Shirazeh Houshiary

The Earth is an Angel


Not on display

Shirazeh Houshiary born 1955
Ink, chalk, metallic paint and graphite on paper
Support: 509 × 634 mm
Presented by the Weltkunst Foundation 1987

Catalogue entry

T05013 The Earth is an Angel 1987

Black ink, black, white and green chalk, gold paint and pencil on grey sugar paper 509 × 634 (20 × 25)
Various inscriptions in Persian in various places and inscribed ‘Shirazeh Houshiary’ in pencil on back b.r.
Presented by the Weltkunst Foundation 1987
Exh: Shirazeh Houshiary: Breath, Lisson Gallery, Sept.–Oct. 1987 (no number)
Repr: Shirazeh Houshiary, exh. cat., Centre d'art contemporain, Geneva 1988, p.36 (col.)

‘The Earth is an Angel’ is dominated by a large four-winged shape in a room setting. A horizontal line in the background indicates the meeting of a floor with a wall, while a vertical line behind the form suggests a corner. The central shape appears flat, although an area of shadow at its base suggests it has the properties of a three-dimensional object. It is made up of a black two-winged shape with green chalk markings at the edges, and a gold two-winged shape behind. The black wings are joined in the middle so that the tip of the wing on the left points downwards while the tip of the wing on the right points up. This is mirrored in reverse by the gold wings underneath so that the tips of opposite coloured wings overlap at both top and bottom of the picture. The white spaces between the two winged shapes contrast with the grey of the paper support and glow appear like pockets of light. The black wings are roughly painted in ink with feathery brushstrokes. In the floor area the artist has inscribed in Persian a poem by the thirteenth-century Sufi mystic, Jalalu'ddin Rumi, taken from his book Divan Shams. The lines of the poem are inscribed diagonally as if they are spinning outwards from the shape.

T05013 is one of at least eleven works on paper made by the artist between 1985 and 1987, that, together with a number of sculptures, addressed, the subject of the angel (see the entries on T05022, T05012 and T05014-T05017). Seven sculptures refer directly to an angel or to angel's wings in their titles, but it is difficult to establish exactly how many other pieces relate in some way to this theme. The works on paper often share titles with the sculptures, as in the case of T05013 and T05022. However, they were not made as studies for the sculptures. Rather, they provided a different means of exploring aspects of the artist's understanding of the idea of the angel. This is quite different from the artist's current practice: her metal sculptures which are based on geometric shapes require technically precise working drawings.

Rumi's Divan Shams is a book of two thousand poems of which only two hundred have ever been translated into English and other languages. In a letter to the compiler of 11 October 1994, the artist wrote that many poets and writers are currently trying to translate more of the poems in Divan Shams but the book comprises ‘some of Rumi's most difficult poems... They are like chants and very repetitive. They have been chanted by some Sufi orders for meditation’. In conversation with the compiler on 19 October 1994, the artist further explained that the poems inscribed on her works are also the most rhythmic of Rumi's poems. The rhythm of the poem represents the rhythm of the wings. Poems from Divan Shams are also inscribed on T05014, T05015, T0516 and T05017. Like the poem used here, they have not yet been translated. Houshiary also inscribed poems on other works on paper made in 1988.

In conversation with the compiler on 2 March 1994 Houshiary explained why she had used poetry in her drawings: ‘It's as if I wanted to find out the rhythm that is hidden inside rather than what is apparent’. She said that making the works on paper was a way of becoming very intimate with what you do, and that intimacy cannot ever be achieved from making things because you are always conscious of the form itself. Here there is no form, when you do a drawing, it's just an event, it's very internalised. And for me to do these drawings was to make sure that I actually captured the rhythm which is inside, which can never be explored outside.

The intimacy of Houshiary's works on paper made between 1985 and 1987 has been sustained in a series of recent paintings. On the surface of these paintings the artist has drawn Sufi chants in pencil in the shape of squares, circles and crosses (see Turning Around the Centre: Shirazeh Houshiary, exh. cat., University Gallery, University of Massachusetts, Amherst 1993).

When asked about the relationship between the poems and works on paper the artist told the compiler that she did not set out to illustrate the poems. The poem written on this piece, for example, deals with the idea of the relationship between the body, soul and spirit: ‘The words become a sound. It is like the soul, or inside the word if you like, it vibrates, it is like the soul itself inside the body. So each word has that kind of vibration within ... That is what gives life to my work. That is what gives life to the poetry’.

The artist has approved this entry.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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