TAITMAIL The new world of tradition

The new Royal College of Art in Battersea with its infinite spaces and possibilities opened to the public for the first time with its graduate show last month, showing some of the stunning fruits of the minds of young artists who have the latest digital technology at their fingertips, allowing them to fuse moving images, performance and installation in ways inconceivable a generation ago.

And yet not only are there also young artists devoted to traditional practices, it turns out that the new digital world is a marketplace for them too.

Yesterday, July 21, the last episode of the Jeff Bridges spy thriller The Old Man went out on Disney’s FX pay TV channel in the United States, getting around a million viewers for each of its seven episodes and a 94% approval rating, which amounts to cult status in the TV network universe of the 2020s.

The film’s production team had decided that they wanted the introductory titles - so vital to establishing the mood of the narrative from the top - to have an eastern magic, and an authentic one, drawing on an Indian folk fable.

But they didn’t look towards a traditional Indian artist for their title sequence but cast wider, and came upon a young London-based painter called Hana Shahnavaz.

Her intense pictures have all the ethereal wonder of not Indian saga but Persian legend, with all the mystical purity of fantasy, yet they are literally down to earth and defiantly modern.

She takes from nature and from traditional lore her inspiration for the narrative pictures she makes, and her way of working is a fastidious and painstaking tribute to the environment, above and beneath us. It was her talent for visual narrative that attracted the Old Man team.

But while she has a young eye Shahnavaz is sealed in traditional techniques, to the extent that she even makes her own pigments from natural resources, and her stories weave a beguiling path through tradition and contemporary invention. She has created her own genre, leading to a series of sell-out solo exhibitions in London including, at the Saatchi Gallery just before the Covid lockdown.

Born in Barking, her father is an Iranian engineer and her mother a British accountant. Her childhood home was full of music and literature but, curiously, little visual art, and she developed a fascination with Persian culture and was born with a love of animals - almost since she could walk she could ride, so that she regularly drives from her North London home into Hertfordshire to where her horse, Phoenix, is stabled. As a child she soaked up stories and was an irrepressible storyteller herself. Holidays in Iran were layered with story-telling, and when she went to the School of Oriental and African Studies she read Persian studies, with a view to becoming a museum curator.

But she had been captivated by the sounds of Persian music, and instead chose to go to Iran for a year to study it. Then her career plans took a violent tilt, thanks to a chance glimpse through a door’s crack in a Teheran street. “I could see these most beautiful big flower and bird paintings on the wall in this little gallery” she recalls “and they just they just made my heart sing. I went in and the artist was there, and I asked if she could teach me to do it. And she said she could”. Shahnavaz became engulfed in a land of infinite stories and the deepest hues.

Back in London at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts she studied the ancient techniques of Persian miniature painting dating back thousands of years, and drawing her raw materials from ground rocks and plant pigments from all over the world - lapis lazuli blue, malachite turquoise, electric azurite blue, red madder burnt pink. The only animal tincture she uses is carmine from the cochineal beetle.

Hana Shanavaz’s working of ancient fable with traditional methods but a modern eye shows how man is connected to wildlife and nature, even to the cosmos beyond, and they are all there in her work for The Old Man. Two jackals embark on a journey across seas, confronting monsters and shapeshifting into new forms.

“The Persian miniature has always been used to illustrate stories” she says. “In order to reflect the story of The Old Man I had to make the jackals visually distinctive, so one is painted with red earth, the other with sparkly haematite: the first reflects comfort, while the movement of the second speaks to a feeling of restlessness. In this story of wild versus tame, the protagonists move through a variety of landscapes, from lush green forests painted in malachite, to dry deserted plains of ochre. The combining of colour and concept helps tell the story in a highly stylised way, making a strong parallel to the realism depicted in the actual television series.” 

Hana Shanavaz’s new work will be on show at the StART art fair, October 12-16 at Saatchi Gallery, and The Old Man is expected to be available here on Disney+ under the Star banner soon.


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