Finding strength through art

Artist Eliyah Qureshi talks to Shelly Berry about her inspirations and aspirations

Eliyah Qureshi in her studio

Eliyah Qureshi in her studio (credit Al-Khalidi)

It always fascinates me to hear what inspires other people to make art – and meeting local artist Eliyah Qureshi was no exception.

Like me, Eliyah started drawing as a child. “This was my passion, my escape was art,” she recalls, telling me how her parents, both writers, encouraged her creativity – despite finding her choice to use her bedroom wall as a canvas “a bit wild”. At around six years’ old Eliyah found a book about Egon Schiele, who remains a visible influence today. “That book was my first art teacher,” she remembers.

When buying her a computer in 1996, Eliyah’s father fed her interest in graphic design software – “another escape” for the young artist and further fuel for the creativity that led her to the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi, Pakistan. A job in London for her journalist father after the September 11 terror attacks in 2001 cut short her third year. Her parents “did not trust [her] ability to survive” and insisted she move with them. Determined not to give up her studies, Eliyah approached Central St Martins College. “I just walked in with my portfolio,” she laughs. Faced with £10,000 in tuition fees, Eliyah instead continued her education on the job, working as an assistant to other artists. “The practical world I made my institute,” she explains.

By 2006 Eliyah and her IT software developer husband had set up their own business, Dream Mx, and moved to Walthamstow. She remembers an area lacking in studio space, with stalwarts like the Pictorem Gallery treading water as a picture frame shop, and the E17 Art Trail that we both took part in this year was still in its infancy. And, while ten years ago Eliyah was illustrating the “slums” of Walthamstow (known then, she recalls, as “mini Pakistan”), she is now incredulous at how the area has reinvented itself.

“The whole of Walthamstow became a product, and people were just buying the idea – they are still buying the idea,” she reflects.

Eliyah’s practice has also helped her deal with challenges in her personal life. She tells me how, after losing two sons, she was blessed with two girls – the eldest of whom was diagnosed with autism. It was the local authority’s lack of provision in mainstream education to meet her needs that prompted a move to Barkingside. “Waltham Forest [Council] believe in inclusion in a way that’s still separated,” she asserts.

It was through art that Eliyah taught her daughter to read and write. “I learnt a lot. My daughter made me a better person.” She tells me how this, and her daughter’s metamorphosis into “a brilliant artist” inspired her to set up the Barkingside Art Club. The support Eliyah received from local people still takes her aback, especially those who have volunteered their skills, from hairdressing to cricket, to the project.

“The most expensive thing is time,” she muses.

Eliyah Queshi

Eliyah was diagnosed with cancer in 2015 (credit Al-Khalidi)

In 2015, Eliyah found herself facing another challenge – this time one that threatened her life. She tells me of her reaction when her doctor suggested she might have a brain tumour.

“I was about to sue him,” she laughs, before describing the day she was formally diagnosed. “Their faces were like – I knew that there was something wrong.”

Eliyah was in the late stages of lymphoma – and reacted so badly to chemotherapy that she ended her treatment before she was given the all-clear. It was then that she heard about the healing properties of manuka honey – something that later inspired her series In Search of Gold.

“There must be some strength in manuka honey but I think it’s the way people talk to you, they make you believe its working. [But] not everyone can afford it.” The unrefined manuka honey recommended to Eliyah costs £70-£80 a jar, and, while she appears healthy today, her experience of cancer has left its toll. “I talk like a 65-year-old woman. I need to take a nap, I get tired after a few steps.”

As we talk, it becomes clear that Eliyah shares my interest in social issues including body image and the stigma of mental illness. Describing herself as not “fitting in the category of being beautiful,” she explores the need we feel to conform to social concepts in her piece Stag.

“It’s strong and beautiful, and it has burnt antlers. We need society to survive, but you are in constant battle with people to look ‘normal’.”

Eliyah’s personal experience of anxiety and depression, illnesses she describes as “hidden disabilities” is another inspiration in the studio. “This is another taboo in South Asian communities. They don’t think it exists.”

She laughs at how she was encouraged to “pray” for her recovery, and shares with me how conventional methods like medication and counselling didn’t work for her either. “So my art work was my escape, my counselling.”

Eliyah hopes that her latest exhibition at the Valentine Mansion in Ilford will get mental health on the agenda of art lovers. “It’s hard to get people to talk about mental health issues. This is the reason why I want this exhibition, so I can talk to people about how sometimes art looks beautiful, but the idea behind it is something else.”

As my chat with Eliyah came to an end, I admit to her that, while I could talk for hours about the issues she raises in her work, what fascinates me the most is how she describes her art as being “her strength”. She shares with me how she turned her “burdens” into strength – an ethos that, while difficult to action when those burdens begin to overwhelm, I can relate to.

“Things you do every day… you have to start looking at it as your strength. If you can’t change your situation, make it your strength.

“It made me a better person. This is what I believe. Everything happens for a reason.”

To find out more about Eliyah’s art: