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Persian Masters, Anahita Alavi

Anahita Alavi is an Iranian artist, specilaising in Persian Miniature and islamic Illuminaon. She trained the art of traditional painting under the supervision of a number of great masters in Iran. With an MA in Art studies from University of Tehran and also an MA in History of Art and Architecture of Islamic Middle East from SOAS University of London, she has extensive knowledge of Islamic art, both traditional and contemporary.

In 2016, Anahita started an entrepreneur project called Muqarnas Art sponsored by SOAS. The project was concerned with teaching and producing Persian miniature and illumination, with the aim of preserving the traditional painting skills and transmitting the respective knowledge to students.

We talk to Anahita about her experience as an artist, where she draws inspiration from and how her cultural heritage influences her creativity.

Your works are inspired by Persian miniature and Islamic illumination painting traditions of Iran. What made you develop an interest in these artistic traditions?

Well, Isfahan where I grew up was a city of historical monuments fully decorated with the patterns and paintings mostly from the 17th century. Decorations and ornamentations on buildings always intrigued me since I was very young. Having no idea about the specific motifs, materials and the style, I was surrounded and fascinated by the patterns.

I also recall my dad’s books and catalogues on western painting and I was so fascinated by them. They almost filled my entire childhood. When I was a teen, I knew that I would like to learn painting for sure! Around the age of thirteen, I signed up for a summer course where I could learn painting having no idea about the course content and the style I am going to learn.

Surprisingly, the teacher was a well-known Persian miniature instructor and artist, and that is how I drawn to this delicate style of painting which satisfied my passion for both painting and patterns.

So, after that summer I had to go back to school and stopped taking the Persian miniature course. But during that time I realised that I need some essential and basic skills that every art student needs: learning how to draw! Then, during the school season, I was attending drawing classes.

A few years after, I started my undergraduate program where I learnt traditional art focusing on Persian Miniature and Islamic illumination. And that was the beginning of the formal training in this field of art, for me.



How did you train to become an artist specializing in these traditional artforms?

I was lucky enough to be trained under the supervision of well-established artists and masters in Iran both in and outside the university, from the very beginning. However, after university the most part of my learning process was self-educating through copying the masterpieces. But that has never prevented me from searching for great masters in various stages of my journey, even today.

How has your cultural heritage influenced your creative practice?

Those of intangible cultural heritage, such as oral stories and traditions are like background knowledge for me having a significant role in my creative practice. For example those of skills, techniques and knowledge that I have learnt from my masters who themselves had received them from their previous generation are part of my heritage which I have relied on to build my career. Also, as an artist in the field of traditional art, the material objects like the manuscripts, monuments as well as the written documents and the literature are the main inspiration sources when it comes to creating a new piece of work; I mean they are the reliable references for choosing a subject or story for painting, colour arrangement, composition, etc...

The Song of your Feast is now making the heaven dance


Where do you find inspiration for your colour compositions?

Well, in addition to the basic knowledge of colours and composition in general (for example having the clear understanding of the effect, weight and energy of a single colour and how does it affects the viewers’ eyes when si]ng next to another colour) that every artist has and would use when it comes to the colour scheme, the main source of my inspiration for colour composition is the manuscript paintings and illuminations. A series of rich colour arrangements made from the natural pigments is found in the manuscript paintings that can be an ideal colour reference for an artist. Also, the nature itself where various ranges of colours are artistically combined is an excellent source of inspiration.

The Rite of Spring


You have developed a contemporary twist on this traditonal skill, how did you develop a distinct style?

I am trying to revive the tradition of visual storytelling and through which, by using the technique and style of Persian miniature and Islamic Illumina-on, gradually evolve my unique style. I am still in the middle of my way. As you may know, developing a style is not achievable in a short period of time. One needs to do research, study and practice hard for many years in order to establish a long lasting authentic style.

You also teach, how did you embark on teaching these traditional artistic skills?

I first started teaching traditional arts at the high school when I was in Iran in 2013. Soon after that I got a temporary teaching position at the Payam-Nur University of Tehran where I was a teacher of Persian Miniature and Islamic Illumination for around 2 years. Because I was about moving to London, to do an MA in History of Art and Architecture of Islamic Middle East at SOAS, I had to leave my job at the University. Two years after moving to the UK, I started teaching again from 2018. Since then, I am offering regular courses organised by some institutes like the London Middle East institute at SOAS, the British Insitute of Persian Studies and the Iranian Arts Society at SOAS. Teaching is also a way to enhance my own knowledge and skills. You need to update your knowledge consistently and transmit it to others, it is very rewarding.

Is visual storytelling a part of your creative practice?

Yes! a main part of it in fact. As you may know, Persian miniature and Persian literature are inseparable! The main func-on of the Persian miniatures un-l the 17th century was illustrating the literary manuscripts. In my works, I am searching for the stories from both oral and written sources.



Why is the preservation of cultural heritage important?

By preserving our cultural heritage, we are indeed preserving our cultural identity. While the world is moving very fast towards the globalisation, the importance of safeguarding our cultural heritage is to maintain our unique identity and stay connected to our roots. It goes without saying that, the significance of preserving the cultural heritage is also passing it down to the future generation to benefit from it, same as us.

Which artists inspire you?

There is not one or two specific artists to mention. In general, reading about life and career of the great pioneer masters either from the East or West are so inspiring to me. In addition, any work of art that has a creative touch in its technique, subject, composition and so on can potenally be inspiring.

Can you share your favourite work of art you’ve created to date and why?

My favourite work is a reproduction of the 15th century’s work that I did in 2018. This is a horoscope for Iskandar Sultan that includes miniature painting, Islamic illumination, geometry and calligraphy. The reason that I shared it here as my favourite work rather than my own original paintings is that this 15th century painting was like a dedicated authentic teacher to me! I learnt a lot from every part of this piece and from the process of reproduction. For example one of the most important lessons that I learnt was how to combine different forms of art (geometry, calligraphy, illumination and miniature painting) together in order to look like a unified piece. Also, I need to mention that the calligraphy here is done by a distinguished and professional Iranian calligrapher with whom I had a chance to work.



What advice would you give to an artist at the start of their journey?

Well, I would say be very patient and modest to learn everything fundamentally! Do not underestimate the basic skills which are essential to all fields of visual art, like drawing skills, knowledge of colours and composition! Nothing comes easy to you, and success does not come overnight! It needs hard work. Also, It is in fact understandable that learning art would cost a lot of money and time, but it should be considered as an investment for their career in future. Being concerned with commercial accepts like making money from the very beginning of the learning journey, or insisting to be recognised as an artist soon after they start are the serious impediments to make further progress. When you are dedicated to your daily practices, everything will come to you at the right time.

What do you think the future of Islamic art looks like and how do you think we can continue to keep artistic traditions alive?

In fact, it is not easy to predict a direction for the future of Islamic art, but it is very promising to witness an increasing interest among people who would like to learn these specific styles of art which practiced for centuries in the Islamic lands as well as the accessibility of the educational resources. In order to keep this tradition alive, it should be practiced consistently; with a unique and fresh perspective towards the traditional art while remaining loyal to its principles.

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The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.


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