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â€˜The Garden of Mysteryâ€™ opens at Asia House, on Wednesday 22 November until Friday 1 December 2017, in celebration of the 700th anniversary of Gulshan-i Raz, one of the greatest works of Persian (Sufi) poetry, written in the early 14th century by Mahmoud Shabistari. Featuring contemporary art by young emerging artist, Taha Afshar, the exhibition is supported with additional work by one of the most prominent Iranian artists of the contemporary period, Monir Farmanfarmaian from Tehran as well as Y.Z. Kami, who lives and works in New York. The works on display, by artists living internationally and born in disparate decades, differ in style and execution, but share a connection and resonance with core themes within Sufi literature and practice.
The Garden of Mystery is now considered to be one of the greatest classical Persian works of the Islamic mystical tradition known in the west as Sufism. From the opening verse, the poet delves straight into recurring themes of the poetry: the heart, soul, contemplation and illumination.
The spiritual themes presented in this poetry mirror ideas explored by not only Renaissance masters, but also the Romantics, several Modernists and a selection of post-war and contemporary western and eastern artists. For example, if you take a work like â€œConcerning the Spiritual in Artâ€ by Kandinsky you can see how important redefining paintingâ€™s role in exploring manâ€™s inner spiritual struggle was for his vision for Modern art. In this context, Shabistariâ€™s work provides another lens and framework to capture manâ€™s journey, relationship with his heart and the cosmos.
Monir Farmanfarmaian (b. 1924) was the subject of a major career retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York in 2015. Her work relies on mirrors to reflect and redirect light, as is done to embellish shrines to elevate the sanctity of holy spaces. Whilst decoratively complex, the use of geometric patterns and tessellations points to a far deeper conceptual agenda. The proliferation of arabesque abstract decoration enhances a quality that could only be attributed to God, namely, the doctrine of tawhid, or Divine Unity. Farmanfarmaianâ€™s work not only relates to the tradition of Sufi literature by means of the aesthetic references to decorate architectural motifs associated with Sufism, but also conceptually through its play with light. The mirror of the heart is referred to by Shabistari and other Sufi authors as a metaphor.
Y.Z. Kami (b. 1956) is an Iranian born American painter based in New York. Kami is known for referencing core concepts of different religious faiths and philosophies in his artworks. Though the subjects in his oeuvre span from painted portraits and devotional subject matter to abstract domes and architectural elements, the artist continually returns to themes of introspection, subjectivity and contemplation. There will be both figurative work and paintings from his Dome series. The connection is through the meditative experience and expression of light.
Taha Afsharâ€™s (b. 1983) work continues this discourse through two sets of paintings, one of which is exhibited. The set of abstract paintings landscape are exploring other themes discussed by Shabistari. The intention and purpose of the set of paintings is to explore the light within the human heart and soul. The basic concept is that in all paintings there is a yellow source of light. All the other colours and lines serve to support that light, which is attempting to capture and symbolize the light within the heart. The landscape as a backdrop is a metaphor. These are internal landscapes. Therefore, like a reflection of the artistâ€™s own heart, whilst working on the physical canvas, the source of light is to the bottom left of the canvas; mirroring the left central ventricle where the heart rests. The sun here is not literally the sun, but a source of light â€“ both material and spiritual.
Join us for the preview reception, of this exhibition, in the presence of Taha Afshar, on Tuesday 21 November 2017 18.00 â€“ 20.30.
Further, on 28th November, 18.45 â€“ 20.00, we will be exploring this fascinating work of literature and complementary exhibition where we will discuss and celebrate Mahmoud Shabistariâ€™s poetry in depth by eminent experts on the subject of The Garden of Mystery, 700th anniversary and the influence of Sufism in contemporary visual arts at a panel discussion will be followed by a drinks reception. Panellists: Dr Ladan Akbarnia, Curator, Islamic Collections, British Museum Dr Sussan Babaie, Andrew W. Mellon Reader in the Arts of Iran and Islam, The Courtauld Institute of Art Dr Leonard Lewisohn, Senior Lecturer, Iran Heritage Foundation Fellow in Sufi Literature, Exeter University and Dr Taha Afshar, exhibiting artist. Introduction by Mariam Neza, Curator, Asia House.