Remaking heritage: why goldsmith Shivani Patel is looking to reconnect her culture to her work

Finding a sense of authenticity in our work can be challenging. Lockdown has given designer-maker Shivani Patel the opportunity to search for answers

The journey from Ludlow to Leicester is just over two hours from the Shropshire Hills in the west, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty nestled along the Welsh border, to the Midlands of England, a hotspot for cultural diversity. It would become a regular family trip for Shivani, who as a teenager would sit in the back of the car making intricate friendship bracelets to pass the time.

“Looking back, I spent a lot of my childhood making,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Malvern, a beautifully situated town next to another AONB not far from Ludlow.  She was born in Leicester and lived in a vibrant Indian community, one of the largest and most established outside London. “Growing up, everything was related to Indian culture – Leicester was a mini-India,” she says. “Gujarati was the first language I spoke and my culture was a normalised thing, I saw it everywhere around me but of course I didn’t realise this as a child. It was a shock when I moved to Ludlow.”

MAKER SPOTLIGHT

Graduate of the School of Jewellery in Birmingham, Shivani is a goldsmith who has specialised in architectural, minimalist pieces, incorporating Fairmined and recycled gold. She has been a regular exhibitor at Goldsmiths’ Fair since 2010.

The emotional strain of moving home is felt throughout her family history. Shivani’s grandfather and his siblings, of Indian descent, were all born in Uganda. Years before, in the late nineteenth century, thousands of Indians were brought in by order of the British Empire to build the Uganda railway. The Indian community thrived in Uganda for many years. “My grandma says it was the best time of her life,” Shivani says. However, change was forced upon them when they were exiled from the country in 1972 on the orders of military ruler Idi Amin. Around 50,000 Asians were impacted, with many migrating to the UK, including Shivani’s family.

To start again and create something anew is an experience she shares with her relatives, when Shivani lost an immersive sense of Indian culture. On arriving at Ludlow, she says: “It was difficult to move to somewhere so different with none of our culture in sight. It was the first time I felt I didn’t belong and was marked out as visibly different. 12 is a very self-conscious age. Moving schools, making new friends, meeting new people; it was an intense time in general”. She does, however, speak fondly of her family’s terraced house above the shop owned by her dad, as well as her mum’s cooking. “Food was inextricably linked to community and culture and when people needed help, mum would make sure there was always enough go round, dropping off parcels to her friends’ houses.” Caring for people was second nature.

But like any good teenager it was natural to rebel against the domestic establishment. Shivani says she actively rejected Indian clothes and music. “I felt the pressure to assimilate to the dominant cultural norm, like most children of immigrants,” she recalls now. As she got older the story of Shivani’s heritage and the need to express it would become more important to her identity as a person and a jeweller. A global pandemic and forced lockdown have enabled these thoughts and feelings to truly emerge and develop. “Having time to think is a luxury, I feel like lockdown provided some space to be with my thoughts and reflect.” She compares the feeling to a mid-life career change or having a gap year. “Sometimes there’s an urge, not necessarily for change, but for discovery,” she says.  And starting from the beginning, from your past, is always the most logical place.

i Marina neckpiece, 2011

As part of this process of revisiting the effect of culture on creativity, we talk about the style of making that she had developed while studying for her Art Foundation at Hereford Art college – before attending the School of Jewellery at Birmingham University at the recommendation of her college tutor. “I only really knew jewellery was something I could study when my tutor mentioned it to me – my work was experimental and highly detailed.” This creative freedom was nurtured at both college and university where she had the freedom to make exactly what she wanted to with no restrictions.

It was only when she graduated in 2005 that she moved away from large, sculptural pieces, indicative of her time at college, into more wearable forms combining geometric shapes with floral, organic structures and textured surfaces. Her love of architecture evolved her style to include clean, precise lines and monochromatic selections of gold and stones that we see in her work today. But getting to that point meant seeking out challenges and mastering new skills:

“I wanted to push myself, I was making pieces to sell, but it wasn’t challenging my approach to design. This has always been one of my stronger points, I love to make but I love to design, and I continue to have this philosophy.” She describes oxidising silver and using the contrast to create complex patterns, as well as experimenting with white and yellow gold, melting the surfaces together and cutting out fine shapes.

i Shivani at the bench

A willingness to evolve her work was partly driven by her desire to be accepted into a graduate place at Goldsmiths’ Fair, an annual selling event and exhibition showcasing a selection of the best fine jewellers and silversmiths creating and making in the UK today. Shivani applied four times to exhibit as a graduate at the Fair, each time building a layer of distinctiveness and personality in her style and pieces. “My work evolved slowly from silver and then incorporated stones and small amounts of gems and working in gold.” As part of this determination to express an individual style, she recalls going back to Leicester to buy 22ct gold from an Indian goldsmith with a particular copper rich alloy, imparting a warm, vibrant richness to the finish. On her last application attempt for a graduate place at Goldsmiths’ Fair, she got in.

Her current ambition of wanting to reassess where she is going with her work doesn’t detract from how far she has come as a goldsmith. “I’m happy with what I’m making and proud of my current body of work, I just wish I had had more life experience during my formative years to better understand the kind of person I am.” She also wishes she had more time to reflect on the impact of moving home as a young girl, on losing aspects of her culture and how this affected her work. In her early twenties, after graduating, Shivani had her own studio with space to sell her work which demanded a non-stop commitment. “I had to be there and open every Tuesday to Saturday, there was just no time for anything else but making.”

The need to keep developing work is one of the hardest things about being a jeweller, then and now, she says. Of course, the best thing about a profession can take longer to realise. “Having autonomy is what I love about being a goldsmith, but so is the complete lack of rules – I can make whatever I want.” She says this with confidence but admits there are unseen layers of influences that affected this sense of free-will when she was younger, “I lost some of these cultural parameters and I want to get them back.”

Somewhere along the line I feel like I stopped being myself. It’s OK to let people see a raw and messy side. Honesty is important and good brands do this really well.

Shivani regrets not having had the ability to critically assess what was happening in her cultural and creative environment with any real clarity. A bit of a catch-22, and perhaps she’s being too hard on herself. “I feel I needed to get to know myself more. I was just making what I wanted to. And, on some level, that wasn’t enough. I should have been sharing a lot more, both personally and artistically; I internalised the idea of having to leave my culture at home.” She expands on this by saying she had, slightly rigid ideas about work and cultural life being exclusive from each other. “Combining them is part of the answer in reconciling a sense of lost identity. Somewhere along the line I feel like I stopped being myself. It’s OK to let people see a raw and messy side. Honesty is important and good brands do this really well.”

The onset of lockdown provided Shivani with space to just stop and reflect on the past as well as her priorities and core values in the present. Being a mum with two children had previously helped with pressing the pause button on life. “Before having my first baby I felt like I was on a treadmill; being a parent has provided some perspective. It’s too easy to just keep going and not critically judge whether the path and destination is right for you.” Assessing this meant looking at her values and interests and how she could bring elements of that into her work. In her research – conducted during lockdown – Shivani discovered a Japanese principle known as Ikigai which basically means having a reason for being. It encourages practitioners to find a sense of meaning in life by mapping out moral and economic factors with the central tenet being your purpose – your Ikigai.

I’ve tended to compartmentalise certain experiences in my life – the challenge now is how to introduce them back into my work.

“I started forming bridges between these different things [practice, morals, economy, purpose] and working out how to articulate my thoughts into this process.” According to Ikigai her love of making and being a goldsmith were only part of the equation and to balance it, other kinds of moral activities needed to be added. Some of the things that stood out for her that needed to be incorporated into this philosophy were around anti-racism, diversity, heritage, ancestry and culture. “The process caused me to pause and question why I had separated these things from my work. I’ve tended to compartmentalise certain experiences in my life – the challenge now is how to introduce them back into my work.”

This means attempting to reconcile her clean minimalist style with a certain maximalist celebration found in Indian culture. However, she realises it’s not that simple and not necessarily just about jewellery. Shivani is also skilled with textiles and enjoys sewing and making her own clothes. She reasons that perhaps it’s more about the creative and subtle changes we can make to influence a bigger picture and of reconnecting with her heritage to develop a more complete and authentic identity.

One of the most effective ways to influence and reassert identity is through imagery and that’s exactly where she wants to start. By using elements of culturally authentic style, fashion, and photography alongside her jewellery, Shivani not only gets to do more of what she enjoys, but also to uncover and express her Indian heritage. She’s planning a photoshoot later this year which will incorporate these subtle yet culturally significant additions.

These subtle changes, like a domino effect, are often the trigger for bigger and more impactful changes, and Shivani knows this: make a start, acknowledge the past and don’t look for labels. “I don’t try to ever put myself in a box,” she says. “My work is constantly evolving.” And that’s the point. Good work doesn’t stop being good, it just represents a place in time. And it’s the recognition of the places that we come to, through creativity, that matter. And this one, for Shivani, should come to mean something special.

Building anything of meaning, requires commitment as well as small but definitive changes, day by day. And even when we think the process is complete, it’s often just another step along the track – like the Uganda railway, which is due to undergo its first complete refurbishment in a century. With conscious effort, being the authors of our change is possible and it’s all part of the journey. “I now feel free to tell my story,” Shivani concludes. And the best chapters are yet to be written.

 


Author: Curtis McGlinchey | Photo Credit: Shivani Patel

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MAKER SPOTLIGHT

Graduate of the School of Jewellery in Birmingham, Shivani is a goldsmith who has specialised in architectural, minimalist pieces, incorporating Fairmined and recycled gold. She has been a regular exhibitor at Goldsmiths’ Fair since 2010.