Summary

Shroud is a square white painting. Its surface is of such a fragile nature that it is dramatically transformed by different light conditions and defies any attempt to photograph or reproduce it. The work consists of a white acrylic ground over which the artist has delicately etched minute Arabic words and phrases, expressing Sufi thoughts. She used pencil and silverpoint with varying degrees of pressure to determine the strength and weakness of the graphite application. The veil of calligraphic repetition thus produced seems to float free from the pristine white canvas.

Shirazeh Houshiary was born in Iran 1955. She has lived and worked in England since 1973 when she moved to London. She studied at Chelsea Art College from 1976 – 1979. Houshiary established herself first as a sculptor, but has more recently worked exclusively on canvas. Her work has consistently drawn on Islamic traditions, particularly on Sufi mysticism, for its form and content. Sufism, although deeply rooted in Islamic spiritualism, has been influenced by the beliefs of other faiths, among them Neo-Platonism and Buddhism. The way that her works focus on Islamic sacred geometry, in particular her use of the square, makes clear reference to American Minimalist work by artists such as Robert Ryman (born 1930): see, for example, Ryman’s 1972 Seven Aquatints series (Tate P07717-P07723). The work also recalls the earlier monochrome squares and rectangles of Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935).

Shroud belongs to a series of works called ‘self portraits’. Houshiary explains that this body of work ‘began with the idea of the word being the manifestation of breath’. She says that she ‘set out to capture [her] breath. Breath is equivalent to life, it is energy, it is life force. Yet how can you describe breath?’ (Quoted in Sculpture, p.26-7.) The series comprises largely white monochromes, the only exception being the black work Veil, 1999 (Tate T07776). Although they combine the techniques of painting and drawing, the finished works cannot easily be categorised as either paintings or drawings. Houshiary executes the work either in a slow dance around the canvas, which is laid on the floor, or by bending into it as if in prayer. Each takes five or six weeks to complete.

The title of the work refers to the shroud in Christian imagery. The rich iconography of the cloth relates especially to the sudarium (cloth for wiping sweat) associated with St. Veronica. It is said that Veronica offered Christ a cloth to wipe his face on the road to Calvary while he was carrying the cross on which he would be crucified. When he returned it, the cloth had Christ’s features miraculously imprinted on it and this became known as the ‘true likeness’. Veronica, vera icon, literally means ‘true image’. (Gabriele Finaldi, ‘Chapter 3: The True Likeness’ in The Image of Christ, National Gallery, London 2000, pp.75-103.) Houshiary’s description of her works as ‘manifestations of breath’ provides a contemporary reinterpretation of such images. Thus the canvas literally becomes the Shroud, registering the presence of the artist’s body.

Further reading:

Anne Barclay Morgan, ‘From Form to Formlessness: A Conversation with Shirazeh Houshiary’, Sculpture, vol.19, no.6, July-August 2000, pp.24-9
Isthmus: Shirazeh Houshiary, exhibition catalogue, Centre National d'Art Contemporain de Grenoble, Grenoble 1995
Turning points: 20th century British Sculpture, exhibition catalogue, Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, Tehran 2004, pp.9-17

Anna Bright
February 2005