Last week I attended a talk led by Bita Ghezelayagh, contemporary Iranian textile artist, whose solo exhibition has recently opened at the Aga Khan Centre Gallery in London. The artist gave us a tour of the exhibit and talked vividly about her creative journey.
Just outside the main exhibition space hang two black-and-white felt works, each decorated with metal screws (Felt Diptych, 2012). The pattern made of screws was replicated from an old piece of telegraphic punched paper which came into the artist’s possession. Although this particular pattern appears in several of her works, Ghezelayagh decided not to seek the translation of the original text message. The literal meaning of the text is not really important, since the artist transformed it into poetic language of art.
Bita Ghezelayagh was born in Florence, Italy, but is of Iranian descent. She trained as an architect and initially took up felting only as a hobby. Felt-making is one of the traditional Iranian crafts, and it is a very laborious process. While researching arts and crafts of her homeland she decided to devote herself to art full-time. Some of her earlier works were based on traditional shepherd’s cloaks, and one of her cloak series was created as a tribute to the people of Iran. More recently, she began incorporating pieces of old carpets and textiles into her artworks using various techniques. Works on display in the current exhibition combine unusual materials and different textures, for example silk, carpet and velvet (Velvet Diptych series, 2019-2020) or polished metal contrasted with delicate fabrics in the Offcut series (2020). When describing her creative process, the artist emphasised that by reusing pieces of old textiles and carpets she wants to elevate traditional crafts to the status of high art.
The artist shares her time between the UK and Iran. As her art projects require skills of specialised craftsmen, she collaborates with several workshops all over Iran.
Visitors to the exhibition have an opportunity to look at some items from the artist’s personal collection sourced from street markets or handed down by friends and acquaintances. In display cases there are tools, pieces of fabric and carpets along with samples of earlier works.
Among the items on display are traditional hammam scrubbing gloves, which are of particular significance in Ghezelayagh’s art. Those unassuming gloves, decorated with simple striped patterns, form a part of the canvas in the Triptych series (2018-2019), and they also make appearance in a number of her works.The humble scrubbing gloves have a certain nostalgic element to them. The artist remembered visiting Iranian hammams as a young girl accompanied by her grandmother, who used to explain that by scrubbing off the old skin you become a new person.
My favourite part of the exhibit was the Mirror Works series: three wall panels with small square pieces of carpets in mirror frames. Those reflective frames create an optical illusion by extending the image within each individual square. In addition, the light bounces off the frames and floods the gallery walls with beautiful patterns. The artist added that the use of mirrors is a particular feature of Iranian sacred architecture, mirror mosaics are often found in holy shrines.
In the Velvet Diptych (2019-2020) small fragments of carpets in the shape of cypress trees are attached to the velvet background. The diptych was constructed according to the principle of pairing, which the artist derived from Persian miniatures in order to create a sense of dialogue between the two parts. The cypress tree is an important symbol in Persian arts and literature. It stands for immortality, eternity and freedom. The characteristic silhouettes of cypress trees with the top slightly slanting to one side also appear in crafts patterns, such as shawls and carpets.
Rethreading & Retracing highlights how the artist successfully merges the rich cultural heritage of her homeland with contemporary conceptual art. It was fascinating to see how a humble piece of old carpet or a mundane scrubbing glove can be transformed into something new and exciting.
The exhibition at the Aga Khan Centre Gallery was curated by Esen Kaya. It runs from 27 February until 3 May (free entry).
Aga Khan Centre website: https://www.agakhancentre.org.uk/
Exhibition website: https://www.agakhancentre.org.uk/gallery/