Illustrated companion

Shirazeh Houshiary was born in Iran and trained in the sculpture department of Chelsea School of Art, London, graduating in 1979. In the early 1980s she developed a sculptural language of a kind often described as biomorphic, that is, abstract, yet relating to the forms and processes of life with particular reference to growth and procreation. These sculptures were made of clay and straw, and their particular forms often alluded to sources in Houshiary's own cultural heritage. In 1984, feeling that she needed to explore fresh materials she began to make her sculpture from hammered and soldered zinc or copper, and later, as in this work, brass. The use of metal enabled Houshiary to give sharpness and energy to her forms and to deploy a range of beautiful surface effects of colour and texture, produced by treatment with acids.

'The Earth is an Angel' is one of a group of sculptures by Houshiary in which the forces of life are symbolised in curved and pointed forms derived from the wings of Byzantine angels. These angels, found in churches in Istanbul, have four wings, one pair directed towards earth and one pair towards heaven, representing a conflict and union of opposing forces. Power, according to the artist, lies at the meeting point. In the sculpture this relationship is expressed in the dynamic intertwining of the sharply edged and pointed wing forms, in simultaneous union and opposition. The wing forms are contained within a sphere which, as the measurements of the sculpture reveal, is even slightly flattened at top and bottom like the earth. Thus, if the wings are taken as standing for the whole of the angel, the title has an almost literal meaning. The poetic idea of the earth as a benevolent being, an angel, has a universal appeal, but further light on it may be shed by Fulvio Salvadori in an essay written in close collaboration with the artist, in the catalogue of a 1988 exhibition of this and related works by Houshiary. Salvadori writes of 'the Soul of the World [which] appears also as the Angel of the Earth, heading the Guardian Angels, reddened in its clash with darkness, the fire of strife.' He further cites in this connection the mystic writer Sohravardi: 'Let it be known that Gabriel has two wings. The first, to his right side, is pure light ... And there is the left wing. On this one there is a kind of reddish glow resembling the reddish colour of the rising Moon or that of a peacock's claws'. This passage in particular may be related to the forms and colours of 'The Earth is an Angel'.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.294