Iran’s Hojat Amani seeks to provide relief from modern-day woes through his fresh perspective on traditional Persian narratives.
Iranian artist Hojat Amani deftly blends contemporary Western pop culture with the Persian script and classical motifs. Art Radar spoke with the artist about his newest “Still Life” series and proof that angels do exist.
Hojat Amani was born in Iran’s western Luristan Province (استان لرستان) and holds degrees from the University of Art in Esfahan and the University of Art in Tehran. According to Janet Rady, the gallerist who represents his work in London, Amani is unique amongst his peers. Rady told Art Radar that:
Hojat is a multi-talented artist, working in a variety of media and styles, be it photography, painting, calligraphy, figurative or still life subject matter. He is unique, in that he has the ability to make Iranian art accessible to an international audience. Instantly recognisable as Iranian, he does not dwell on the negative aspects of the culture, from which so many of his fellow artists draw their inspiration. Instead, his work is consistently one of beauty, joy and pleasure, subtly imbued with a compassionate sense of humour.
Amani’s work has been shown widely throughout Tehran, as well as in solo and group exhibitions in Canada, Europe, Kuwait, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In addition, the artist has participated in art residencies in London and Lithuania.
Art Radar learnt more from the artist about the import of calligraphy in Iran, how the collision between tradition and modernity can estrange the soul, and his iconic “Angel” series.
In addition to being a painter, you are also a calligrapher. Historically, does calligraphy have a long tradition in Iran?
Calligraphy goes back to the emergence of Islam in Iran. In the beginning, it was utilised to copy passages in the Qur’an. There is a tradition in Islam stating that a person who writes the name of God beautifully will be rewarded with entrance to Heaven. When the Qur’an was copied, certain important rituals had to be followed in detail and the individual had to undergo specific training. This training was transferred from one generation to the next.
When transcribing passages, calligraphy should be done in the same manner as when one prays. In his book, Hikmat al-Ishraq, Persian philosopher Sohrevardi (شهابالدین سهروردی) described how in prayer, the busyness of senses subsides, the ego goes into a trance and the pure being of the human is embellished with an image from beyond. That which is from beyond will at times hide and at other times will shine on the being. The result is a written line in the sacred book. In the past, this art was prescribed for rebellious kids to learn concentration and mindfulness, and many families used to encourage their children to learn this skill.
Nas’taliq is known as the “Bride of the calligraphy scripts” and today is the most popular of the classical Persian calligraphy scripts. This style has been based on such a strong foundation that it has changed very little since its inception. It is as if Mir Ali Tabrizi (میرعلی تبریزی), known as the father of Nas’taliq, found the optimum composition of letters and graphical rules so that it has just been fine-tuned during the past seven centuries.
Nas’taliq is the most beautiful Persian calligraphy script and also technically the most complicated. It has strict rules regarding the shape of the letters and composition of the complete finished product. Even the second most popular Persian calligraphy style known as Cursive Nas’taliq or Shekasteh Nas’taliq noticeably follows the same rules as Nas’taliq, with more flexibility, of course.
Tell us about your “Angel” series. How did it begin? Is there a history of angels or winged creatures in Persian culture?
Man has always been in search of meaning and seeking sanctuary. In the current era, when geographical boundaries have been removed, it is easier for us to search for our true home and reflect upon one’s true being. This will put an end to alienation between people. People today have lost their innocence to the virtual world of machines and media. We have become estranged from our own essence and our values have been reduced to mechanical efficiency. The same is true of art, where it has been reduced to physical or material value.
Man’s anxiety and restlessness is the result of his alienation from his own soul. Belief in metaphysics and faith helps man to find his soul and inner peace of mind. Art has the potential to enable him to regain peace; art can rescue man from his anxieties and inner turmoil. I believe that art’s potential is more than beauty – it has the potential to heal. Pieces “reporting” about the actual world through realism are beautiful, but they cannot heal. Art that is based on man’s essence and points to the beyond is the type of art that heals.
Traditional Persian miniature painting has always considered other realms. While Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet was asking to see an angel before he would actually draw one, eastern artists were drawing angels. In the secular imagination, as well as in many religious traditions from the Near East, there have always been angelic beings. They were depicted by the Zoroastrians in Iran, Buddhists in Bamiyan, the Arabs of Mesopotamia, Mani’s of Babylon and Aramaean prophets. The depicted images were an indication of the belief in God and superhuman capacities. The same type of beliefs can be seen in Islamic traditions and sacred books.
As an art student, I used to draw freely, without a conscious direction. As the ink would touch the paper, I would play with it and it would turn into an angel. This was the beginning of my contemplation on angels and thoughts of how I could create contemporary angels with new narratives and experiences.
I thought about creating angels from ordinary people and with wings. Using traditional Islamic and Iranian motifs, I painted wings on a white screen (curtain) and asked people to stand in front of these screens and imagine their desires. I asked them to imagine that the wings belonged to them, without any judgments. Thus the models “tried on” the wings and projected their feelings about angels. In retrospect, the appearance of these angels was not a coincidence. They were messages from the unconscious beckoning to be actualised in the form of contemporary angels.
How did your subjects react to the wings?
Often people were serious, other times they had fun with it. Both of these reactions were important to me. In my country, there are many who don’t like to be photographed, especially women, because of their religious beliefs. For this project, however, people were often eager to experience standing in front of the wings. But there were also people who thought that they were too big to fly and some felt that they were too sinful to stand in front of the wings. In some places, the police prevented me from proceeding with the project, because the concept was very unusual to them and was considered as anti-religious by others.
Working with these people was extremely interesting and exciting. They believed that their wishes had been granted and that this was the actualisation of their dreams. In Iran, most private galleries tend to veer towards themes exploring politics and gender. I believe all people can become angels “in character” regardless of gender. Perhaps the modern world and technology have separated people from their essence with issues like war and racism, but the imagination of being an angel even for a short time is pacifying to people. To me, it brought great satisfaction to record such moments and these angels were representing a piece of heaven in the modern world. As Rumi (جلالالدین محمد بلخى) says, “We lived in the heavens and were friends of angels… there will we once more return for that is our rightful place.”
Who or what was the inspiration behind your “Cheeky Faces” series?
This collection was inspired by two styles of portraiture and pictorial history in Iran, and is related to different eras of the Safavids (1501–1736) and the Qajars (1785–1925). Qajar was the era of Modernism in Iranian history when photography and photo archiving began. This opus is a collection of old realistic images that can trigger a sense of nostalgia for the past.
Our earliest realistic images belong to the Qajar era, since prior to that there was no accurate way of preserving images – all images were illusory. In both the Safavid (سلسلهٔ صفويان) and Qajar (دودمان قاجار) periods, we see the influence of western styles in Persian paintings. I have attempted to bring westernised influence into my work by using modern pop culture and to challenge it by amplifying its effect. Among these collections are the ‘cheeky’ Safavids, with their long, flowing robes, ornate headdresses and amorous glances. The Qajars, on the other hand, with cropped hair, beauty marks and their signature joined eyebrows are reminiscent of a dark, decaying and depraved Persia on the brink of destruction.
Your new “Still Life” series combines traditional and modern imagery. Does this blend represent Iran’s trajectory towards globalisation?
I feel that this collection is more than just a “still life”. These are combinations of fruits from the Qajar era, which represent heavenly fruits since they lack perspective and chiaroscuro, giving us a sense of surrealism. These fruits are juxtaposed with the perspective of the new generation, who consider the West as their heaven, and western brands, such as Coca Cola, as the symbolic representation of their “heaven”. The “Still Life” collection depicts Iranian society’s contradictions of traditional and modern styles, and how the society is operating in a state of limbo.
Can art bring hope to the youth in your country? How?
Absolutely, this is the essence of art. However, there are problems with contemporary Iranian art, especially among the younger generation. Today, some artists are interested in only making art that is profitable. Though some of the art sold has generated a substantial income locally and internationally, this trend has resulted in artists attempting to mimic each other’s templates and the art being reduced to a commercial commodity.
Currently, two types of art are favoured by auctions and collectors in Iran, especially Arab collectors. One is calligraphy painting and the other is fantasy realism in which there is the depiction of Iranian womens’ hijab. This interest has increased the taste and preference of the public for this kind of art.
Please tell us about any upcoming exhibitions that you’ll be participating in through 2014.
I have just completed a successful exhibition and performance in Pakistan at the Chawkandi Art Gallery in Karachi. My work will also be seen in an upcoming exhibition with Haleh Gallery in Germany and a solo exhibition in Tehran. I am also in the process of planning and developing an exhibition in Toronto and Qatar with the Art Clvb.
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