The Garden of Mystery: 700th anniversary (2017).Exhibition catalogue. Essays by Mariam Neza, Taha Afshar, Jobin Bekrad. Published in association with Asia House.
Letting Light In (2017). Essay by Alexandra Reynolds.
The Garden of Mystery (2016). Essay by Taha Afshar.
2015, Taha Afshar: Selected Works. Essays by Alex Reynolds, James Bevan, Josh Bradwell.
2015, Swedish Landscapes. Essay by Alex Reynolds.
Alexandra Reynolds (2015). Reflection: Landscapes. Published in Taha Afshar: Selected Works (2015)
James Bevan (2015). Brushes with Nature: from Early Influences to Recent Processes. Published in Taha Afshar: Selected Works (2015)
Josh Bradwel (2015), These are the Soul. Published in Taha Afshar: Selected Works (2015)
Artlyst, November 2017. Asia House Celebrate Sufi Poetry’s Influence on Contemporary Iranian Art.
SELECTED ARTIST TALKS
2017, Panel discussion on The Garden of Mystery, 700th anniversary and the influence of Sufism in contemporary visual arts. Panelists were: 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
by ALEXANDRA REYNOLDS
‘The Universe is a unity
Making itself manifest
Through an infinite number
Of relative phenomena
In part accessible to our senses
(in their relativity)
Only through things
Do we sense the unity’
Taha Afshar’s 2015 Sweden Landscape Paintings offers the viewer a series of works held in delicate tension between the objective and the subjective, the particular and the universal, the momentary and the timeless. It is fitting that these canvases track the sun’s path over the earth, charting 10am, 12pm, 4pm. At each temporal juncture a microcosm of lived experience is captured. The vicissitudes of internal perception and external sense data are amalgamated into work capturing both the richness and profound transience of human experience; itself reflected in the landscape documented.
In a 2015 interview with James Bevan, Afshar makes reference to the acutely self-reflective nature of his work, citing a certain proximity to surrealist techniques of automatic writing. Indeed, for Afshar the process of painting seemingly operates as a form of meditation where meaning is generated through the durational practice of working itself. Finished images thus reflect the thickness of human experience and sense perception, building layers of meaning into a single unique scene. Layers of lived experience are literally woven into one another here: the harmony of landscapes scenes occasionally interrupted by handwritten text, the purity of natural light and form frequently cracked and abstracted in the filter of the artist’s gaze.
This almost alchemical translation of human subjectivity onto the canvas carries with it an unavoidable sense of existential contemplation, calling forth the spirit of work by Giacometti, Richier or Michaux just as clearly as it references Turner’s elemental aesthetic or Monet’s temporally sequential series of works. In fact, it seems the decision to paint at intervals throughout the day corresponds as much here to the documentation of lived experience as it does the fluctuation of light over a landscape. Works document the rise and fall of a symbiotic relationship with the painted environment over a durational period.
Afshar’s wider landscape works offer direct antecedents for the Sweden series, and range from the swirling, opaque universe of ‘Sleep Dream, Insomnia, Wish, Hope, Purple, Automatic, Love’ (2001), and ‘Lift’ (2011) to the scored, distressed canvas of ‘The Future and the Knife’ (2000) or the layered handwritten text of ‘Spring Green Tuscan’ (2000). Certain images, such as ‘UK Rhythm: Strong Heavy Horizon’ (2011) are described by the artist as dreamscapes, and intersperse a bricolage of lived experience into an imagined vista. Other works such as ‘Need to Learn: Chilworth’ (2015) are taken from life. Nonetheless, these canvases etch a heavy, contemplative sense of inertia into their surburban subject matter.
As this volume attests, Afshar’s wider oeuvre is eclectic, including mixed-media work, sculpture and portraiture. However, here too recurrent themes can be found. Mixed-media works such as The Fern, The FT and The Crisis (2008) were developed as a response to the 2008 global recession and continue to work with themes of time and transience, operating as durational pieces built up in different layers and incarnations over time. Meanwhile, Afshar’s portraiture and sculpture frequently make reference to the work of renowned artists including Rodin, Singer Sargent, Klimt and Caravaggio. Such referencing signals a subjective working through and fictionalisation of art historical knowledge which complements Afshar’s ongoing exploration of the tension between perception and understanding.
In Jacques Derrida’s Memoirs of the Blind (1993), the physical process of creating art by hand is described as a way of coming to understand the world in more richness and detail than the eye alone allows. Like the blind man reaching out and exploring by touch, the artist gains an understanding of his environment which is at once intricate and highly personal. It seems this impulse lies at the very heart of Afshar’s work, which revels in the space between subjective and objective allowing internal and external worlds to merge.
- Bevan, J (2015) Interview with Taha Afshar Unpublished Manuscript
- Derrida, J (1993) Memoirs of the Blind: the Self-Portrait and Other Ruins Paris, Musée du Louvre
- Wols (1971) Aphorisms and Pictures trans. Inch, P and Fatet, A Gillingham, Arc Press
Published in Taha Afshar: Selected Works (2015)
Brushes with nature: from early influences
to recent processes
by JAMES BEVAN
Afshar’s artistic proficiency was apparent from an early age. By his early teens he was able to successfully imitate Van Gogh, Cezanne and Turner, tackling figure painting, landscape, sculpture, collage and photography with equal vim. Art was a key part of his self-discovery, and remains so.
An early attempt to master the depiction of a hand evolved through multiple iterations into My First Oil Painting, complete with a potential self-portrait as a balding old white man. Key formative influences were undeniably fellow artistic Pilgrimites Merrick d’Arcy Irvine and Jeremy Mortimer, as well as tutor Laurence Wolff. Jeremy’s brother Justin Mortimer was clearly a big inspiration, Cupid after Leonardo and Mortimer evoking his bold canvases from the late 90s of Harold Pinter and the Queen. Sargent, Caravaggio, Picasso, Klimt, Turner, Twombly and Rodin are among the more recognisable artistic influences, and you can also sense the importance of music and poetry. But the centrality of family to Afshar’s persona makes many pieces autobiographical, projecting Jackson Pollock’s belief that “every good artist paints what he is”.
(Left). Leonardo Da Vinci. Madonna of the Yarnwinder.1499–1507. Oil on canvas.
(Right) Justin Mortimer (1970- ), The Queen (1997). Oil on canvas.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610). The Musicians 1595. Oil on canvas.
Every flower seems anthropomorphised in his paintings, be it a tall thin Red Lady I; a pair of dandelion Partners, or the evocative pink rose of First Love, First Flower. Even in the rare forays into traditional still life do we sense the desire to personify objects, with a Family Portrait as a series of jugs, or flower pots, Joyce and Scott.
Each canvas tells a story. Purity is an apparently clean and minimal piece, which belies the multiple layers of meaning and toil, which have been covered with primer in frustration and left in the rain for a week. It represents wiping the slate clean and “the act of self purification”. The artist’s mark is often very apparent, particularly the deep heavy scratches of Anger, or the serendipitous pattern left by a thrown pallet in Room, Pallet.
The intensity of Afshar’s artworks is best demonstrated by his landscapes, from the earliest Mediterranean scenes to the most recent Swedish series, the viewer can sense the artist’s urgent desire to capture a moment in time and space on canvas before the light changes or wind shifts. These fleeting impressions often feature sub-conscious thoughts, much like the Surrealist automatic writing. Reading these words lends an insight into an apparently benevolent and romantic artist, who seems ideologically attuned with the serenity of nature. From Words on Tuscan Landscape it is particularly clear that this respect for nature is deeply rooted in his faith: “God is self evident in nature.”
While his scenes of nature convey a sense of serenity and purity, Afshar’s urban dreamscapes seem harsh and uninviting, with foreboding street lights looming over head in Southampton, Hedge End. Cityscapes are few and far between, despite having spent most of his life in the cities of London, Winchester and Southampton.
The financial crisis was the catalyst for a burst of creativity culminating in a series of collages featuring newspapers from the pivotal weeks of September 2008. The cycles of economics are juxtaposed with the relentless seasons of nature. The hysterical headlines fading away as the layers of varnish, household paint, concrete, leaves, grass and flowers mingle with glue and soil to decompose in 12 documented stages.
Work in progess of the Crisis and Nature series (2008)
Afshar constantly transforms his experiences into aesthetic experiments in myriad materials, be it old patio doors emblazoned with saintly forms in Three Lights, or old floppy disks, cassettes, CDs and laptops recycled into collages. Figurative works such as This Time are a nod to pre-Raphaelite works, as well as the early Renaissance works of Giotto, but also have a feel of Picasso’s early work. What unites these influences is what also links these art works across multiple media – the sense of on-going contemplation, self-reflection and expression.
Published in Taha Afshar: Selected Works (2015)
These are the soul by Josh Bradwell (2015)
Long hidden away, and never previously exhibited in a solo show, the collected works of Taha Afshar have surfaced at last. A vast collection of painting upon painting, with dashes of sculpture and photography added to the fold, all elements of daily life are explored through Afshar’s expansive oeuvre. Delving through these works is like uncovering a secret that you alone know about, each piece – each secret – more exciting and intriguing than the last. Each one teasing out some new feeling with delicacy and a fragile care, pulling you into every frame and challenging your every point of view. Spanning across more than thirty years, Afshar has been creating piece after incredible piece, and has tirelessly built up a monumental collection of works. These pieces are finally ready to be seen, and to be explored throughout this book.
When looking at Afshar’s earlier paintings, especially in works such as ‘After Vincent’ and ‘First Oil Painting’, we see very strong similarities to the likes of Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso, particularly in his blue period. Picasso’s ‘Woman with a Helmet of Hair’ is alike in both subject matter and depicted emotion to ‘First Oil Painting’, in which we see a man seemingly trapped inside the canvas. Where the male subject in ‘First Oil Painting’ appears to be physically contained, the female subject portrayed in ‘Woman with a Helmet of Hair’ looks imprisoned in a contrasting sense. Her entrapment within Picasso’s composition feels dutiful, and filled with ennui, as if she is stuck in time rather than place, her gaze distant and forlorn. However, the unbreakable eye contact made with the subject in Afshar’s ‘First Oil Painting’ is gripping, adding to the urgency and intensity of the moment, drawing you into the piece, wishing you could lean in and help in some way.
Similarly, and unsurprisingly, ‘After Turner’ bears a striking resemblance to the works of J. M. W. Turner, an icon in the world of near-abstract canvas-scapes. Taking on such an icon is a risky task, but in his own way, the bursts of intense colour in ‘After Turner’ break out of an otherwise unrecognisable landscape, giving new life to Afshar’s cinematic scene. These flourishes of bright paint add such levels of drama and action to the frame that your senses are suddenly heightened and engaged upon viewing them. You want to know the story of the place, the purpose and reason for the dashes of yellow, blue and every shade in between. You need to know it all. What was Afshar feeling when he painted this theatrical scene? What can we figure out from the carefully curated strokes? Specifically in ‘After Turner’, we can assume that the use of lighter, gentler colours upon a romantic backdrop was implemented as a tool to evoke fonder memories from the viewer’s mind. One can argue this explosion of light and colour in the horizon is an allusion to Heaven, to those heavenly spheres in the sky. Charles Bukowski once wrote ‘you are marvelous/ the Gods wait to delight/ in you’, and upon looking at this piece I can only think of Bukowski’s Gods. Those Gods waiting to delight in me, in you. Afshar has captured an idyllic, otherworldly scene; the lack of any real context making it difficult to distinguish a single, mortal element of the landscape, oh so similarly to the ethereal works of Turner.
Unlike ‘After Turner’, when we turn our focus to an exploration of a piece entitled ‘Cliff, Storm, Unity’ we are met with the darker, more aggressive tones of a scene mixed with erratic scratches and scuffs, and we are filled with feelings of anxiety and despair. This landscape shows none of the ‘heavenly’ hopefulness that we find in ‘After Turner’, and that is enough to fill us with hopelessness. Within ‘Cliff, Storm, Unity’, we are met with anger, with a forlorn fury that somehow creeps its way under our skin. There is something disconcerting about this piece, something that sets us on edge. The use of the word ‘Unity’ suggests some sort of harmony between the described cliff and storm, but in reality we see no unity, no harmony. We are left grappling, left hoping for any form of affirmation to emulate from the canvas. Yet nothing comes, and we have to accept that nothing will ever come. A similar notion can be found in the groundbreaking works of Cy Twombly, whose calligraphic, unpredictable paintings set him apart from the Abstract Expressionist works of his peers. Twombly’s erratic works draw a comparable perception as Afshar’s, they are filled with elements of angst, of fury, of a solemn fire that creeps into the soul.
These mentioned resemblances and similarities to iconic painters such as Picasso, Turner and Twombly clearly show where Afshar found initial influence and a love for the arts in the early days of his career. However, these resemblances merely acted as a springboard for the evolution of a personal style that flourishes throughout his later works. ‘Words on Tuscan Landscape’ is one of the first examples of this evolution within Afshar’s art, in which he starts to incorporate elements of the written word into his work. Looking past the simple setting of the Tuscan hills, the words “this is a happy landscape full of joy without misery” appear at the top of the image. The lack of punctuation within this first sentence alludes to a stream of consciousness, and mixed with the flowing hills we’re gazing at, the viewer can’t help but get lost in this melodic setting. Poetic, delicate and flowing, this stream of consciousness again draws the viewer in to an almost melodic meditation. In his 1889 essay, ‘The Decay of Lying’, Oscar Wilde spoke of life imitating art far more than art imitating life – however, in this exact scenario of ‘Words on Tuscan Landscape’, we are most definitely in the midst of art imitating life. These poetic scores are an artistic expression of Afshar’s life, of how he is feeling in the exact moment whilst painting this scene en plein air. How could this be read in any other way than an exact interpretation of Afshar’s soul in that exact moment? The final words “see clearly, love someone” resonate so deeply in your mind, echoing over and over, and leave you with a touching and poignant afterthought. The emotion is palpable.
One of the biggest featuring relationships that arise through this portfolio is that of colour and emotion. The two themes are deeply, and intricately connected within Afshar’s work, and his manipulation of their relationship is truly masterful. This can be seen most explicitly in ‘Anger’, which does exactly as the title promises: it is the piece that fills you with rage. It encapsulates the rage Afshar must have felt when he took on the canvas in an epic battle, armed with merely a brush and just three colours, and this rage is perfectly mirrored in the final painting. The jagged invasion of a black, paint-filled box entirely encapsulates that feeling of anger: overflowing, devastating, and completely encompassing. The illegible scrawls seen within this black void emphasise this notion further, and exaggerate the overwhelming angst that comes forth when anger is in play. Without even knowing the title, one would immediately understand the piece due to every thematic element of the painting being beautifully depicted. Again, Afshar has manipulated his craft, and manipulated that relationship between colour and emotion in such a way that the viewer cannot help but be flooded with anguish, and filled with a hundred questions when looking upon this piece.
To further explore this idea of colour and emotion, we look to ‘Spring Summer Spring’, a muted piece that speaks volumes. Looking nothing like our perception of Spring or Summer or Spring again, and with no reference to the two seasons that this piece actually makes alludes to, elements of rebirth and joy so typically associated with the first half of our calendar year are forgotten and discarded. The piece we feast our eyes upon speaks of an autumnal chill, of a wintery frost and infinite bleak horizons. Ultimately what we see is a desolate landscape, a barren plane that somehow manages to remain still elegant, still poignant, and still full of tender emotion. Even in the raw logistics of the piece, by sticking to a monochrome of off-white and blue, Afshar is limiting his physical creative output, and therefore limiting our inner emotional experience of the piece. By limiting the physical output and therefore the emotional experience, we are almost disappointed by this piece. With the preconception of the title, we have already anticipated the experience we are going to have, with ideas of spring, of summer, and of spring again. Now, we feel let down that we aren’t seeing what we were expecting to see. In this moment, Afshar has once again drawn us into a frame and manipulated our immediate emotions.
Throughout his exploration of the arts, Afshar also experimented with photography and sculpture. Through these mediums he studied thematic elements of fleeting instances through photographs, and within his sculptural work he forged intricate and emotive works with bronze and clay. One of the most beautiful works of photography can be found in the form of ‘Flower Bed’, a romantic homage to the ideas and concepts of complex simplicity. An arrangement of flowers upon a bed shows Afshar’s playfulness with language, but the melancholic tones and themes of the piece explore something deeper than a mere play on words. This piece investigates our relationship with nature, and our concept of home, and manages to do so in a beautifully simple way. By bringing the outside in, Afshar has immediately broken barriers of interior/exterior, and the careful placement of each branch within the composition of the frame challenges the delicacy and care we have towards our own personal space.
Another evolution of Afshar’s work comes in the form of his blending the worlds of photography and collage. When we look at ‘You All Killed Me, You All Made Me Alive’, Afshar is combining his love of the manipulation of canvas, mixed with further ideas of nature, of blending the outside with the physical container of the inside, and his new found love of photography. The title is an enigma. Do we take the killing aspect from the hint of burial that emulates from the piece, do we take the new life aspect from the fresh, green shrubs? How do we read into the oxymoronic title? In this work, Afshar is challenging our ideas of birth, of death, and of the entire passage of life.
Moving beyond photography, we arrive at Afshar’s collection of sculpture, to his bronze and clay experiments. When it comes to sculpture, Afshar always focused on the face, and the pieces were always full of feeling. Taking influence from the great sculptors such as Michelangelo and Auguste Rodin, Afshar created pieces as pensive as ‘The Thinker’ and as full of tortured expression as ‘Falling Man’. Sculptures such as ‘Rodin By Camille’ and ‘Farideh Was’ again explore such deep-rooted emotions, that they are entirely captivating. Looking into the eyes of the subject of ‘Farideh Was’ we are met with a wall of desolate exasperation. Is this reflective of Afshar himself? Is the fierce resilience we see in ‘The First Bronze Sculpture’ lost in the year it took to create ‘Farideh Was’? If so, where did it go?
Post-sculpture, back in the present day, we have come full circle back to the realm of paintings, and we truly see the journey that Afshar’s pieces have taken. What we have experience in this exploration is an experience larger than the paintings themselves. These pieces tug on raw emotion and they resonate beneath the surface. Constantly moving, forever evolving, every gaze upon the pieces always shedding light on a new element or feeling, Afshar’s work resonates beneath the surface. They tackle elements of home, of the personal, emotional state, and they do so in an incredibly humble way. They are more than merely a canvas, or a photograph, or a sculpture, these pieces are a part of ones being. In the words of one Walt Whitman, these are the soul.