THE PAST – History and Geography
On Books and Bathtimes
One of my earliest childhood memories was being given a copy of the Arabian Nights. It was one of my earliest books and it became my favourite book of all time, and still is. When asked what my favourite book was, I remember answering 1001 Nights, thinking that I was super clever and getting 1000 extra free books into the answer somehow! This particular copy was of course abridged for children and I was disappointed that it seemed quite thin and actually didn’t contain the full 1001 nights. Nevertheless, it now has old mould stains as I took it everywhere, including into the bath. I enjoyed the feeling of floating and reading. Since I grew up on an island in Hong Kong, inevitably all my memories are filtered through this lens and strong feeling that I was floating (I didn’t know that islands didn’t float then – I thought they all did and just stayed put in approximately the same place because it suited them to do so! Eventually I went on to study this phenomenon and wrote a thesis on Floating Islands.) So I grew up on an island, and everywhere else was ‘the mainland’, or ‘another island’, or just simply ‘elsewhere’. (I was so happy on my island that I only agreed to accompany my parents to ‘England’ upon the announcement of our upcoming move when my mother informed me that Britain, too, was an island!) The Arabian Nights were not only elsewhere, they were also from another time, and were a work of fiction blended with folklore that captivated me. I knew that ‘Arabia’ was on the mainland, along with China, India, Persia, Arabia, Byzantium and all the other places mentioned in the tales. But I was not, I was outside, floating on my island, looking in. (Of course I knew about China more than anything else; we did Chinese history in school and I remember having to draw the Hong Kong flag as it was at the time – a British colony – and thinking about the impending 1997 handover and feeling embarrassed for not knowing what the new flag would look like. Actually, it’s a great flag design.)
On Drowning in the Sea of Stories
And how the Arabian Nights drew me in – a story, within a story, within a story – impossible not to get sucked in to the world of the Nights! It’s a piece of world heritage that needs no introduction. It has inspired countless generations and will continue to inspire more. It drew me in with its classic technique of ending a night on a ‘hook’ point of the story, which would be continued the next night… sometimes irritatingly so, as I have always been a stickler for details and sometimes they forgot to ‘close the brackets’, so stories would merge and blend with each other like dreams. (There is a parallel here with the structure of the web, basic html, as it is dependent on closing brackets! I’m gradually learning about very basic coding too, another useful by-product of this project.) As I read on, they became more and more like dreams to me. The whole of life is here, contained in the loose frame world of the Nights. I was slowly drawn, drowning, mesmerised, into the Ocean of the Seas of Story… The black and white illustrations of my first Arabian Nights book I found beautiful and I suppose allowed me to dream of them in colour; so far I have not found a satisfactory book of colour illustrations for the Arabian Nights – hence this project. Another notable book that shaped my childhood is The Land of Green Ginger; more on this, and other children’s books later. Children’s books have always been a source of inspiration for me.
On Being a Citizen of the World – Where I’m from
I had an advent calendar depicting the Three Wise Men, or Magi, from the East. Growing up in Hong Kong, to me this was actually the West. I was excited to learn that I had relatives in Bethlehem (at the time, now Tel Aviv), or at least who’d been there, and it made me want to go to Bethlehem even more than Jerusalem, because of the Nativity story (something I enjoyed from school). My parents explained about my family all around the world, my roots, how my ancestors had all travelled far and wide, my father’s family originally from Persia (I would only connect it to today’s Iran much later in life), the Zoroastrians (their connection to the Magi – one of my classmates was also Zoroastrian), how they’d travelled to India, then to Africa (I would always boast about my father being born in Africa because despite going to international school, there was a distinct lack of anyone from that continent there; most of my classmates were from Asia, Australia, Europe and America). Consequently Africa was fascinating to me and I spent many hours with my dad looking at a giant board book of maps of all the continents, memorizing all the capitals of the African countries. (I also collected stamps at that age, and was particularly fascinated by the ones from Aden. Because I had family all around the world, I also had stamps from all around the world.) This giant map book was bigger than me, and I could sit down and it would engulf my field of vision. I also distinctly remember the fact that Russia was not mentioned, which I found odd – instead it was a vast expanse of land called the USSR. It made me curious, but at that age I did not pursue it – I was more interested in my African capitals. (Little did I know then that my future husband would be deeply connected to the former Soviet Union, Eastern and Central Europe and would himself grow up in a Communist regime – leading to my curiosity about yet another part of the world!) And, of course, having a Shanghainese mother, growing up in Hong Kong and being surrounded by Cantonese naturally meant I became interested in Mandarin… Most major world religions are represented in our family. I am a citizen of the world, and by definition against nationalism in all its pernicious forms. There are no others.
On the Silk Road
My godmother Kaima – the woman who was one of my mother’s best friends and whom she promoted to godmother – was a graphic designer and, along with ‘proper’ adult art materials, gave me a children’s illustrated edition of the Bible, so I devoured this too as it was also full of great stories (plus the illustrations were in colour and it was a massive book with lots of pages to flick through – I have always liked epics!). She was forever travelling and bringing me back gifts, so I always admired her for that and looked forward to her visits. Once she went to Nepal and brought me back a beautiful Nepalese drawstring bag. But it was when she went to Pakistan that my imagination was really fired – she had been to places along the Silk Road. This was my first introduction to the Silk Road, and seeing her photos of the desert made me promise myself that one day I would travel along the Silk Road too. In the Far East, I imagined it as a Journey to the West! (Little did I know then, too, that my future husband would also be dreaming of the Silk Road, from a different perspective – West going East – and travelling on the Trans-Siberian Express to Mongolia – one of the few countries he was permitted to visit during the times of the Iron Curtain.) So Eurasia has always interested me and I have always been fascinated by world cultures. The Arabian Nights or the 1001 Nights encompass this; based on Persian, Indian and Greek sources but also having stories set in China, Byzantium or indeed other fabulous islands in the sea, both real and imagined, it is an international book of tales.
On Formative Experiences
Another incident which shaped my childhood was that I was expanding my vocabulary around the same time – not only from any book I could get my hands on, but also from my father’s various papers from work – usually boring, but paper nonetheless and something to flick through just in case there was by chance anything interesting (nope). The Arabian Nights is set in a different place and a different time, and has regular incidences of death and executions in it (normal parts of life in those days). In my version they did not abridge those parts for children! I’m not saying they should have, either. Death happened, and there was always another story about life, and life went on. (Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment has good reasons for not abridging fairytales; children are inherently intelligent and can deal with difficult issues in their own way. More on this later.) I had been reading about executions in the Arabian Nights and I had also watched the film Beetlejuice in which the parents’ heads are cut off – in jest, but still – I couldn’t sleep. These were not natural deaths, and I was still figuring it out. Formative experiences! So imagine my horror when I came across my father’s papers stating that he was an Executive! I couldn’t swallow this – the man I looked up to, my hero that I loved so much – executes people for a living! And my thoughts raced ahead to the inevitable – ok – it’s his job, he just has to do it – but what if one day he has to face a terrible decision, follow orders and is forced to kill me?! My heart pounding, I ran to interrogate my parents about this new bit of information I’d just found out. Of course they laughed and explained that the word had several different meanings, at which point I breathed a sigh of relief. Thank God – I’m safe again – I escaped. Since childhood I have had dreams that always involved some sort of quest – and I would always have to escape – and I always did, luckily (or they’d be nightmares!). In this way, since she escaped her own fate – and consequently carved out her own destiny – Scherezade became my hero.
On Contemporary Art
Fast forward to my degrees; I studied Fine Art and 16mm film at the Slade School of Fine Art, graduating in oil painting, and then studied Visual Islamic and Traditional Arts at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, graduating in miniature painting. I also did Medieval and Renaissance Studies where I wrote my thesis on Floating Islands. My days at the Slade were some of the best days of my life. I was young, in my early twenties and carefree and at art school in London and living in the East End. What more could I want? The world was my oyster and everything was wonderful. I had so many new experiences in London. My time in Paris shook me up and threw me back into painting, which was my first love (originally I had been studying 16mm film in the film department, which I equally love but which is less immediate as a medium, and harder to get hold of nowadays). Yet I felt that something was missing from my own art. The last days of the Slade were when things really came together – Phyllida Barlow commented that one day I’d ‘look back to my roots and (re)discover miniature painting’; also at UCL Library I came across a book of miniature paintings and saw an image of The Court of Gayumars and was hooked. I photocopied it, and the rest is history. I have a tattoo on my foot saying Keyumars in honour of this moment. I didn’t know colours like that existed hundreds of years ago, and I didn’t know they were so well-preserved today (by virtue of being in mostly closed books).
On the Traditional Arts – Miniature Painting and the Traditional Arts of Asia
I devoured miniature painting and at the Princes School learnt the basic techniques myself. At PSTA I learnt that Eastern art was as equally valid as Western art – turns out that this was what had been ‘missing’ from my own art at the Slade all along – a true appreciation of the arts of Asia, which are in fact longer and older than those of the west (China holds the record of having the longest unbroken painting tradition in the world – an astounding fact). This was what I had been looking for. Now in my mind they are all enmeshed with each other and equally important to me, loving both Europe and Asia as I do and having lived in both. At PSTA I focused on the rocks in miniature painting as this was the main thing that astounded me about them, and where you see all the variety of colours reflecting the variety of life. I’ve painted most of the ideas for miniatures that I really wanted to do; The City and The City is the last one. All my other new ideas are for the 1001 Nights. Since all of life is here, in the Nights, all my future ideas for miniature paintings will have no problem finding inspiration in it. I also discovered islimi at PSTA – arabesque – so these will form some of the borders to complement the paintings.
On the Thousand Other Jobs
Finally, it doesn’t stop me oil painting nor pursuing my wider discourse on the idea of the frame – the frame of the Nights is the frame story, mise-en-abyme, of the structure of the Nights themselves, plus the physical frames of the space around the paintings and the margins. More on this later, as it is one of the main defining hallmarks of my art. I will continue with my oil painting as I have other concurrent projects. My main ‘work’ – the things that will take up my time – is the following: 1. Being a wife 2. Being a mother 3. Running my businesses to keep alive 4. 1001 Nights project and 5. Oils (and Tarot cycle too) and wider ‘frame’ discourse. Let’s think outside the box!
THE PRESENT – The Concept
A drawing a night, for a Thousand and One Nights.
It starts with the first drawing on the first night, on baby’s birthday. And continues for 2 years, 8 months and 28 nights.
Once that’s done, one painting per drawing, however long it takes (years, I reckon – possibly 10, maybe 20 at a stretch, perhaps a lifetime, who knows).
Eventually, to bind them all into my own Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night.
Alongside, I’ll continue with my own detailed research on the Nights so I’ll include news about upcoming exhibitions, reviews of books I’ve read related to the Nights, historical illustrations and illustrators of the Nights (Dulac et al), reviews of art materials I’m using, conferences attended… in short, any ephemera, anything generally related to the Nights or their reception, peppered with my own thoughts and musings. They may only be interesting to my mother, but it’s still worth it for her.
THE FUTURE – The Book
This is in several years’ time. So watch this space!
Of course, eventually binding all the paintings into a Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, and I hope publishing editions of this.
The binding itself is a challenge; although I have done bookbinding courses in the past and my work is about the Book Arts I am not actually a bookbinder, so is a challenge for a real bookbinder! I’m using all kinds of sizes and types of interesting and beautiful paper to keep things inspiring for me. The fact that they are on different papers is a problem for the future bookbinder! I’m interested in the clasps too. There will be several volumes.
Also exhibiting selections of paintings annually as I finish them.
The cause – a celebration of life!
The mission – to share it with others!
On the Destroyer of Delights
My thoughts that dark night of insomnia drifted naturally again to that early childhood experience about my father being an ‘executive’. I realise that it’s so consuming to create new life that I understand even less why some people think it is their God-given right, or state-sanctioned right, to take it away. Who are they to decide that? And on what unshakeable authority? It is irreversible. There have been countless mistakes (including in the UK, in my parents’ lifetimes). As a teenager I wrote letters during my lunch hour with a small group of like-minded people via my school’s Amnesty International weekly gathering in the hope that it could save the lives of a few people on death row for the wrong reasons (there are never right reasons – a particularly horrific rationale I read once was that death row was cheaper than prison, which is spine-chilling). One stands out, one death row inmate in the US who had paranoid schizophrenia. As a teenager I went to a very white, middle-class grammar school in Kent (in stark contrast to my international school in Hong Kong) and these lunch hour times were notable to me because the man running these letter-writing sessions was the Religious Studies teacher, a good man, I felt, and aside from me there was the only black girl in the school, and an Iraqi girl, the only girl in the school to wear the hijab, and a refugee herself. So naturally I found her fascinating as she was different and special and not like any other kid I knew. I made friends with her – meaning she indulged me and my questions (I wonder where she is now?) and we shared those lunch hours together trying to save the world. I’m not sure if it worked, but the imprint is there in my memory to stay. I am sure, at the very least, in terms of energy exchange, it did something.
On How Art will Save the World
Can art change the world?
I always wondered how one individual writing a letter or signing a petition can actually save someone’s life… but I believe it is possible. They say the pen is mightier than the sword. Charles Dickens’ descriptions of the London poor helped bring about much-needed social reform in the Victorian era. Jesus implored his followers to turn the other cheek, which was revolutionary for its time. He implored us to be forgiving rather than vengeful. Not an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – that only leads to neverending blood feuds. Not taking revenge stops this downward spiral in its tracks. Gandhi achieved independence for an entire nation through non-violence. Scherezade told stories because her life depended on it. Every morning thus was a moment of relief, another day to see the dawn rising. I too had a moment of relief when I found out my father was not an executioner, only an executive.
I hope I see India abolish the death penalty in my lifetime. They could be a great example and lead Asia in this respect. Why India, then, of all places? Because I feel it is possible there; I feel like it is a land of endless possibilities, ancient and chaotic enough to have seen it all already and to absorb the collision of modernity with tradition, and because it is ready (unlike, perhaps, other Eastern countries – yet). Life is not ours to take away; it’s far too precious. Life really is a gift. This was the last part of my pregnant insomniac night of insights. Because India is also the land of the Buddha.