-Isabella Ellaheh Hughes, curator and critic

Musings on Amani’s Angels + a Q&A with the artist

 

Vivid, full of character and above all ethereal, Luristan-based Hojat Amani’sAngel series conjures up a bevy of emotive responses.  As the names of this series implies, Amani has quite literally produced dozens upon dozens of photographic mosaics, all featuring 21st century angels. The end result is an anthology of angelic images that combine Amani’s contemporary photography, harmoniously woven with symbols, figures and motifs that reflect his keen interest in and intrinsic connection to Iranian culture and history. Occasionally Amani inserts calligraphy and Farsi text into some of the images, which only adds another mesmerizing dimension to the super flat, fantastical space his work occupies. Although Amani’s images are full of energy andoften very busy, a bustling market of colors, shapes and figures,they somehow manage to reverberate a tranquil, meditative quality, encouraging personal contemplation.

What is it about angels that encourage contemplation? Is it the spiritual, metaphysical and religious place they customarily occupy in numerous cultures, as well as within our own inner psyche? Is it the idea of a winged being that we find intriguing and thus the need to contemplate? Perhaps the answer differs for everyone, but standing in front of Amani’s angels, the images are undeniably transfixing, encouraging viewers to thoughtfullyabsorb to the fullest saturation possible all the mystic beauty that these angels resonate.

Although steeped in Iranian imagery, Amani’s angels are nevertheless universally recognizable since angels or angelic-like beings are part of nearly every culture. The universal resonance that angels have is something that deeply interests Amani, who explains, “they are basically thought of as celestial creatures and although angels don’t belong to any particular country, they carry a message that is universally understood across humanity and history.”  Although in contemporary Western cultureangels are most often associated, if not ‘owned’ by Christianity, they are equally important to Islam and in turn, Iranian history. Angelic-like figures show up in Iran as far back as under the Zoroastrians with winged human and animal figures playing integral roles alongside Ahura Mazda and having a place in Iranian folkloric traditions, even before the advent of Islam, which were “a part of our mythological past,” explains Amani. However, it is the angels from the Qajar period of Iranian history (1781-1925) and subsequently Qajari artistic, decorative and portraiture styles that most influence Amani.

Under the Qajars, the Iranian artistic tradition continued to flourish. In particular, the Qajars were well known for their highly stylized, if not idealized depictions of women. As of late, it appears that numerouscontemporary artists are inspired by the Qajar-style woman (for example, the Qajar lady on the green balloons handed out at the 10thSharjah Biennial by the Slavs and Tatars collective or in Jameel Prize finalist 2011 Hadieh Shafie’s photography, particularly her earlier works), highly identifiable with her large almond shaped eyes, dark unibrow, luminescent complexionand heart-shaped face. Amani weaves Qajar-style figures, for the most part women, into many of his angels, sometimes juxtaposing the body of a model with the head of a Qajar-style woman taken from historical Iranian imagery, or, alternately, presenting on a parallel plane the entire figure of a model next to the entire figure of a Qajari woman. It is these apparent Qajar references that deftly connect Amani’s angels to the greater narrative of Iranian art history, which gives his work a historically introspective quality many artists often attempt to allude to, yet rarely properly harnessed to its fullest capacity as Amani has done in this body of work.

Amani has been working on his Angel series for the past few years, showing them through Janet Rady Fine Art, London and recently had a piece sold in the Spring 2011 Bonham’s photography auction in Dubai, which attests to the growing commercial and market interest in his work. Amani continues to develop the series, now bending towards a more experimental, critical narrative that is explored via the new direction he is taking with his angels, which will include angels appearing alongside fighter planes, commenting on current political realities and tensions in the Middle East.

Amani’s meticulous attention to detail and thoughtful, if not meditative development of the Angel series is reflected in the oeuvre of the individual pieces. Although somewhat similar stylistically and linked by Amani’s production techniques and the rainbow colored wings that all of his angels wear (whichgracefully alludes to the connection when looking at the whole body of this series), Amani’s angels nevertheless standout as individual pieces. His artistic growth and continuous development, particularly when looking at more recent pieces is apparent and Amani clearly has an uncanny ability to create angels that harmonize well together in a series, yet remain individually distinct with their own implicit, beguiling personalities shinning through.

-Isabella Ellaheh Hughes, curator and critic

June 2011, Dubai, UAE

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Q+A with Hojat Amani about the Angel series*

IEH: You’ve become well known for your beautiful “Angel” series, which appear to be multi-media work. Could you explain a little about the medium and your artistic process that goes into creating these enthralling images that juxtapose photo with colorful motifs and designs?
HA: concerning the development of this process, I must say that these creatures have existed in my paintings for a long time and they are also memories of the past left behind by pilgrims who traveled to such places as Qom and Mashhad, where they would stand in front of a painted picture, and take these photos.

 

This attracted my attention and I realized how people who stood before a painted scene carried an immense belief in their hearts. They showed this belief in their inner most selves. It is these types of photos taken on pilgrimages that inspired me.

 

I was drawn to people’s gestures and poses. Thus the two joined each other and wed the concept of angels and became installations. I drew two wings of angels inspired by the book called “Meraj” where the prophet ascends to heaven. Then I asked people to stand before it and to imagine that the wings belonged to themselves and to present themselves without any judgments, thus, [the models] tested themselves in front of the wings.

 

Their reaction(s) was varied; some laughed, some danced, some were serious, some shook their shoulders innocently and some were respectful, while others were confused.

 

I photographed all these stages and taped their voices. Then, I would choose that picture that seemed most earnest to me and prepare it for printing. In fact, some succeeded and others didn’t.

 

In the second series of angel wings I used waste material to make the wings. This is what I wanted: to mix with past culture. It might seem simple at first, but the process is somewhat complicated and the end result is open to interpretation.

 

IEH: There are comparisons between your angels and images of Ahura Mazda. Did Ahura Mazda and Persian folklore and mythology when creating this series inspire you?
HA: I wasn’t thinking of any special period when I was making these. However, unconsciously this work is rooted in the religious culture of Iran, but the language it uses for its presentation is modern. [This series] is similar to Iranian curtain paintings of the past–standing before these paintings and being photographed, is a modern process.

 

The role of angels, other than existing in our mass culture, is also a part of our mythological past, which also existed in the Qajar period in a more humane manner. In all these works the angel is seen as a symbol of purity with ties to morality. They are basically thought of as celestial creatures, and although angels don’t belong to any particular country, they carry a message that is internationally understood across humanity and history.

 

IEH: Who are the people in your photographs, family, friends, models?
HA: I had made a curtain picture of my family, which I carried around Iran with myself for three years. I asked different people to work with me. Like curtain holders of ancient Iran, people would circle around me to become angels. In fact this is a process that was only made possible with the presence of people.

 

IEH: Tell me about creating these pieces in Iran:
HA: All the angles have been created in Iran. Working with these people was extremely interesting and exciting. They believed that their wishes had been granted and that this was the actualization of their dreams.

 

In Iran, most private galleries tend to veer towards political and gender themes. I believe all people can become angels in character regardless of gender. Perhaps the modern world and technology has separated people from their essence with things like war and racism, but imagining being an angel even for an instance is pacifying.

 

To me, it brought great satisfaction to record such moments and for me these angels were a rewriting of heaven in the modern world. As Rumi says:

 

we lived in the heavens and were friends of angels

…there will we once more return for that is our rightful place

 

IEH: Will you continue to develop your “Angel” series or are you moving into a new direction?
HA:I have other projects with the angels but which I am as yet unable to promote for lack of a sponsor. However, alongside my angels I have started another body of work in which the angels appear alongside fighter planes, unconsciously.

*This interview first appeared in Persianesque Online Magazine, May 2011