… is how architect-turned jewelry maker Rameen Ahmed describes her work, a lesson in geometry, precision and movement.
As a child, Rameen Ahmed would walk past the National Assembly Building in Dhaka in her native Bangladesh. She’d stop and sit on a wall and stare. She witnessed the government building’s construction, and by the time she was in high school this Louis Kahn-designed structure was complete.
Modernist in principle, and making the most of its surrounding desert and materials, Kahn’s building of multiple towers with large geometric shapes appearing to be cut out of them, made a big statement and a similarly big impression. Having an internationally renowned architect such as Kahn, and one who was a modernist, put his stamp on their country like that was “a huge big deal”, says Rameen. “It really made a big impact on my whole generation.”
Rameen made up her mind: she would be an architect. Not only that, she would leave her country to do it. Having spent time in London as a child, she had gotten a taste for cultures beyond Bangladesh. Added to that, in her homeland she felt like a square peg, especially with her family. “Nobody could quite understand me. I was always artistically weird,” she says. “I wanted to get away as far as I possibly could.”
Rameen is known for her habit of turning to the back of a book first. She did the same at the US Consulate in Dhaka, where she flicked through a book about the USA and its colleges. “There are no states starting with x, y or z, so the first one I looked at was Madison, Wisconsin,” she says. Soon she was on an airplane – in-flight entertainment: the original version of Footloose – to study architecture, and later to work for a civil engineering firm in Chicago.
The midwest winters got the better of her. She visited a friend in New Mexico, then headed southwest herself, arriving in Arizona in December 1988 and settling in Tucson in 1989. Next came a graduate program at the University of Arizona and some time working with Tucson architect Corky Poster. Rameen was drawn to the culture behind architecture, particularly certain indigenous groups. One of the projects she’s proud of is taking 30 traditional Native American homes belonging to the Tohono O’odham tribe, then with no water, plumbing or electricity, and modernizing them.
Today, Rameen’s architect days are long behind her – sort of. One look at the jewelry she makes and it’s clear that her days drafting and drawing buildings have left their stamp. The metal pieces she makes – earrings, bracelets, necklaces and pins – shout geometry and precision. They range from the simple to the elaborate, namely her neckpieces. More than jewelry, the neckpieces are sculptures – silver pieces (all of her jewelry is silver in color) that snake down a person’s back or front, not with links but solid bars. They break and curve and conjoin with more shapes. Rather than behave themselves and sit flat like a traditional necklace, they misbehave with their surprising angles and even more surprising accessories – pieces of cholla cactus, cirrus cactus, perforated steel from building materials, and more.
Rameen took her first metal smithing class on a whim; she was a new mother and needed to get out of the house, to find a hobby, to explore creative options other than architecture. Pima Community College came to her rescue. “It was the first week in class and I was sitting there going ‘This is it’,” she says.
She knew she loved the soldering and metal work, but “big sculptural things scared me, so I thought I’ll just do tiny things.” She had designed her and her husband’s wedding rings, made for her by local jeweler Rick Pierini. And she was known as the lady who wore the wild jewelry, having for years favored ethnic and tribal pieces, arms full of bangles making their own maps of Thailand and the Indian sub-continent.
For Rameen, making jewelry has satisfied the frustrated artist she says was always latent in her, while still feeding her appetite for architecture. “Manipulating metal compared to architecture is instant gratification. You can get something made in two or three days, as opposed to two or three years. That’s eye-opening.”
She says she is intrigued by the discovery of three-dimensional design through physical movement and that her aesthetics have come full circle. Her jewelry is, if you like, a window into her childhood and her life since: tribal and modern, a crossing of international boundaries, the deserts and deltas of her homeland, the landscape and history of the southwest, and of course that National Assembly building she grew up staring at, worshiping even.
She describes her jewelry – sold through her website and represented by Obsidian Gallery – as “contemporary wearable art” that breaks away from the notion that jewelry should be static. Put simply, she says, it is turning solid metals into “liquid grace”.
Today Rameen works out of her midtown Tucson home, where a long desk in the corner of the living room holds her materials and most of her tools (she makes extensive use of mint tins). The rest – the soldering tools – are kept on her back patio. The desk is that of an architect – neat, ordered, clean. Somehow she even managed to train her two children to leave the space alone, even during their inquisitive toddler years. In the middle of the living area hangs a length of fishing line with a loop. This serves as a place for her to hang jewelry in mid-air to test out that physical movement she is known for.
In Rameen’s home library are books of buildings she has loved, among them Kahn’s creation in Dhaka. One pair of earrings – hanging pearls with rectangles of silver, a circular hole cut out of them, forming a kind of ‘armor’ – is named Louis Kahn Revisited.