Leading bilingual poet recognised by National Lottery for keeping the arts alive

·6 min read
Shamim writes in both Bengali and English and has been working at Apples and Snakes for eight years
Shamim writes in both Bengali and English and has been working at Apples and Snakes for eight years

An East London resident will appear in a unique photography exhibition after being recognised by The National Lottery for her dedication and devotion to keeping the arts alive and accessible for all during the pandemic.

Shamim Azad, who lives in East London with husband Dr Selim Jahan, is a bilingual author and poet, writing in Bengali and English, and has been recognised for her work with Apples and Snakes, an organization committed to arts and artists.

The digital exhibition marks the first time in history eight of the UK’s most iconic art galleries - including London’s National Portrait Gallery, Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, The MAC in Belfast and the British Film Institute (BFI) - have come together in this way.

The collection, titled ‘The National Lottery’s 2020 Portraits of the People’ celebrates the remarkable individuals, including Shamim, who have worked tirelessly during the pandemic to bring creativity, enjoyment and enrichment to people in new ways

Thirteen powerful and poignant portraits have been created by Chris Floyd, who normally photographs celebrities such as Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Mo Farah and Victoria Beckham.

The exhibition was born out of National Lottery insights which indicate a ‘domestic renaissance’ in people enjoying the arts at home with almost 2 in 3 (61%) of those saying it helped their state of mind during the crisis, and more than half (51%) believing the positive impacts on their wellbeing would be long-lasting

"It was an interesting project at Apples and Snakes, who were recruiting eight poets from diverse origins to work in schools and communities,” said Shamim.

"We had some really high-profile tutors and it was known as a graduation to work as a poet in education – we were called PIE, Poets in Education. So, that was the beginning.

"The way they reach into the community, by empowering writers like me and by building on what they have already, and their skills in the community as well as arts, is the best achievement of the group.

"In normal times, Apples and Snakes works with more than 500 different individuals and engages them in various activities throughout the country and that’s something we should celebrate, too.

"I think the most important thing is that we always provide training, through mentoring and advice.

"Working for Apples and Snakes has built on my existing skills in art which is agile and can be adapted quite effortlessly. Apples and Snakes has given to me, and trained me, in the spoken word of art.”

Shamim loves to tell stories and perform poems. She has written plays for theatre and published more than 30 books both in English and Bengali.

She is also the poet in residence at Apples and Snakes, an Arts Council funded spoken word poetry organisation. The organisation has worked with artists from Billy Bragg to Lemn Sissay, Kate Tempest, Benjamin Zephaniah, and Hollie McNish.

During lockdown, retired schoolteacher Shamim started storytelling classes using Zoom for children eight to 13 and hosted weekly video broadcasts on Facebook to keep the community spirit alive.

When the pandemic hit, she also took it upon herself to translate the London Mayor’s message and NHS messages into Bengali.

"I thought the pandemic was a time when I should focus on adapting my skills and go online,” added Shamim. “I focused on the groups that I was previously connected to from Apples and Snakes and personally from my own connections from the community.

"I did storytelling and advised Bangladeshi gardeners in a new way, running workshops on the environment online.

"I gave talks online internationally with people and organisations from Canada, Bangladesh and England.

"I was particularly focussing on women and the workload, or unequal workload, that women have, and the rise of domestic violence during the pandemic.

"It was all about maintaining health – the message of hands, face and space and I was repeating all of those messages.”

Shamim's sustained innovation will see her have a portrait created by Christopher Floyd
Shamim's sustained innovation will see her have a portrait created by Christopher Floyd

National Lottery players raise £30 million a week for good causes around the country, funding thousands of projects that make a huge difference to people’s wellbeing.

"Honestly, my most uplifting moment is the National Lottery recognition,” said Shamim. “I think it should be my proudest moment – it also made me more committed to what I do and has made me feel more responsible.

"I feel grateful to the organisation that I worked for already, and the organisations who let me do my voluntary work with them.

"I think there are a few expressions – I’m humbled, happy, proud, inspired and surprised.

"And you know why? Because I had no idea that the level of work that I do, and the communities that are marginalised would be noticed and recognised on such a national scale.

"I always think it's a complete circle with the National Lottery funding – it's the process of individual people buying Lottery tickets, the money received from National Lottery funding by organisations like mine which helps us then spread the word to others.”

The digital exhibition in which Shamim’s portrait features can be visited on the websites and social media of: The National Portrait Gallery, The National Museum of Wales, The MAC in Belfast, IKON Gallery in Birmingham, Summerhall in Edinburgh, Ty Pawb, Ruthin Craft Centre in Wales, The Photographers’ Gallery in London and The British Film Institute. The portraits will also be on display at BFI Southbank in London.

Photographer Chris Floyd added: “The journey to capture these artists of all varieties was an incredibly humbling one. I wanted to do justice to the ongoing and selfless efforts of these creatives and creators who have taken their skills within the arts and built accessible resources for those who needed it most. It feels like a small thank you in comparison to what they’ve done for their local communities and for the arts sector as whole.”

Darren Henley, the CEO of Arts Council England, said: “People in the UK have a great love of creativity, art and culture. We know these things can bring us together, enrich our lives, support our emotional wellbeing, and make us happier.

“Throughout lockdown we've seen that in villages, towns and cities, people have continued to participate and enjoy the arts whether that's at home, digitally, or through socially distanced activities within their communities.”

The works aim to create a ‘moment in history’, preserving the work of these unheralded champions for posterity and encapsulating the varied and innovative ways art can be expressed.

Image credit: National Lottery 2020’s Portraits of the People by Chris Floyd

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