Monday, September 25, 2017

When Angels Came to Earth-Meet An Artist - Hojat Amani

“In fact all children like doodling and it seems that it is part of our nature as human beings. Children like drawing or working with color even before learning to read and write. Moreover, it has a long history, for example, early man did the same thing and the rock art found in different parts of the world shows this clearly. But the point is that, some people continue this and for them it becomes a passion and a career. As for me, that was the case,” says Hojat Amani, the Iranian artist whose Angel series are quite popular and whose infusing of the traditional and the modern in his visual language has made him quite unique. Though engulfed by the crises of war and suffering, Amani tries to focus on the beauty and sanctity of life.

Hojat Amani

Deepa Gopal: To begin with tell us something about yourself, your background, your education etc.

Hojat AmaniI took up visual arts as a major. Of course my family did not want me to do so, because they considered the arts as an extra-curricular activity. However, others’ support encouraged me to keep on pursuing my purpose. Neither was there any historical background related to the arts in my family nor any valuable artistic source to support me (including: libraries, gallery and so on). The only source that I had was a collection of stamps and they were a kind of model for me to practice drawing. In those days, we didn’t know anything about jobs and when we were asked about our favorite jobs, we used to say “I want to be an engineer, doctor or pilot." We didn’t know that one could be an artist. But I always wanted to be different.  The time passed and I was accepted in the university as an art student and it was at that time that I realized how passionate I am about painting. It was as if a thirsty person after struggling a lot reaches an oasis to quench his thirst. However, I had an insatiable thirst for learning. To tell the truth, I didn’t like to get back home from college and I didn’t like my college days to end. College days were the best period of my lifetime. I was deeply engrossed in my major. I became familiar to some great people who influenced me and I am really indebted to them. Then I passed MA exam and I continued learning. I am very good at learning and I try to learn from everything. For instance, whenever I hear somebody knows something or has a special technique in Visual Arts, I go and visit him (not once, if necessary several times) to learn something. The next critical stage in my journey toward success was going abroad. For the first time I visited London, the mecca of Middle Eastern visual artists, and it was an unforgettable experience. It was there that I become familiar with the professional world of art business and visited extraordinary museums which are beyond description.

DG: Where are you based now?

HA: I reside in Tehran at the moment. 

DG: What are you working on these days?

HA: I am focusing more on drawings these days. I carry around a sketchbook and draw on it when I am inspired. These sketches are important for my artwork. In fact, when I draw, I draw without any predetermined and contemplation plans. The process is so much similar to how kids draw. I also do some mental exercises to make me grounded and centred before drawing. For example I do crosswords or clean the brushes.


DG: Would you like to say something about your process of art making/creation of your stunning images?

HA: I use mixed media, for example for my angel series, I’ve combined many media - painting the wings on the curtain, photography, public space in this case etc.  together. I started with a performance; I decided to create angels from ordinary people with two wings. With a nod towards traditional Islamic and Iranian paintings; I combine Persian motifs and elements sometimes with calligraphy. I painted wings upon a white screen (curtain) in the style depicted in the fifteenth century “Miraj Nameh “manuscript and set off on a journey.  

DG: You were a calligrapher and then you moved out in search of new pastures. What made you to decide so?

HA: I entered the world of art through calligraphy, an art form that though expressive works to liberate the artist from that which ties him to this earthly life through constant repetition: an art form that only allows beauty to be created by a person who has been beautified first from within. The very repetition in calligraphy acts as a mantra to allow that which lies in the deepest confines of the artist’s Self to come forth and shine through the work. When I realized that I had to find a way to join the traditional with the modern in order to give my viewers a cathartic purification and a promise of freedom from the difficulties of contemporary life, I wanted to find a way to make my work a safe haven to which the exhausted people of our times could turn and find relief. In fact calligraphy isn’t a global language and I was evoked to find a language to connect with all people and all religions.


DG: There’s a mix of traditional and modern in your works...quite distinct of your region and yet speaking a universal language be it the “Angel” series or the feminine faces. You even have calligraphic intervention too in your works. Is there any specific reason to mix the *Qajar/Safavid visual language with pop culture? 

HA: Perhaps we can cautiously say that the new and contemporary art of Iran are imported phenomena and rooted in many artistic movements of the world. These artistic trends, which were initially welcomed, especially by the young generation, after passing the initial excitement, are now developing and evolving on a more logical basis. Some Iranian artists, by using and relying on Qajar motifs, have indicated the problem of national identity and its necessity in their works that is still a growing trend.

Qajar is very important for me – why, due to the arrival of photography in Iran. Qajar period is the beginning of Modernism in the art history of Iran. Because of this historical event, the art concepts underwent a metamorphosis and new structural, technical and thematic outcome has entered the artistic trend of Iran. However, On the other hand, another phenomenon such as picture archive took place in Iran that helped stabilize historic authenticity and expansion of artistic approaches. In fact, this development is a realistic portraying of the past, which has the ability to relate to our nostalgic feelings of the past.
Ancient history is important for me. The extravagant and iconic portraits of amorous wine-imbibing couples, dazzling concubines performing acrobatic feats on hennaed hands, and stern-faced, resolute monarchs, replete with monobrows, fulsome moustaches, and other sundry varieties of facial hair in vogue at the time somehow stirred my interest. If Iran ever had a movement dynasty, it belonged to the Qajars.

Women were an important part of Qajar era, and the kings were very fond of ladies to the point of choosing multiple wives. I feel that the physical look of Qajar woman is very symbolic of Iranian woman, not the stance they took, and hence the reason I used it in my art. 

[*Qajar art refers to the art, architecture, and art-forms of the Qajar dynasty of the late Persian Empire, which lasted from 1781 to 1925. The boom in artistic expression that occurred during the Qajar era was the fortunate side effect of the period of relative peace that accompanied the rule of Agha Muhammad Khan and his descendants. With his ascension, the bloody turmoil that had been the 18th century in Persia came to a close, and made it possible for the peacetime arts to again flourish.

*Safavid art is the art of the Persian Safavid dynasty from 1501 to 1722, in present-day Iran and Caucasia. It was a high point for the art of the book and architecture also including ceramics, metal, glass, and gardens. The arts of the Safavid period show a far more unitary development than in any other period of Iranian art. The Safavid Empire was one of the most significant and greatest ruling dynasties of Iran with artistic accomplishments, since the Muslim conquest of Persia.]


DG: Your ‘Angel’ series is a striking fusion of your signature style...tell us something about the evolution of the series. Why is it termed so? What are your thoughts on angels? (Since we do have a tradition of angelic forms and other realms in many cultures... how much of it has influenced your thought?) Another striking feature is that the wings adorn all irrespective of gender.

HA: Man has always been in search of meaning and looking for a sanctuary. In the current era, when geographical boundaries have been removed, it is easier for us to search for our true home, which is reflecting upon one’s true being. This will put an end to alienation between people. We have lost our 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 with art, but its value has been reduced to its material objects. 

Man’s anxiety and restlessness is the result of his alienation from his own soul. The belief in metaphysics and faith in the unseen helps man to find his soul and inner peace of mind. Art has the potential to enable him to regain this 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. The reporting art and realism are beautiful, but they cannot heal. An Art that is based on man’s essence and points to the beyond is the type of art that heals. Our traditional art has always considered the other realms. While Jean Gustave Courbet was asking to see an angel before he would actually draw one, Eastern artist 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 Zoroastrians in Iran, Buddhists in Bambina, the Arabs of Mesopotamia, Mani’s of Babylon, and Aramaean prophets. The depicted images were indication of belief in God, and superhuman capacities, and the same type of beliefs can be seen in Islamic traditions and sacred books. 

As an art student, I used to draw without any pre-contemplation. As the ink would touch my paper, I would play with it and it would turn into an angel. This was the beginning of my contemplation about angels, and thoughts of how I could create contemporary angels with new narratives and new experiences. I thought about creating angels from ordinary people. I painted wings on a white screen (curtain), and asked people to stand in front of these screens and to imagine their desires and 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 the angels was not a coincidence. They were messages from the unconscious beckoning to be actualized in a form of a contemporary angel. 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. But for this project, people were often eager to experience standing in front of the wings. Nevertheless, there were people that thought that they were too big (fat) 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 actualization of their dreams. In Iran, most private galleries tend to veer towards political and gender themes. I believe all people can become angels in character regardless of gender. Perhaps the modern world and technology has 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 for me these angels were a rewriting of heaven in the modern world.

As Rumi says: “We lived in the heavens and were friends of angels …there will we once more return for that is our rightful place.”


DG: Are they (people in “Angel” series) people whom you know personally or are there strangers too? Was it done outdoors or indoors?

HA: No I didn’t know some of them yet. For women is a hard to be a modelling for photography, in Iran for reasons and limitation of religion. I photographed common people from the street but I started with my family. Most of them were done outdoors.

DG: Have you been with one of your wings? How did you feel?

HA: Yes. I have. I felt like a fallen angel!


DG: You depict female forms, beauty, grace, elegance, old world charm. How important are these to you? Since there’s constant shift in the understanding of female beauty, how do you gauge your concept of beauty?

HA: I believe beauty is in our mind if we look at the female as sexual we lose the beauty so it’s very important for me how I look at women. They need to be looked at with respect.

DG: Are you a ‘feminist’? There have always been men who are staunch feminists who advocated women’s cause, so just curious.

HA: No, I don’t like separate terms. Man and Woman are two parts of one thing. Example: a bird has two wings for flying, no more nor less.


This interview is in two parts. 
To be continued...

Qajar/Safavid detail from wikipedia

This is an email interview that has been edited for the blog post.

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