Veil is a square, mainly black, painting. Its surface is of such a delicate nature that it is dramatically transformed by different light conditions and defies any attempt to photograph or reproduce it. The work consists of a black acrylic ground over which the artist has inscribed Arabic language, expressing Sufi thoughts. She used pencil with varying degrees of pressure to determine the strength and weakness of the graphite application.
Shirazeh Houshiary was born in Iran in 1955. She has lived and worked in England since 1973 when she moved to London. She studied at Chelsea Art College from 1976 – 1979. Her work has consistently drawn on Islamic traditions, particularly on Sufi mysticism, for its form and content. Sufism, although rooted in Islamic spirituality, has been influenced by the beliefs of other faiths, among them Neo-Platonism and Buddhism. Houshiary established herself first as a sculptor, but has more recently worked exclusively on canvas. In her earlier two-dimensional works the marks with which she created geometric patterns on the canvas were composed of minute sacred words, repeated like a mantra. In her more recent work, such as Veil, words and forms have dissolved into a shimmering, ephemeral surface.
Veil 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, pp.26-7.) Veil is the only black work in the series which otherwise comprises largely white monochromes such as Shroud, 2000 (Tate T07777). Although they combine the techniques of painting and drawing, the artist maintains that 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 black veil (chador) worn by Islamic women, a garment that has become a central issue in recent debates surrounding the role of women in Islamic societies. These issues have been addressed more directly by other female Iranian artists working in exile, such as Shirin Neshat (born 1957) but remain latent in Houshiary’s work. At first glance Veil bears some resemblance to the all-black squares and rectangles of Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935) and Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967): see, for example, Reinhardt’s No Title, 1964 (Tate P77814). However, the way Houshiary uses text to induce physical and optical states allied to the experience of meditation has more in common with the work of Lebanese artist Mona Hatoum (born 1952). In her 1988 video piece, Measures of Distance (Tate T07538), Hatoum uses the text of letters from her absent mother as a scrim over video footage of her mother. The juxtaposition of visual image and text evoke both the actual absence and desired presence of the mother.
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