Lida Sherafatmand: Interview with Sajid Rizvi
The result, supplemented with follow-up messages and telephone conversations, is an edited text that follows:
How did this exhibition in St Petersburg come about?
I would say: destiny! I have been an admirer of Nicholas Roerich for many years, and have observed his works and life as a role model and master. He came up with the first cultural treaty in international relations later enshrined in the ‘Roerich Pact.’ This treaty calls for the protection of cultural heritage places during war times. It was then signed in Washington in the White House chaired by Franklin Roosevelt and by the representatives of all the countries of North and South America in 1935. This treaty has been also one of the inspirations behind UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention of 1972, which is in use today.
I’ve always felt very responsible as a painter in what I produce as an actor in society, and started my journey as a painter exhibiting a lot during international conferences which were discussing world problems and peace issues. In order to fullfil my wish and commitment towards the environment/society around me, besides my art training, I went on to study international politics to understand better the mechanisms and realities happening in the world.
During my university research works I had made use of the writings of Nicholas Roerich. Earlier on last year , some of my writings got published in an international book volume called The ABC of Harmony for World Peace, which was created in the Global Harmony Association (GHA) by its 76 co-authors from 26 countries and edited by the GHA President, Dr Leo Semashko, philosopher, sociologist, peacemaker and State Councillor of St Petersburg. He is the author of Tetrasociology as the science of social harmony, which is the science of global peace and vice versa. This science found the new development in this GHA book. One of the authors in this book was the co-director of the Roerich Museum, the GHA-Russia President Julia Budnikova, who happened to appreciate my paintings and political science research works. So the idea came about that I could show my works at this museum and present also my research papers. After a whole review by their committee of my works, they invited me to hold a show of my paintings and deliver also public lectures on the research I do.
The ABC of Harmony has recently been recognised by the Nobel Committee as one of the official candidate nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize 2013.
In what respects is this exhibition different?
This exhibition is different in that it is going to make a world tour, in several important places. The exhibition is accompanied by the public talk that I give, which is basically the research paper for my PhD work that I hope to complete in future. After 17 years of research and hard work, I think I have arrived at a more integrated and mature work, where I can pass on knowledge besides feelings through my paintings, and stimulate people not only on a heart and soul level, but also towards thought research and acquiring knowledge for a better quality life. I believe Leonardo da Vinci had once said it too: ‘ Art is the queen of all sciences communicating knowledge to all the generations of the world.’
What themes are you exploring here?
The theme of the paintings is our ‘internal world,’ basically referring to our internal life states, both emotional and as states of mind. Each painting expresses a different state of life in its emotional and mind state. Then, through the public talk, I make a link between these internal worlds, and our external relations, ie how these internal worlds have an influence on our external relations, not only between individuals but also between countries. I quote a long list of scholars both from past and present to make these links, but starting from Richard Ned Lebow (Centennial Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics) who wrote A Cultural Theory of International Relations in 2009. I also give concrete examples of situations to show the expression of each internal world, and how it has an effect on the type of relations or partnerships we attract from the outside environment, and also the type of actions which we take when in a particular life state. By making this link I refer to peace and conflict theories, and this basically opens our eyes to the fact that we have tremendous power on how things evolve around us, and therefore we can aim towards peace building if peaceful positive relations are what we want to have. Thus the title of the exhibition as well as my public talk is: “Internal Worlds, External Relations”.
This exhibition will be at the Atrium Gallery of the London School of Economics between Monday 24 February – Friday 21 March 2014. More information is available on their website: http://www.lse.ac.uk/intranet/LSESocial/artsAndMusic/artProjectsAndExhibitions/Home.aspx
How many works are you exhibiting in St Petersburg?
I’m taking 15 large paintings, oil on canvas, about 160 cm x 120 cm. I would have liked to take more though.
How did the nomination of The ABC of Harmony for the Nobel Peace Prize come about?
It’s a colossal work including contributions by 75 authors from all around the world. It was quite a task to edit and harmonise. It is an innovative tool for peace education and peace-building. Some of the authors had the idea of making it known to the Nobel Committee, so they did and and to our nice surprise it got recognised and placed on the nominees list. [The ABC of Harmony has been published by Global Harmony Association (GHA) together with Gandhi Vidya Mandir (GVM) and Institute of Advanced Studies in Education (IASE)]
What languages are the texts in?
It’s available in English and Russian, the latter because the lead editor is Dr Leo Semashko, Russian philosopher and former lectuter at St Petersburg University and the State Councilor of St Petersburg. The authors are drawn from 26 countries and include a woman professor from Iran.
What is your contribution?
My contribution is a small one as far as I’m concerned. It’s the long poem which you’ve read, which elaborates on my research and the paper that I’ll be giving in both St Petersburg and in London. I have done it the ‘Ferdowsi Way,’ presented knowledge with a long poem! Then I have illustrated the poem in my paintings, which now feature in a video about the book, The ABC of Harmony.
What was the inspiration for The ABC of Harmony and how did you become involved with it?
ABC of Harmony was initiated by Dr Semashko; he also put together a board of academic scholars who research on peace issues. When he got to know about me through one of the professors, he invited me to join their board. I was humbled as I’m not a professor like the others. I’m just a painter and I pursue my research in order to make my paintings stronger and more in touch with the reality of the society around me—so, not just to paint for my own selfish pleasure.
Did the idea of joining such august community appeal to you partly because of your experience of Iran, especially its poetry which for many epochs of Iranian history is the most definitive guide to those periods?
Yes. Exactly. I wish for the positive sides of Persian civilisation to flourish more. As a person born there I can never forget that land.
The word harmony, of Greek origin, is understood in different ways that can lead to different interpretations. In a social and societal context harmony is understood to be almost synonymous with concord but things get more complicated in music, for instance.
Well, being able to act harmoniously to push life forward rather than destruct it. And think in harmony for others’ good, too, and not just one’s own self. I like to see it like a piece of art work… “Harmony” is one of the principles in art, to keep all the pieces in the work together harmoniously.
Does harmony imply sacrifice of self?
No no. One’s own self is to be respected too, as each living being has its own place. If I want your good as a human being, I must want my own good too as I’m a human being like you.
In that sense, in order to accommodate others, one is required to compromise endlessly?
Mmm, well that’s of course where complications come in. So it’s setting priorities: which is more important and where we can let go and not let go. Sure it’s not simple…when it comes to practical problem solving. But I raise this issue in my paper on Internal worlds, external relations too. To which point our desires might be greed and destructive, and to which point they can be constructive and useful.
Not suggesting that there is anything particularly wrong about compromise. Some of the most entrenched human institutions are built on compromise. Marriage or interpersonal relationships, for instance. The State requires compromise as well as compliance. A good State aims for harmony, of course.
Yes, compromising on most important issues which have longer term effect.
Say, in a personal situation: a computer may be more important for my life’s flourishment than two new dresses, so I save the money of two dresses in order to be able to buy a computer. That’s a compromise, too, in a way…on a small personal scale.
In order to advance the cause of harmony one must therefore decide what is at stake that requires those compromises to arrive at a global harmony. What in your opinion is at stake at present in our world of conflict and disharmony?
Many issues. I cannot give a full answer to that, because to answer such a question one would have to be multi-disciplinary expert in all possible fields practically, because our world is so very complex and our reality has so many layers to it. However one thing I see for sure as a cause of disharmony is that, as individual humans, we are not taking enough responsibility as individual powers in the environment around us. (And by environment I don’t just mean natural environment but also human environment and people). It seems we are ignoring our immense power as ‘common’ people, and tend to leave everything on the shoulders of either politicians, or big business players, or other so-called ‘key personalities,’ whilst as common individuals we are in fact having a daily role in how things go around in our society and environment. That is exactly what I’m exploring in my new painting collection, which I put into words in the research paper, too, that I present as a public talk during the touring exhibition. How the internal worlds inside us push us to act differently outside us, and thus influence our external environment, and also how the external environment reacts differently when we are experiencing different life states inside of us.
How did your life as an artist begin?
I was pulled towards painting since a very young age, as early as three years old, when I did my first painting. I still remember it. Something I had seen in my imagination. It was the sun which was playing a flute and the sounds which came out of the flute formed angels!
My mother had framed that painting and put it in our living room. Unfortunately during the [Iran-Iraq] war, as we changed places a lot, it got lost.
Why the sun? The sun is so central to Persian mythology and religion.
Yes, it was the sun! I don’t know why I chose it back then, I was only three years old… What was interesting for me was that the sun could SING and the sounds came out in the form of angels. I was touched by the war, and at the age of five I was already asking my parents why people kill each other, they can play instead and be happy. My determination to do something to change the situation already formed at that age, to be honest. And that passion is still alive with me today when I see the news
When did you begin your introduction to classical Persian poets and which of them came first in your consciousness?
Rumi, mostly because of his strong philosophical side and open heart when it came to religious thinking.
Rumi is considered most accessible of Persian poets for peoples of other persuasions. No disrespect to others.
I guess it’s due to his openness. The more you speak about life in the wider sense, the more audiences you are likely to attract. However there are other Persian poets besides Rumi whose works have reached the outside world to the point of finding a place in the English literature, like Omar Khayyam (some of his works are taught in schools), Ferdowsi (in particular his Shahnameh), and Saadi (specially his Children of Adam, quoted worldwide and inscribed at the United Nations entrance hall). Persian literature is surely considered one of the major contributions to world literature, and that is not only due to Rumi… even Hafiz, Nezami and Attar I think have reached audiences outside Iran. Today we witness also Simin Behbahani, the 85-year-old living poetess whose works are reaching the world, especially the West, and she is being internationally awarded for her poetry, and she is still living in Iran.
How and when did you leave Iran and what happened later in your life?
We left Iran just at the end of the Iran-Iraq war, and I had the chance to pursue my studies in Europe.
So from Iran you came to Malta?
Yes. For my Master’s research I had a supervisor from France, a well-known Iranian sociologist, Dr Saeed Paivandi, since my case study was on Iran. For my PhD, I’m registered at a British university. During my years living in Paris, I was ‘studying in practice,’ so to say, learning hands-on from practicing artists.
I have seen only your most recent works. Were there periods before this period that can be defined as distinct from the current phase?
Yes. My previous works can be seen as a different ‘period,’ and I like to call them ‘dialogical,’ because my main aim was to communicate and communicate as directly as possible, like an innocent child almost. Those works travelled to different countries, and did create a ‘communication.’
A viewer who encounters your most recent work is likely to regard them as lyrical. There’s a depth of field in the imagery that perhaps can be equated with sensuality of verse from Rumi and in some parts from Saadi and perhaps others.
Yes, they are. They are my prayer lyrics I would say. I put every single brushstroke with my heart’s commitment. Since the past few years we’ve been witnessing much panic in people due to the financial crisis, the uprisings in the Arab world, the increasing influx of refugees running away from life endangering situations in their homelands, fear of nuclear weapons, a third world war, and so on. All this fear and panic makes us feel in scarcity, which is blinding us completely to the abundant warm pulses of life. And through my paintings I want to let that abundance be expressed. A painting is something physical which becomes part of our physical environment, so the vibes which are being reflected through the paintings have an influence on our minds and souls, they have an influence on our personal environments, and our states of mind. While being conscious of this effect, and that ‘responsibility’ which a painting carries, I immerse myself in that state of abundance and by carrying those pulses in every single brushstroke I create the painting, to hopefully let the viewer also experience it, and stimulate thought towards the betterment of life: abundance instead of scarcity, and pulses of love instead of pulses of fear.
The colours in your most recent work invoke shades of a garden with its own intimacies that in turn perhaps engender intimacies in those experiencing the garden, an altogether sensory but also sensual experience. Does that make sense to you?
Yes, I have left all that to the viewer to see as he would like to, some people see the trees of life, some a garden, some see the Holy Mother encompassing us with love, it’s open to the viewer. I provide the imagery, and let the souls travel. I build my paintings in layers…as a way of creating the depth of field in them. This is also symbolic of the thousands of years that humans have accumulated life experience and knowledge. I try to show gratitude for that.
Sensuality can be a sensitive topic due to cultural differences, but I take all from a spiritual aspect and let the souls talk for themselves.
Fair enough. One painting I looked at, Pulses of Love, appears to invite the viewer to an almost mystical experience, the light has only a suggestion of what could be the sun but it could be Light as in enlightenment.
What they hear in their own heart. I like to let people see the garden of their soul and the abundance of their own spirit
Rumi once said this:
You have no idea how hard I’ve looked
for a gift to bring You.
Nothing seemed right.
What’s the point of bringing gold to
the gold mine, or water to the ocean.
Everything I came up with was like
taking spices to the Orient.
It’s no good giving my heart and my
soul because you already have these.
So I’ve brought you a mirror.
Look at yourself and remember me.
[After The Essential Rumi, Coleman Barks, translator. Published by HarperCollins, San Francisco, 1995]
I hope I’m proving to be some form of mirror for the viewer. I’m trying hard to do so.
The paintings of Roerich are on a different plane though.
He went more into natural landscapes and found spirituality through nature.
In what way do you see yourself ‘walking in his footsteps’ as the exhibition subtitle suggests?
I’m providing landscapes through my imagery too, but taking them from inside to outside, or rather merging the inside and outside. So the Pulses of love is like looking through a faraway forest, the Internal world of compassion is like a big wave of the sea. They are far landscapes, originating from inside but coming onto the outside. This is after all my topic: how internal worlds have influence on external relations and consequently the world around us. Also when I saw Roerich had combined philosophical research with painting, that gave me confidence to go ahead with my academic research too while painting.
Compassion in Buddhist and Tibetan art twins with Wisdom; do you see a meeting point between the ideas that go into your painting and the ideas and philosophies that go into Buddhist painting— of course with strikingly different visual results?
Yes, very much so. In fact I quote T’ien T’ai, the Chinese philosopher of the sixth century in my research paper. And you’re right, the visual results are quite different, perhaps since I come from a different cultural world and also different historical period. I would love to see what Chinese or other Far Eastern art critics would say about these works
Buddhism is long on teachings of equality and love among human kind. But as we know from reality even Buddhist adherents are not immune from the present wave of disharmony and mayhem.
Yes, sure. All humans are fallible.
What have been your major influences in words and pictures other than Iran?
Oh many. Mahmoud Farshchian is also another painter I look at often, William Blake, and Georgia O’keefe’s is another one too. I’m a huge fan of flowers in general and since no culture has any opposition to flower imagery I took the opportunity to paint using flowers as my object of symbolism.
Flowers as a universal vocabulary?
Yes, that’s right. I was looking for an object which will not hold me back from reaching out to people of different lands and luckily flowers provide that opportunity. I love flowers so much that I never get tired painting them or looking at them.
How has Malta influenced you?
Malta has influenced me a lot, the sea surrounding the land, its temples of 5000 years of age, its people, its wild landscapes that keep me connected with the earth and the natural forces. That’s one reason why I wanted to come back from Paris. In Paris there are too many buildings, we lose connection with the earth and natural forces. Here we also get strong winds which I love. I also appreciate the culture here and the simple friendliness of the people.
A lot of art today is about interpreting the world we live in or rather the world we suffer, but you seem to be offering an alternative to interpretative art.
Exactly, it’s the “vocabulary”. I could not go fully abstract, needed a certain vocabulary as you very well put it…let the painting be legible to the mind and provoke thought, be stimulant to the soul through beauty, while also pass on a certain emotion.
However, explorations of the inner self often fall on the sword of one’s external experience. You don’t engage the viewer in the outer world, instead invite the viewer to look within and practically forget about what lies outside.
I used to paint the outside in my previous period, the first 10 years I painted the outside… Now I make the connection with the outside through the public talk… because I like to stimulate people to look for solutions first inside of them… that is one of the points that comes up a lot in the peace research field work…that we lack an alternative vision in order to avoid wars…we say we want no wars, but then we do not provide enough alternatives as to what else to do instead, how else to build our world.
That way, perhaps, the viewer is likely to see an opportunity to try and change the horrors of the exterior through his/her experience of the inner world?
As the preamble to UNESCO’s constitution says, “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”
Reproduced from the catalogue published by Roerich Family Museum and Institute, St Petersburg, Russia. © Sajid Rizvi, 2013