The Pakistani-Canadian ceramist has channeled joy and sorrow into her work

Sheherezade Alam was a renowned Canadian-Pakistani potter who learned life lessons from the maati (clay) she worked with.Courtesy of the family

Invariably surrounded by people, Sheherezade Alam always stood out in the crowd. Dressed in a swirl of vibrant textiles, her long hair parted in the center and tied in a braid with a colorful paranda (a hair accessory), her big expressive eyes lined with kohl, she spoke unfailingly with a wide smile and a generous laugh, drawing everyone into her orbit.

A famous Pakistani-Canadian potter who learned life lessons from maati (clay) with which she worked and elevated a practice considered a folk craft into an esteemed art form, Ms. Alam had none of the airs one would expect of such an accomplished artist.

“My mom always just connected with people. He was someone who talked to everyone about anything, received his whole life story and knew the names of his children. … It wasn’t some kind of pretense. She was genuinely interested in people. I nicknamed her Maximal Mama because she was just that force of nature, that exuberant personality,” Nurjahan Akhlaq, her daughter, said in a phone interview from Lahore, Pakistan.

After dividing her time between Canada and Pakistan for 15 years, Ms Alam returned to Lahore in 2007 to care for aging parents and has remained there. She created and exhibited new works and eventually founded a children’s art school in 2010. She was diagnosed with kidney failure in 2015 and died on May 18 of complications from end stage kidney failure. She was 73 years old.

Even his planned visits to a public hospital in Lahore for dialysis treatments were celebratory, said Nurjahan, 43, a visual artist and filmmaker. True to form, her mother would be dressed to perfection, matching her self-designed outfits with earrings and bracelets. The Urdu word shaukeenwhich loosely translates to someone who revels in their interests, applied perfectly to her, she said.

After dividing her time between Canada and Pakistan for 15 years, Ms Alam returned to Lahore in 2007 to care for her aging parents and has remained there.Courtesy of the family

“Everyone came to say hello or hello to her, from the sweepers to the nurses, to all the people on dialysis at the same time. And she hugged them. It’s like there’s a party going on. … It was just who she was in a very pure state,” she said.

Born in Lahore on June 19, 1948, Ms. Alam comes from a self-proclaimed bourgeois family. Her father, Mahmood, was a well-known businessman and tennis player, who competed twice at Wimbledon. His mother, Surayya, was a prominent educator who established the famous Montessori-style Toddler Academy.

A shy middle child, Ms Alam attended Sacred Heart Convent and Kinnaird College for Women. It was after her registration at the prestigious National College of Arts (NCA) in 1966 that she truly asserted herself and rebelled against certain social mores. Her parents likely enrolled her there to complete her education rather than prepare her for a career in the arts, Nurjahan said, but she became fascinated with the bohemian life around her. For the first time, she met a wide range of people outside of the privileged bubble she grew up in.

“It was the age of Aquarius,” Ms Alam said in a 2019 interview on the digital talk show Speak your heart with Samina Peerzada. “We were all re-watching…the Vietnam War and the American intervention. It was very exciting [time].”

It was also at the NCA that Ms. Alam learned about Pakistan’s indigenous artistic traditions through her peers and mentors. She first thought of textiles, but found herself in the institution’s ceramics department when she noticed an empty classroom full of potter’s wheels.

Pottery became her calling and she was encouraged to flourish in the form by Zahoor ul Akhlaq, one of her artistic mentors, whom she married in 1971. When they met, Mr. Akhlaq was increasingly recognized as one of Pakistan’s pioneer artists, known for his paintings and sculptures, as well as his work in design and architecture.

Pottery became Ms Alam’s calling and she was encouraged to flourish in the form by Zahoor ul Akhlaq, one of her artistic mentors, whom she married in 1971.Courtesy of the family

Ms. Alam’s parents initially did not see him as a good partner for their daughter, as they disapproved of her profession and middle-class background. They attempted to end the courtship by sending Ms Alam to Paris for six months. However, the City of Love was also a hotbed of revolution back then. Mrs. Alam returned with even more determination to marry, with Mao little red book in his hand, and the teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurti in his head.

His family reconciled with the decision and the couple moved into an annex of the family compound in Lahore. The newlyweds transformed an old United Nations trailer without wheels into an extended living space known as the Box. It became a cultural crossroads where artists and friends came and occasionally organized exhibitions.

Ms. Alam graduated with honors from the NCA in 1972. Inspired by Japanese and Scandinavian traditions, her thesis project was a dinner service borrowed from Finnish pottery but incorporating indigenous Pakistani designs. His daughters, Jahanara and Nurjahan, were born in 1974 and 1979 respectively.

In 1977, she established Studio 90, transforming a shed and chicken coop in her parents’ compound into a space to create and display pottery works. She held her first solo exhibition at the Pakistan Arts Council in Karachi the following year. In 1983, she obtained a scholarship from the British Council and studied at the West Surrey College of Art & Design.

Although she considered making functional, mass-produced pottery, she eventually became a champion of Pakistan’s indigenous pottery traditions, drawing on practices from other parts of Asia as well.

“She took something that was considered a craft and took it to a level where it was all about formalism. It was very sculptural,” Nurjahan said, noting his influences from China, Japan and the ancient Indus Valley Civilization. “It took on subcontinental forms like the dome, the sura [a clay pot used to store water]or the diya [oil lamp] and used them in his work.

Sheherezade Alam, left, with her father Mahmood Alam, brother Shaban (brother), mother Surayya and brother Asad.Courtesy of the family

The tumultuous times in Pakistan after General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq declared martial law in 1977 made Mr Akhlaq restless. He received a Fulbright scholarship in 1987 to study at Yale University, and the family lived for two years in New Haven, Conn. They returned to Pakistan for two years before moving to Turkey in 1992. They had taught at Bilkent University in Ankara for about a year when their Canadian immigration arrived, Nurjahan said.

A few months after moving to Toronto in the fall of 1992, the family began living at Arcadia Housing Co-operative. Ms. Alam has used the co-op’s workshop, taught classes and held solo exhibitions at the Arcadia Art Gallery. Although the move to Canada was difficult for Mr. Akhlaq, who was well established in Pakistan, Ms. Alam wasted no time in finding other potters and artists wherever she went.

Then tragedy struck in 1999. Mr. Akhlaq and Jahanara, the eldest daughter, were murdered by a gunman while visiting Lahore to celebrate Eid.

“It’s a huge trauma for anyone to lose half of their family, and I think especially for her, she lost a child,” Nurjahan said.

To cope with the grief, Ms Alam created the Zahoor Project in 2000 to archive and research the influence of her husband’s work, an endeavor which Nurjahan has now undertaken. She also presented several art exhibitions inspired by the emerging work of her deceased daughter Jahanara as a dancer of Kathak, a classical Indian form and founded the Jahan e Jahanara Center for Traditional Children’s Arts in 2010.

For all her quirks and delightful charms, Ms Alam could also be a demanding mother, Nurjahan said. As a teenager who preferred to stay in her room reading books when visitors came to her house, she resented her mother’s request for tamean Urdu word that loosely translates to polite or socially correct manners, at the time.

“Before you know it, you find yourself frying pakoras for the guests,” Nurjahan said, with a fond laugh. “She was always very spontaneous, which I struggled with because I like to plan things. I realized later that it all came from the same place, where she pushed things to excessive levels. She was just herself.

Ms. Alam leaves behind her daughter Nurjahan Akhlaq.

Maria D. Ervin