Paradise @ Aga Khan Centre Gallery

What is Paradise? Is it a place? Is it a feeling? In a new exhibition at London’s Aga Khan Centre Gallery, a multisensory exhibition explores the idea of Paradise through art and Islamic Garden design.

All faiths and spiritual beliefs have one thing in common – the concept of Paradise / Eden is an ideal that drives the ultimate place we all want to be in.” – Esen Kaya, curator

More than 130 verses in the Qur’an mention Paradise. In Islam, it is a lush, shady and verdant garden and much of that is on display in the London exhibition. Before entering the space, the viewer is greeted by an embroidered work called Gardened Wall by Olga Prinku, which incorporates real flowers into net fabric. The selected flowers – acroclinium, mountain daisy, strawflowers, golden ageratum and dwarf everlasting – create a colourful medley against a backdrop of green provided by oats, intended to evoke the sensation of strolling through a summer meadow in paradise. Arranged in two panels to represent the symmetry typical of Islamic Garden design, the richly textured tapestry of dried flowers creates an abstract pictorial pattern with the flowers arranged with their stems in a vertical pattern to symbolise the upward striving for heaven and everlasting life.

Artwork by Olga Prinku and Yasmin Hayat. Image courtesy Jonathan Goldberg and Aga Khan Centre Gallery

Once inside the galleries, the viewer is greeted by a sent designed by Alessandro Cancian, who was invited by the exhibition’s curator Esen Kaya to create a bespoke perfume for the space inspired by his own imaginings of paradise. The show is accompanied by sound too, created by Geoff Sample. “I wanted to work with some biogeographic authenticity and chose birds and sounds appropriate to the natural habitats of the region that gave rise to the stories of Eden”, explains Sample, “Two of the birds, nightingale and hoopoe…But most important was a sense of structured acoustic space in keeping with the significance of geometry in Islamic Garden design.” This geometry is echoed on the gallery walls too, with the inclusion of works by artists like Soraya Syed and Veeda Ahmed, who create beautiful contemporary examples of both Islamic geometry and calligraphy.

The exhibition’s layout is well considered too, representing the classic four gardens design, which is understood as an interpretation of the four gardens of Paradise mentioned in Sura 55 of the Qur’an. The “garden” at the Aga Khan Centre Gallery is covered in paintings, ceramics, embroidery and works made in other media. A number of works on show are displayed on loan from the Royal Horticultural Society’s Lindley Library, bringing a Western interpretation of botanical illustration to an exhibition otherwise largely oriented towards the East.

Image courtesy Jonathan Goldberg and Aga Khan Centre Gallery

Manuscripts in particular play a big part of the exhibition – both historical and modern – depicting stories written by Firdausi, Nizami and Prince Sultan Ibrahim, with works on display from the collections of the Aga Khan Museum and recent graduates of London’s Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts. Perhaps the standout work is made by Farkhondeh Ahmadzadeh, in a display of Attar’s 13th century epic Conference of the Birds, depicting the tale where the world’s birds gather to discuss their lack of a sovereign. Ahmadzadeh’s interpretation includes the majestic Simorgh in all its glory, flying across the midnight sky. Another particular favourite is Jethro Buck’s Pomegranate Tree, which depicts a tiny figure tucked up asleep beneath a lush, larger-than-life pomegranate tree.

Beyond works on paper, there are also ceramics and embroidery. The exhibition includes a partnership with the Royal School of Needlework, incorporating pieces by textile artists like Jung Byun, who displays both goldwork and a silk shaded peacock mirror. Accompanying these works are a number of floral ceramic plates, created by Yasmin Hayat, which are mirrored in Rachel Dein’s works of botanical art in plaster.

Pomegranate Tree by Jethro Buck. Image courtesy Jonathan Goldberg and Aga Khan Centre Gallery

And, like all good gardens, the exhibition has its own fountain at its heart. designed by renowned Islamic Garden designer Emma Clark, the installation incorporates gorgeous laser-cut paper strands by Clare Celeste Borsch. The completely white work brings a sense of purity and peace into the space, with the light paper pieces drawing the viewer’s eye around the gallery in the way that they flow from the sculptural fountain.

After a year when many of us have been anxious, stressed and tense, the Aga Khan Centre Gallery transports the viewer to a place of sheer beauty and tranquillity. A real chance to experience Paradise in the heart of London.

Making Paradise: Exploring the concept of Eden through Art and Islamic Garden Design is on display at Aga Khan Centre Gallery in London until 30 September 2021

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier aka Gallery Girl is a writer and curator based in London. Her work has been featured in publications including Dazed, Hyperallergic and Vogue Arabia. She was curator of Perpetual Movement during AWAN Festival 2018 and in 2019 had a residency at the Lab at Darat Al Funun in Amman, Jordan. She has also worked with Armenia Art Fair for its inaugural edition and previously worked as an editor at I.B.Tauris Publishers. In 2019 she co-founded Arsheef, Yemen’s first contemporary art gallery. She has given workshops at Manara Culture in Amman, Jordan and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK. As of 2020 she is currently in law school, with the ambition of greater understanding the intersection between art and the law.

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