Pull back a black curtain, step into darkness and prepare to be dazzled. Artist Sara Shakeel has covered a dining table, chairs and food, with glinting crystals. It’s a stunning artwork — her first sculpture — and is now on display in an exhibition at Now Gallery on Greenwich Peninsula. Just as interesting is the story of how the dental student became an Instagram sensation.
"I had no idea I wanted to be an artist"
"I was in my final year of my dentistry degree, and my teacher hated my guts as I didn’t follow all the rules and challenged the norms. She made sure to fail me every time, by one or two marks. After this happened 16 times in a row, I was in tears and didn’t know what I wanted to be in life."
"I had no idea I wanted to be an artist. All I knew about collage was you cut and paste images and that was it. I didn’t have a laptop so I started experimenting and making collages on my smartphone. After I made my first artwork I was so happy — I would get a high from making around eight artworks a day. I took images of Swarovski crystals and added it to lipstick and simply asked on Instagram ‘would anyone want this?’ When I woke up the next morning I saw my followers had jumped from 3-4k to 15k overnight. Everyone was asking where can we find these crystal lipsticks, including the likes of Glamour magazine. It’s only when they phoned me up that I was able to let them know it was an artwork and not a real product".
"The worst Photoshop ever"
"One comment on Instagram stated ‘this is the worst Photoshop ever’ and I thought ‘what is Photoshop?’. So I Googled and YouTubed the hell out of it and adopted it as my medium. Later Photoshop would message me and then feature my work".
Sara finds it hilarious that she went from not knowing what Photoshop is to being featured by them. It's in line with the warmth and positivity she radiates throughout the interview, her outlook on life is as bright as her work.
"Recently I'd got to the point where I wanted to make something physical, so I used crystals to create a crystal egg and toast, using Masterchef and cookery programmes as my only guides on how to do this. Kaia [the curator of this show] messaged me saying I’d been shortlisted for an exhibition at the gallery and she loved my proposal [for the crystal covered dinner service], but then she asked can you pull this off as you've never done anything like this before. I paused and thought about it for 20 seconds and said 'yes, let's do this'".
Food with the family was the highlight of the day
The exhibition is titled The Great Supper, and takes inspiration from Da Vinci's painting of the Last Supper.
"The concept of everyone sitting at a dinner table eating and sharing, just as Jesus did with his disciples, is an important image to me", says Sara.
"I recall sitting having food with the family as the highlight of the day. It's when I would ask permission from my father to go out with friends as that's when he would be most amenable. Sitting with my brother and grandparents, engaging in gupshup" — an Urdu word that loosely translates as chat but is also an important process for forming strong social bonds.
"A lot of people ask me why my artwork has lots of different foods at each place setting. It's because my mother wanted everyone to be happy at the dinner table so she would make different foods for each person's taste. As I'm growing up, my brother is living his own life. We all have different priorities and have to make a living. We don't have time to give even one hour to a family meal. In our new house in Pakistan, my mother asked me why we have a dining table as nobody sits at it. It made me realise this lovely time and tradition is fading away, and I wanted to pay tribute to it."
"A building covered with crystals"
So what's next for Sara?
"Bigger, better, crazier — I want to do so much more with crystals. I want to collaborate with architects and would love to make a building covered with crystals. Crystals are at their best in sunlight, that's the best compliment you could give them. My mind is filled with ideas and this exhibition has given me a lot of confidence to go on".
There's no doubt that Sara is bursting with ideas. Just the way she talks with sheer gusto and at pace — flitting easily between Urdu and English — show her enthusiasm for her new-found artistic talents.
Sara has legions of fans — many pop into the gallery as she's giving me a tour of the artwork, with most recognising her off Instagram and some wanting a picture with her. She takes the time to help them adjust their phone settings to get the crystals to really sparkle, and is happy to see her work being enjoyed by others.
It's clear that the high she used to get from making and sharing her work, is still going strong. Long may it continue, and if you're reading TfL we'd like you to commission her to create this blinging Underground carriage in real life please.
The Great Supper: Sara Shakeel is at Now Gallery, Greenwich Peninsula until 23 June 2019. Entrance is free.