As I browse around Fragments of Iran, an exhibit by Mehrdad Mehraeen at Auburn Peacock Gallery, I am reminded of my relationship to language. The exhibit, along with another titled Ana/Man/Ma انا / من / ما (meaning ‘Me’ in Arabic, ‘Me’ in Farsi and ‘Us’ in Arabic), is supported by Cumberland Council and Settlement Services International Australia – organisations actively working towards making accessible opportunities for creative development and cultural expression for migrant and refugees.
The first word I learnt to write was my name in Arabic. I was four and my mother had received a letter from her family back in Iraq. Seated between her legs on the concrete floor she held the thin letter just in front of me. While she read aloud, the hot breathy H’s and R’s folded the tip of her tongue back over itself. I tried to trace the patterns with my eyes in one continuous line. A few days later, I wanted my own letter. I found a blank music sheet under a stack of newspapers beside my father’s electric keyboard. I used a black pen to draw four horizontal strands that looped right to left. Then I sat on a stool in front of the mirror pretending to read.
My mother, who had been standing at the sink with a dish towel tied to her belt loop, overheard me and came to examine my ‘letter’. She sat me in her lap and together we traced my name on the back of the music sheet. First two circles tangled on the same thread, then a flat line with four prongs growing up short, long and bent. My name was complete with two dots below the line and one above: مونيكا.
I scribbled the loops everywhere, trying to commit them to memory. When I was child, and my mother and I walked around Jordan, I searched each shop and street sign for the same curves, the same dots, trying as an Assyrian refugee to legitimize my connection to Jordan. But due to my Iraqi-Assyrian parents, I would never legally be considered a citizen.
The first English words I saw came a year later. My father came home from work with a paper cut on his left thumb and an alphabet poster that was supposed to prepare me for Australia. The white letters printed on black cardboard stood like cracked teeth. Sharp edges, straight lines and lots of gaps. The surrounding pictures of cats and apples did little to soften the marks. I hid the poster under my bed so I didn’t have to look at it.
Throughout the exhibition I see paintings. Mehrdad Mehraeen’s Fragments of Iran remind me of the letters that littered my childhood. The first thing I noticed about Mehraeen’s work was that it featured Farsi not Arabic. Farsi is an Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family of languages, whilst Arabic is of Afro-asiatic and Semitic origin. The Persian script is a modified version of the Arabic alphabet, as it shares similar letters and structures to Arabic but with an additional four letters. The words themselves can vary greatly, in terms of lettering sequence and pronunciation. Though the sounds and shapes differ, there is a familiarity in the connected curves and swirls painted in acrylic paint, water colour and ink on canvas that give me a peek into the history and artistic practices of Iran.
In Mahraeen’s Nasir-al-molk نصیر الملک, diamonds, dots and letters are printed in bright ringed tessellations of mostly pink, yellow and green, inspired by the coloured glass windows of a Masjed-i Nasir al-Molk مسجد نصیر الملک – a mosque in Shiraz, Iran that is over one hundred and thirty years old. It is also known as the ‘Pink Mosque’, because the rosy colour is used frequently to decorate the tiles and panels inside. In an online image I found on Google, I saw sunlight passing through the mosque’s stained windows, the walls and dimpled ceiling within blushed.
Mehraeen’s Tress of hair حو ش is a tangled ball of black and red curls painted on a faded grey background. At the base of the ball, a single thick strand whips out like a tongue. To make the image, Mehraeen takes the single phrase, ‘Last night, in our circle of friends, the story was your hair’, from a poem by Hafez and prints it over and over. The technique is siyah mashq – black practice. Originally, the method was a means for a calligrapher to warm up and to refine the shape of letters by printing a phrase repeatedly across the entire surface of a page. Phrases were taken from poetry and deliberately repeated and intertwined to create a new image. Something in the task of repetition and focus seems to amplify the meaning and intention of the selected phrases. ‘Last night, in our circle of friends, the story was your hair’ is lifted in importance and the possibilities of its intention are multiplied as we consider the metaphorical weight of hair, particularly in the Middle East. Through the method of siyah mashq, we are also able to engage with words and consider their visual impact as intensely as we do their poetic sound and meaning. As I stare at the painting, the loops begin to resemble tresses of black hair.
Ana/Man/ma انا / من / ما Me/Me/Us is the second exhibit featured at Auburn Peacock Gallery. It showcases the work of artists from Syrian, Iranian, Kurdish, and Sudanese communities. As I walk through my local gallery space, I can see that the works differ greatly in terms of the materials used, and the artists’ styles and aesthetics. However, I can also see that there is some consistency in the use of calligraphy, miniature painting, colour, and texture.
Feyral Mohammad Zadeh, is an artist largely working in the Iranian style of miniature paintings – a genre established in the 13th Century. Zadeh’s work Untitled features a figure dressed in purple clothing and a tightly spun black, white and gold turban. The figure is holding a long-necked vessel and is set against a solid background. There is fine gold detailing throughout the carefully painted image that alludes to the nobility of the figure. The border is decorated with clusters of leaves and blossoms. The work is deliberate in every colour choice and detail. It is reminiscent of the work of Iranian artist Reza Abbasi, whose work often depicted colourfully dressed solitary figures set against a blank background decorated with florals. I stand in front of Zadeh’s work for a long time trying to memorise the chalky eggplant purple and bright gold.
Kurdish artist Masomeh Towfigh is similarly inspired by miniature painting and tazhib. Tazhib comes from the Arabic word for gold and refers to the practice of beautifying text with patterns of plants or geometrical shapes. At its beginning, only gold was used; however, the method has since evolved to incorporate other colours too. In Towfigh’s Tazhib تذهیب, black calligraphy is painted in the centre of three symmetrical sections decorated with red, orange and purple blossoms sprouting from intricately woven vines of green and gold. The words in the middle are slanted to exaggerate the lines of each letter. This coupled with the stylistic use of dots and dashes makes the calligraphy look less like printed words and more like a painted landscape. If not for the pale-yellow border, the phrase would blend easily into the vines and blossoms of the background.
Every artwork I came across in these vibrant exhibitions revealed to me how highly skilled every artist is. Their works have produced an engaging canvas of cultural and political importance. Settlement Services International, Cumberland Council and Auburn Peacock Gallery have, in facilitating the exhibition, created a formal space to engage with culture and art from the Middle East and Africa. The works all allude to artistic practice and experiences of historical significance to the communities represented. It is a valuable step towards helping to build a catalogue of culturally specific work that has not been taken from communities, but has been formed as a means to empower them.
By Monikka Eliah
Monikka Eliah is an Assyrian-Australian writer and member of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement. Her work has been published in SBS Life, The Big Black Thing, Southerly Journal Online and The Lifted Brow.