Reza Derakshani: Hunting The Light at Sophia Contemporary

Hunting the Light is Sophia Contemporary’s second presentation of paintings by Iranian-American artist Reza Derakshani. The exhibition consists of twelve paintings that demonstrate Derakshani’s continued quest for a visual language that bridges Iranian artistic tradition with Western contemporary and abstract movements. The twelve paintings are split into three groups; The ‘Hunting’ series, the ‘Garden Party’ series, and the ‘Shirin and Khosrow’ series. Each group of paintings has its own magical beautiful story to tell.

The ‘Hunting’ series alludes to ancient Persian manuscript paintings that show hunting scenes in the Royal Court of the Iranian Shah. Hunting is possibly the oldest of the “three-stage” system, which also includes, herding and agriculture. Royal hunts involved elites and people of royal status, making hunting a predominantly political activity. When the general population hunt to produce food, clothing and other materials for survival, the animals receive their fair share of attention, whereas, during a royal hunt the environment and animals are not of equal importance to the hunters who view the hunt as an expression of authority. The royal hunt displays a ruler’s ability to marshal and order military manpower and other individuals. Royals hunts thus served as an effective reaffirmation of a ruler’s capacity to govern. In Eurasian history, the Persian-style hunt was embraced by Alexander the Great and then modified by himself and the Romans, the Persian-style hunt gradually shifted West, changing as it went.

Royal hunts, or hunts of any stature, are portrayed as something powerful and almost civilised when in reality they are quite brutish and messy, and yet Derakshani has forced a spectacular beauty into the sport through his paintings. This is especially apparent in “Hunting Colours, 2016” where he has used a stunning array of joyful colours, with glitter mixed in with the paint, creating a twinkling effect that is almost incongruous to the scene, and in “Hunting Gold, Red and Blue, 2016” which displays delicate figures and horses against a shimmering, pure gold background.  Derakshani embraces all parts of his background and culture, both the West and the East, by painting the beautifully strategised hunts of Persia, that symbolised power and control, with the enormity and liveliness of Western art styles.

The second series by Derakshani shown is entitled “Garden Party”, which consists of a collection of brightly coloured, and highly animated paintings of typical Persian garden scenes. Persian Gardens were, and are, often referred to as “Paradise Gardens” and have been known to symbolise a heavenly paradise on Earth. Paradisus refers to two Judeo-Christian concepts: the Garden of Eden in the Old Testament, and Heaven in the New Testament. The first uses of paradeisos in Ancient Greek appears in the works of philosopher and historian, Xenophon, who was writing during the height of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, and whose ‘paradeisos’ refers to the enclosed parks or hunting grounds of Persian kings and rulers, it also joins the Old Irani word ‘pari’ which translates to ‘around’. These ‘enclosed’ hunting spaces may also relate to the ‘Hunting’ series, as Persian kings would create beautiful enclosures for their hunts. As a modern reference, the Taj Mahal embodies the Persian concept of the perfect, ideal Paradise Garden. Paradise is usually associated with tropical islands and hot, sandy places that have been untouched and undisturbed by humankind and all its concerns, they are also usually accompanied by fresh, cool, bodies of water.

These Persian paradises represent the ideal nature of both Heaven and Eden, all good and all natural. Since 4000BCE Persian Gardens have typically involved a cross layout, emulating the Garden of Eden, with four rivers separating the space into four quadrants that represent the world. In the book of Genesis, Eden is described as having a central spring that feeds four rivers, which each flow out into the world beyond. The strong involvement of water symbolises eternal life, and the use of water in art emits a peaceful, calming feeling to viewers, who mentally feel its healing properties.

Derakshani took on and succeeded in carrying out his mission of taking the pure physical beauty of Persian gardens and conveying them on canvas with paints and brushes. His ‘Garden Party’ series surpasses beauty and delight, flowing with supreme bliss, planting a Paradise Garden in the middle of London for visitors to enjoy.

In “Garden Party Red, 2016” the top of the painting is filled with what appears to be Derakshani’s own representations of apotropaic talismans. He has painted numerous white droplets with blue centres, representing the ‘Evil Eye’ talismans. The evil eye is believed to be a curse cast by a malevolent glare. Many cultures, including those in Iran, use talismans to protect against the evil eye, these are also frequently called “evils eyes”.  Evil eyes are often seen in the palm of the hamsa hand. The evil eye is used to protect against curses, misfortune or injury, and the practice of raising one’s right hand with the palm showing is meant to protect against curses by blinding the aggressor. The evil eye placed in the palm of hamsas hand is saying ’khamsa fi ainek’ which translates to “five fingers in your eye”, referring to the eye of the one who means you harm.

The evil eye is also known to help women with their fertility, and during the Achaemenid Empire, women were seen as tools to give life and wholly embrace motherhood. A modern example of the evil eye being twisted is in the 2006 fantasy film, Pan’s Labyrinth, where a creature known as ‘the pale man’ raises his hands, palms out, with each of his eyes in the centre. This creature represents everything the hand of hamsa and the evil eye do not, in that he is a villainous being that eats children. Derakshani surrounds the garden party scene with protections and evil eyes, keeping wherever this painting may hang safe. It also refers to the notion that Persian gardens are heaven on Earth, and keep out any evil, such as the snake from Eden.

The third series is of ‘Shirin and Khosrow’. The story of Shirin and Khosrow is a romantic tragedy of two lovers that is featured in the Persian Shanameh (Book of Kings), which is Iran’s collection of tales and poems. It was composed in the 10th Century by Nizami Ganjavi, who also wrote Layla and Majnun, another dismally beautiful, romantic tragedy. The poem is said to have been the inspiration for Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Romeo and Juliet also has ties to the ‘Garden Party’ series through the opera ‘A Village Romeo and Juliet’ which includes an orchestral interlude “The Walk to the Paradise Garden”.

Shirin and Khosrow is considered one of the most beautiful love stories of all time, and Derakshani has created some of the most beautiful artwork with magnificent representations of the lovers, including many images of Khosrow’s first sight of Shirin, bathing in a pool, which is one of the most faous moments in Persian literature. Derakshani has taken the previous traditional artworks illustrating this tale and tossed aside their drab, muddy brown colours for his vibrant and exciting, exotic retelling of this ancient tale of two lovers.

Hunting The Light is a spectacular, breathtaking collection of works. The use of colour in every inch of every piece is dazzling and enchanting - like the history and the tales that inspired them.Derakshani has not only created a series of paintings for viewers to love and enjoy, but he has built the first steps for visitors to ascend a wonderous and culturally vibrant mountain. Derakshani has used the delights and comfort of Western artistic characteristics to share the beauty and wonders of his Iranian heritage and visitors to his exhibition will leave, feeling inspired to continue exploring the rich and glorious history and culture of Persia.


Hunting The Light is on at Sophia Contemporary until 10th March.  More information may be found here.