Making Her Mark: Prop Maker

July 17, 2023

Making Her Mark: Prop Maker

“I used to have a fear of what people would think of me. Now, I know that someone has to take the crap to pave the way for other women in the future.”

Prop creator Zahida Bukhari is paving the way for Muslim women in creative trades.

Carpenter, painter, sculptor, and most recently a contestant on Nick Knowles’ Better Homes, Zahida Bukhari is a Jill-of-all-trades, and that is exactly how she likes it. Her projects include benches for the English National Opera’s production of Yeoman of the Guard, the larger-than-life puppet for Walk With Amal, and the eponymous wishing tree for the Little Angel Theatre.

Zahida takes a hands-on approach to the world around her, but her unapologetic stance is not always celebrated by creative industries that are dominated by white peers.  Despite the stereotypes surrounding Muslim women, Zahida has carved out a niche for herself in the theatrical prop community.

Tell us a bit about your journey into prop making.

IIn school, I always enjoyed product design and art. From there, I did a Level 3 Extended Diploma in Art and Design in college. In the last few months, I saw my classmates getting ready for university. I knew that I didn’t want to go that route, not just because I don’t enjoy theory-based work, but because I was my mum’s carer. I was in and out of hospital with her, so university just wasn’t an option.

I knew that I wanted to work with my hands because I’ve been into DIY from a young age. I even made a shed with my Dad when I was ten.

After college, I was looking for apprenticeships in creative industries online. I found an apprenticeship as a Prop Maker at the National Theatre. I didn’t know what a prop maker was, but when I researched it I knew that it was perfect for me. There was only one position, and I thought, ‘I won’t get this.’

“My mum encouraged me to stay positive. One day, I was sitting in the garden when the phone rang. I got the job! I later found out that there were 84 applicants.”

It was an intensive 18-month apprenticeship. They took me through all the skills I needed to be a good prop maker. By the time I left, I had experience in carpentry, metalwork, scenic painting, sculpting, and all sorts of other niche trades.

Why do you enjoy working with your hands?

Working with my hands is like therapy to me, especially if it’s something personal and it doesn’t have a deadline. I can fully get in the zone. And of course, looking at the final project is very satisfying.

What does your working day look like?

If I’m working on theatre props for a production, I’ll usually work from nine to five. Theatre clients book me for anything from a few days to a few months, depending on what they want me to create.

How do you feel about the instability associated with freelance work?

In the first few days after my apprenticeship finished, I panicked. I sent out hundreds of emails to employers. At the beginning of my career, I was quite worried because I didn’t have connections in the industry.

But when you’re in the theatre world, everyone knows everyone. If you’re a good, kind person, you’ll get recommended. After a few years, I didn’t have a problem booking work. Soon enough, I was booking projects for a few months in advance.

How has being a person of colour and a Muslim impacted your career? 

On stage, there are lots of different ethnicities. In the workshop, the creators, runners, and stagehands are all predominantly white. Sometimes I faced Islamophobia and racism.

“Because of my own issues, I hated not fitting in. After a few years, I got used to sticking out.”

Do you experience racism in your career?

All the time. I work backstage, so lots of people pass by over the course of a normal day. Sometimes the racism is indirect and at other times in my face. There was an instance when I was working in a corner backstage when someone called me a terrorist and walked off. I didn't get a chance to see who it was as it was dark.

Are employers responsive to your religious needs?

Most places are good with religious things. I’ve had employers provide me with a designated prayer room, and I’ve had others adjust my hours during Ramadan. A lot were accommodating and curious.

Others said, ‘Sorry, we don’t do special treatment here.’ There has been a few times where I have had to go outside in the rain to pray, because the workroom was too crowded and I needed my privacy.

Did the pandemic impact your work?

Yes, Covid took away all of my typical work. Instead of working on my usual theatre prop projects, I took on a lot of personal projects for domestic customers. Thanks to furlough, people who had always wanted a bespoke item, such as a coffee table, finally had the money.

Looking back, this experience made me a far better carpenter. Wood used to be one of my worst mediums. In my first carpentry project, I wasted something like 16 feet worth of wood, and I couldn’t get the joints right. Covid gave me a chance to appreciate and experiment with wood a lot more. When life went back to normal, most of the job requests that I got were carpentry related.

You’ve worked on everything from giant Cezanne apples for the Tate Modern to dozens of metal cloaks for the English Natural Opera’s production of The Handmaid’s Tale. What’s the next step in your career?  

My dream is to have my own workshop, preferably a large warehouse or a barn. Right now, my workshop is a shed in my mum’s garden. We don’t have a side entrance, so anything that I create has to fit through the front door! I’ve been asked to make large sculptures and projects that just wouldn’t work for the space that I have.  

Carpentry and prop making are physically demanding jobs. What do you do to look after yourself?

Managing stress around work is important. My brain doesn’t switch off at night, it’s always on go, go, go mode. I have to force myself to take the weekend off, that sort of thing.

“It’s like there are a hundred tabs open in my brain. I think a lot of creative people struggle with that.”

I try to counteract the chaos by eating well, going to the gym, and getting a good night’s sleep. I didn’t do that in the first year, and I was tired all the time. 

With all these different things going on, how do you keep creatively charged?  

I like having lots of things going on because I get bored very easily. If I was doing woodwork for three months I would hate it, which is why I choose not to specialise as a woodworker, painter, or anything else. I love the fact that my apprenticeship taught me so many different skills, it means that I can dip in and out of different trades.

When I’m doing different things, I stay creatively charged.

If you could talk to your 12-year-old self, what advice would you give her about her career options?

I would say, don’t put limits on yourself. Do whatever job you want to do. I always think that good things come to those that are patient and kind to others.

“One day, a little girl might look up to you and say, ‘I want to be just like you.’”

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