“As soon as I saw the house I knew what I was going to do,” says Shahrzad Ghaffari.
The Iranian artist is talking about the 11-metre mural of a couplet from a poem by Persian poet Rumi that she hand-painted in Leighton House Museum.
Noted for its spectacular Arab Hall and exquisite collection of tiles from the Middle East, the Victorian art house in London was a place Ghaffari felt immediately at home.
“When you walk in and see all these beautiful Victorian paintings, it’s capturing, and then you walk in and see those tiles and I felt at home and I just instantly got a connection with the place,” she tells The National.
With stunning samples of Islamic art inside the redbrick Victorian house, it’s easy to see why the painter found such affinity within its walls.
Decorated with tiles from Syria, Iran and Turkey, wooden lattices, shimmering mosaic frieze and soaring dome, the two-storey room has been an orientalist oasis in the UK capital since being built in 1881.
The former studio of Sir Frederic Leighton, the British artist, traveller and celebrity of the 19th century, is undergoing an £8m refurbishment and Ghaffari’s handiwork, Oneness, will be its centrepiece.
It is the first contemporary artwork that will be on permanent display in the house whose former artist owner, who was also the President of the Royal Academy, lived in it for 30 years.
“It was just in front of me and quite obvious when I saw these two cultures being together under one roof, living so peacefully and elegantly together,” says Ghaffari.
Ghaffari, who is based in Canada, was commissioned by the museum for her work’s creative ‘interlacing of east and west’ as a way of integrating the new extension with the older building.
Adorning a helical staircase in the museum’s new wing, the calligraphy artwork, Oneness, draws on a Rumi poem from 13th century that explores universal themes of love and knowledge, weaving words into abstract form.
“I have put duality away, I have seen that the two worlds are one;
One I seek, One I know, One I see, One I call.”
“It’s about union renewal and cultural fusion,” Ghaffari tells The National while on a break from painting.
The central visual motif, the turquoise calligraphic brushstrokes, pays homage to the traditional designs of the Middle Eastern tiles in Leighton’s Arab Hall while its spiralling form echoes the helical structure of the staircase.
“It’s a double helix, which starts from the base and comes up towards the skylight and is like a bridge between art and literature, and this double helix together represent east and west, the coming together to forge a third, like a blueprint, like a new DNA, a new generation, which will embrace different cultures.”
Split over three levels, Ghaffari’s artwork aims to create a harmonious bridge between the past, the present and the future of the museum.
A Middle East aficionado, Sir Leighton travelled often to the region, picking up both inspiration for his own artistic creations, as well as local handiwork for his home’s Arab Hall.
Ghaffari said she was moved by the integration of beautiful wares from the region within an understatedly grand redbrick Victorian house.
“To experience the vision of Leighton himself so many years ago, bringing that part of the world here, it really touched me and became very personal to me,” says Ghaffari who knew immediately that Rumi’s renowned esoteric invocation of unity would be woven into her work.
“It was just in front of me and quite obvious when I saw these two cultures being together under one roof, living so peacefully and elegantly together,” she says.
Her work is meant to be a continuation of the dialogue between Middle Eastern and European tradition and craftsmanship throughout the house’s interiors and bring a fresh perspective on the fusion of cultures.
The museum has spent the past two years carrying out much-needed works to the ‘unsympathetic’ 20th-century additions made to Sir Leighton’s home.
New visitor facilities, including a lift for the first time, exhibition spaces, a purpose-built collections store, and a dedicated learning suite have been married to the historic house and garden.
Leighton House Museum is still under refurbishment and is set to reopen later this year.
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