Exploring Hempcrete. Studio Visit with Sculptor, Yasmin Bawa.

This week we dropped in on Yasmin Bawa — a sculptor currently exploring the wonders of hempcrete from her cosy Kreuzberg atelier. We talked of her journey from designing shoes in Sweden to making sculptures in Berlin, how she became a hempcrete evangelist, and why it’s her dream to build a house from this intriguing material.

Being someone who’s floated between many different disciplines, I first wondered where Yasmin would locate the current identity of her practice.

“It’s somewhere between furniture and sculpture. I always liked the idea of art that you can really touch and move and play with. Not this idea of creating a sculpture that just sits on a pedestal and never gets touched or moved again... I call myself a sculptor, but I like this functional element too. So I’m sort of testing that boundary.”

After an adolescence split between both sides of the pond — growing up between California and Edinburgh — Yasmin eventually headed south of the Scottish border to London, where she studied Tailoring and Prints — but “nothing to do with sculpture”, she tells me. I was curious to learn more.

“When I was first wanting to study I was thinking between textiles, architecture and product design — but I didn’t know which. So I did an internship at an architecture firm. They didn’t know what to do with me though, so they sent me to their textile designer who was working on a school for the deaf and blind. She was doing these crazy experimental textiles and sensory rooms, and so suddenly this whole tactile material world seemed so much more exciting than just architecture. So I went to do textiles.”

“At the end of my studies, a designer I was interning for put me in contact with someone who needed an assistant during fashion week for Acne Studios. We got on really well, so I ended up moving to Sweden and working in shoes. I had no idea if it was gonna work, but I just tried it anyway… I’ve always just been rolling with what’s different. I have no idea how I ended up doing sculptures now. It’s just been constantly rolling with different things that come along and not being too worried about if I already have all the skills I need.”

“[Acne Studios] was really great and I really value that experience. At some point though, my body just said no… I didn’t have much personal life at all as you’re travelling so much... I realised I just wanted to do something slower, so I decided to just go into the unknown and come to Berlin.”

Did you have any idea what you were looking for?

“No — but I was lucky that I had a couple of small freelance things which meant I could come to Berlin and didn’t have to panic… I got an apartment with a friend, but we weren’t doing much. I was just drawing, sketching, making notes and reading.”

I asked what she was reading when the very same friend, Margaret, with whom she now shares a studio, came outside to offer us a coffee. Yasmin delegated the question to her… “What were we reading?”.

“Oh, you mean the summer when we read everything?” Margaret answered.

She went on… “We were reading all about space. About perception. Colours. Architecture… We were watching so many movies. Old French movies. Drinking wine in the afternoons… We thought we existed in another time and place.”

It sounded like a particularly dreamy existence. Why did you ever stop? I jested.

“We ran out of money… But it really was the summer of discovery. And things just started aligning, where she would read something similar to something I said that morning. We were just in tune. With each other, with what we were reading. Like synchronicity, you know?... I’m Margaret, by the way.”

Margaret’s also a talented photographer, whose work you may already be familiar with, since most of Yasmin’s pieces are photographed by her — including several of the photos in this article.

“Eventually I got a job as a nanny, as I could just work a couple of hours in the afternoon and spend the rest of the time focusing on my own stuff… The first series I did which is similar to what I’m doing now were these concrete furniture pieces. I was mixing small stones with concrete and I would mould the concrete with my hands and some  wire into these furniture pieces.”

“And then, slowly, little projects came in. I also worked with this floral designer who asked if I could make vessels for plants, as she had clients who’d be interested. So through her, I also got a couple of projects with some private clients, and slowly, everything started to move.”

Those already familiar with Yasmin’s work will be aware of her enduring love of hempcrete — a biocomposite material made from a mixture of hemp and lime. We talked about how she first stumbled across this material.

“I’ve always been interested in building a house, so I’m always researching it, watching all these home building YouTube channels, and one of them interviewed a family who’d built a house from hempcrete. Their entire reason for doing it was because the woman’s Dad had passed away from asbestos poisoning because he was a surveyor of derelict buildings, so they wanted to build themselves the most healthy, natural house that their family could live in. So they built this hempcrete house.”

Is hempcrete difficult to work with? I asked.

“It is. I think you really need to have a passion for it. It takes a lot of patience.”

Why are you so passionate about it?

“I just started reading about it. How it’s this incredible plant that could be an enormous renewable resource for us. Hemp sequesters so much carbon, and you can make it just as soft as cotton. So instead of having all the cotton fields — which use so much water and pesticides — we just used hemp, we would have crops growing that don’t need as much water, that regenerate the soil, and that don’t need pesticides.”

“It could really be a revolution if it hadn’t had a prohibition in the US and Europe… If we’d have just spent time developing these sorts of materials we would live in a different world. It really would have had a massive impact on the environment and the way we use plastics.”

Yasmin’s diverse artistic journey makes it clear how comfortable she is just “rolling with what’s different”, as she says — organically drifting into new artistic explorations. But I wondered if there were any experiments that she was more consciously seeking to manifest.

“I like the idea of building my own house. My entire childhood I was building houses and caravans out of Legos. It’s just natural for me. And so I want to build a house out of hempcrete.”

How close are you to that?

“In the next few years. My boyfriend’s French, so I think we’d look for somewhere in the south of France… With these natural buildings, it’s all about creating flexibility and breathability. To allow the water vapour to travel in and out of the house to regulate humidity. It’s all about letting it flow… There’s so much story behind this material and hemp in general. I’m definitely not done researching or exploring.”

Thank you to Yasmin. You can find her links below.

Website -- Instagram

Words by Ewan Waddell.

Photography by Margaret Flatley & Ewan Waddell.