Camden Close-Up: Olivia Ahmad

Love Camden loves its local talent. We aim to celebrate everything cultural in the borough, from Hampstead to Kilburn, from the British Library to that little café around the corner - we are always out to show what Camden has to offer. As part of this we launched our Camden Close-Up series: interviews with artists, thinkers, entrepreneurs and downright interesting figures that live, work or are inspired by the borough.

This month we spoke to Olivia Ahmad, curator at House of Illustration, the only public art gallery in the UK dedicated to illustration. Based in Granary Square in King’s Cross since 2014, the gallery is about to celebrate its third birthday.

"I fell in love with museums and galleries when I was an illustration student at Cambridge School of Art. They were full of things to draw, but even more than that, they were great sources of stories. When I was making a picture book or a comic for a university assignment, museums like The Polar in Cambridge and the Wellcome Collection in Euston would be my first port of call. Eventually I realised I enjoyed researching objects more than drawing them. When I graduated and thought ‘what am I going to do now’, I started looking in to becoming an exhibitions curator.

It might seem like a big jump, going from an art practice degree to being someone who does archival research and plans exhibitions, and to be honest: I was pretty worried about that when I started curatorial training at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums and did my MA in Museum Studies in the North East. But actually, curating an exhibition isn’t so different from putting together an illustrated book: you are telling a story with images and text, but in a space instead of on paper.

(c) Lucinda-Rogers

I worked in Newcastle and Gateshead for about seven years, at museums and galleries and at the Northern Design Festival. The North East has a really vibrant arts scene, but I being born in north London I suffered from homing instinct! When House of Illustration was just about to open in King’s Cross in 2014, I came back to London to run the inaugural exhibitions programme. This included work by artists Quentin Blake, Honoré Daumier and Paula Rego, visual effects studio Framestore and our first illustrator in residence Rachel Lillie: a really broad range of approaches. This is what House of Illustration is all about; showing the dynamic and varied work of illustrators past and present. It’s my job to plan 10 exhibitions a year that all represent completely different aspects of illustration. So far this year we’ve shown fashion illustration, reportage, picture books, animation backgrounds and editorial images made from the 19th century to the present day.

 Quentin Blake
(c)  Quentin Blake

In comparison with other creative fields like painting or photography, there has been less research undertaken about illustration. There have been fewer books and exhibitions. That’s really exciting for House of Illustration because often we are making an exhibition on a theme that hasn’t been explored before and we get to show artwork that has never been seen in public. It’s also challenging because it means we have to undertake a lot of research on the artwork we show to be able to date it and contextualise it properly.

I spend quite a lot of time in archives and libraries trying to trace artwork or piece together information about illustrators, but mostly working as a curator is a very human process that involves meeting people: illustrators, their families, friends and collectors, and talking about their work and interests. That’s definitely the best part of my job!

One of my favourite things to do is commissioning new work from illustrators who are pushing the boundaries of their practice. We recently showed narrative-led ceramics by Laura Carlin, and last year we installed a responsive projection by Paddy Molloy in Granary Square. At the moment artist and illustrator Lucinda Rogers is creating a response to gentrification of East London, which we will exhibit in October.

Paul Grover
Laura Carlin (c) Paul Grover

The future is mapped out quite far ahead when you work in an art gallery. Most of our exhibitions are planned 2 or 3 years in advance because it takes time to develop an exhibition: you have to find the artwork, research it, borrow it and prepare it for display. Coming up next year we have an exhibition on designer and illustrator Enid Marx who lived and worked in Islington, an exhibition on the persuasive power of infographics, three exhibitions of unseen artwork by Quentin Blake and much more!"

Click here to visit House of Illustration's website!

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