s been like to work on this fascinating project.
Henrietta: “Dina, you grew up in Syria. How has your Middle Eastern background influenced your work?”
Dina: “My middle Eastern background always has a way of making it into my creations. My cultural background is a big part of who I am as an artist, and this means that the influence of powerful mental images inspired by Middle Eastern architecture, arts, music, calligraphy, and botanical elements appear in many of my artworks. Moreover, I am forever driven by the often-overshadowed women who have been major contributors to the progress of Syrian society before the war and in the aftermath of it. There are the poets, the scientists, the actors, the musicians, and the women who make the most difference by embracing the everyday typical life of a Middle Eastern woman with all the good it has to offer, in addition to the difficult challenges it presents that require relentless creativity and resilience.”
Henrietta: “You have expressed a love for botany and plants. How does the natural world around you feed into your work?”
Dina: “My relationship with the natural world goes back to my childhood, when I spent most of my summers in Masyaf, my mother’s hometown in north-western Syria. The town, which has now become a city, is surrounded by an abundance of mountains, fields, vineyards, fig orchards and gardens. My memories of the historical town, which has its own castle, reveal themselves in all the flowers, plants, and trees I incorporate in my artworks.”
Henrietta: “Which artists have inspired you the most?”
Dina: “I am currently obsessed with the work of Paula Rego. I have always loved her art but, after watching a documentary about her life, I fell more in love with her work. In the documentary, she speaks about her shy personality and how she can only be outspoken through her art. She also speaks about growing up in a very conservative Portuguese society at the time. Her personal narrative has resonated with me because I am often a shy person who finds it difficult to be outspoken in public; only through my art can I also truly speak my mind and feel completely free. I am also a big fan of Chagall’s folk culture works and unique use of colours.”
Henrietta: “How did the collaboration between you and Ruth Millington begin? Did you feel straight away that this was the right project for you?”
Dina: “I got involved in Muse after being selected by Ruth Millington and the Penguin Random House editorial team to work on the book. After our initial Zoom meeting, working on the illustrations for the book became a truly collaborative experience. The process started with Ruth sending me her summarised notes on each muse, in addition to some of the important artworks and pictures relating to them. Reading her valuable notes and studying the artworks and pictures was the first step in my creative process. I then produced sketches to share with her and the wonderful editorial team, before discussing which illustrative approach would better serve the chapter and reaching the final draft stage.
“When I was contacted about Muse and given a briefing about what the assignment would entail, I was both excited and a bit scared. I was excited because of the powerful premise of the book and the amazing opportunity to dive through the true stories of 30 art muses. But I was certainly scared because of the responsibility that I would have to carry, and the dedication I would have to show to deliver 30 illustrations and a book cover that truly reflect each muse’s story, as told by such a talented author as Ruth.”
Henrietta: “The portraits you have created are all very different in style. How did you approach the task of presenting these muses with their own distinct personalities?”
Dina: “The key to my approach was studying the personal and professional story of each muse and diving deep into their lives to find what made each of them unique, plus how they preferred to present themselves away from the gaze of the artist. My mission was often to highlight their personal and professional accomplishments, as in the case of Dora Maar, whose political activism, poetry and photography made her the perfect example of an accomplished woman. While she had a powerful role in Picasso’s life and career, it was a small part of who she was.
“Moreover, being a fashion lover, I also studied the muses’ sense of fashion and personal style. For instance, Luisa Casati was a true fashion icon who wasn’t only interested in art and style, but also wanted to become the artwork itself – which is something we can see in her various extravagant attires. I also relied heavily on Ruth’s impression of each of the muses because, as an illustrator, I had to make sure I was always reflecting the author’s words in my illustrations.”
Henrietta: “Can you tell me what media you used, and how long these portraits took to create?”
Dina: “For the majority of the illustrations, I started as I do with many of my artworks: with a pencil sketch followed by a black ink draft, then, in some cases, gouache paint. This process was followed by converting the sketches into digital artworks using Procreate to finalise the illustrations and make necessary changes. The process of creating the portraits took around a year, including work on the front cover.”
Henrietta: “I’ve noticed that you are making a lot of collages at the moment. Do you enjoy experimenting with different media?”
Dina: “Yes! I’ve recently started working on collages and the switch has been truly satisfying. With collage, I have been feeling more involved in the artwork than ever before. The ability to touch almost all the pieces of the artwork by hand makes it feel that I am a part of the creation, that
no brush or pen needed to accomplish the main goal.
“I am also finding it an enjoyable experience searching for images that are outside of me and my own experiences. There is something magical about altering an exciting and beautiful creation, and transforming it into a completely different work of art. It’s like a telepathic collaboration with different creators from all walks of life. For example, the ability to ‘work’ with old photographers or people from a different era allows for intimate moments with people you’ve never met before; having them be a part of my artistic creations is like experiencing time travel.
“Moreover, my passion for patterns, vintage images, and old pictures is driving me to shops and markets I have never been to before to find that missing piece to complete the story of a collage. The process of making art in general makes me calmer and reduces my anxiety and, with collage, it feels even more therapeutic because of the sophistication of the creative process: for me, it’s important to incorporate painting and drawing in the artwork, in addition to the cut papers.”
Henrietta: “What is your next big project?”
Dina: “I have always wanted to learn more about the rich folk stories from the Middle East, so I have recently started gathering material and literature in order for me to study the topic – and hopefully transform my learning into a series of artworks. On the illustration front, there’s a wonderful collaboration currently in the making, but I can’t reveal much about that at the moment!”
Dina’s exhibition ‘Reclaiming the Muse’ runs until 10 February. You can buy prints of her artwork (£150 each, plus postage and packing) by filling in an order form and handing it in at our gift shop. If you’re looking for that perfect Christmas present for an art lover, copies of Ruth Millington’s Muse are always available to buy from us.