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The Art of Illumination, Behnaz Karjoo

Born in Tehran, Iran, Behnaz Karjoo moved to the United States at a young age where she developed an interest in art. Her creative pursuits took a serious turn later in her life, leading her to study jewelry design and photography at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Inspired by her early memories of Iranian mosque architecture, illumination, and calligraphy, she soon pursued training in the traditional Islamic arts.

In 2011, Behnaz began studying illumination (tazhib) under Mujgan Baskoylu, a master of Turkish illumination, miniature painting, and paper cutting. Since then, her works have been exhibited across the world. In 2016, Behnaz received her ijazet (certificate of mastery) in Illumination from Mrs. Baskoylu. To expand her knowledge, she is now studying the art in its Persian variety under the guidance of Iranian illumination masters. She is also a member of New York Islamic Arts, an artist collective founded by Mrs. Baskoylu that is dedicated to keeping traditional Islamic Arts alive in America.

Behnaz believes that illumination, although a traditional art, is open to expansion. She strives to portray this art in new ways, experimenting with materials, colors, compositions, and designs.

Your works are inspired by Islamic geometry and illumination painting traditions

(tezhip). What made you develop an interest in these artistic traditions?

I was exposed to tezhip growing up in Iran and those memories may have been the reason I was drawn to it in art school. I would often incorporate its motifs in my projects. The aesthetics, the symmetry, the harmony, the balance, and the intricacy fascinated me and sparked my curiosity to explore it more.

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

When I decided to pursue studying tezhip, I considered traveling to learn the art, but fortunately in 2011 I found my teacher, Mujgan Baskoylu, in New York where I am based. We started meeting regularly and in addition to the techniques, we learned the history, the philosophy, and the traditional mannerism (adab) of the art, lessons which would not have been possible if not for the close companionship.

The training at first involved reproducing designs found in old manuscripts. It wasn’t until 2013 when I started designing my own pieces. In 2016, my work “the Folding Essence”, was approved by my teacher and qualified me for my Ijazet, which is an acknowledgement of proficiency and a permission to teach the art to others.

Where do you find inspiration for your colour compositions?

I get a lot of my color inspirations from studying the works of past masters of the art. I tend to use lapis lazuli and turquoise natural pigments, which are traditional colors of choice, and I use them in most of my pieces. Sometimes when I’m doing commissioned work, I receive color preferences from clients and I incorporate them into the piece. And of course, tezhip would not be tezhip without gold, so you find gold in all my pieces. Tezhip literally means to adorn with gold or to make golden. Silver is also used traditionally, however due to the fact that it tarnishes overtime, I prefer to use platinum.

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

My teacher trained me in the Turkish style of tezhip. I have continued to study its Iranian form with illumination masters in Iran. Unintentionally my style has become a hybrid of the two styles.

Why is the preservation of cultural heritage important?

I think it’s important to preserve classical arts, because they connect us to our cultural roots and help us appreciate similarities and differences of other cultures. Tezhip may be at risk of becoming a dying art partly because it’s not well known even among the Muslim community. It’s still being practiced in Turkey and Iran but the younger generation doesn’t seem much interested in it. This is why giving lectures and workshops at universities are important to me because I know I’m reaching the younger generation.

Which of your works are you most proud of creating and why?

I was most honored to illuminate a Hiliya Sherif and I found the 2 year journey of working on it quite special. “ Hilya-i Sharif,” translated as ‘the Noble Appearance,’ is a description of the Prophet’s physical attributes as narrated by Sayyidina Ali. The calligraphy was done by Ebubekir Altiok who was a guest at New York Islamic Arts and he chose me to do the illumination on it. I was reluctant to accept a work of this magnitude so early in my career. However, my teacher encouraged me by saying you don’t choose to do a heliya, it chooses you. And she instructed me to imagine the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH)being in the same room while working on it. Working on this piece did indeed enhance my relationship with the Prophet (PBUH) and I am very grateful for it.

Other pieces that I’m very fond of are “Yearning,” “Panjtan,” and “The Solace of the Eyes”. I feel that my personal style started to take shape with these pieces.

Can you share any projects you are currently working on?

I am currently working on a few commissioned pieces. One of them is a Ketubah, which is a Jewish marriage certificate. I’m very pleased that my clientele is crossing cultures and faiths.

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

The advice I would give to an artist pursuing tezhip is to find a qualified teacher. Be committed, patient, and practice a lot. This is a long journey and there’s always more to learn.

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

There are many artists practicing traditional arts. Their work should be promoted. General awareness of Islamic arts should be increased by lectures, workshops, and events connecting artists and art enthusiasts in order to inspire a whole generation of new artists to keep the traditions alive.

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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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