Welcome to the Gallery Girl podcast. Today my guest is Laila Tara H, a British-Iranian artist whose work is inspired by the history of Indo-Persian miniature painting, using natural pigments to bring a historic art form into the contemporary.
Laila grew up predominantly in the global south, mostly South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. “They were countries that didn’t necessarily have a big contemporary art scene, but instead they were really rooted in their traditional crafts”, she explains, “For example, living in Uzbekistan there was this incredible tradition of needlecraft or tilework in Iran.” For Laila, the art she was exposed to as a child was focused on beautiful craft, but she says she was exposed to a more western idea of art through popular culture. “I would still see movies and these grand, grand artworks, but within the contexts of films”, she adds, “Like in something ridiculous like Ocean’s Eleven. You’d see them go through these big museums. So there was always this dichotomy of what art is and what is valuable art as well. That definitely shaped who I am.”
Most of the work that Laila makes is inspired by the tradition of Indo-Persian miniature painting, an art form that could broadly be equated to manuscript painting in Europe. It started out as art of the book, though Laila explains that in Iran it was more of a progression from oil paintings that came about through connections with China and which was solidified in Iran during the Mongol invasion in around the thirteenth century. “When it began it was more about how we illustrate stories around writing”, she explains, “My work is more Indo-Persian. There was a lot of sharing going on between the Mughal empire and the Persian empire. There was a point in which one of the Mughal kings was exiled and he fled to Iran, which was during the height of Persian painting. He came into contact with incredible Persian miniature painters and he took them back to India with him. From this came a whole new way of painting within the Mughal empire and I’m super enamoured by it. It’s so colourful and really phenomenally beautiful.”
Speaking of Laila’s art making process, she says that the process of getting ready is the best part. She makes all of her paints herself using natural pigments. “I take plants or rocks, or earth and bugs and essentially work them and turn them into paint”, she explains, “Sometimes I’m using pigments from Iran or from my childhood home in London. What’s great about this is that it’s a way to create paint that’s been used for thousands of years.” In addition, Laila also sources natural pigments from people across the world who have been making pigments for generations.
It’s no surprise that Laila uses natural pigments, since much of her work focuses on the natural world. She didn’t grow up in the city, so she was always surrounded by nature. “Growing up I was surrounded by change”, says Laila, “Every couple of years your whole life gets thrown upside down and you get taken into a new place. So in order to have some kind of stability you look for things that are constant. The constants for me were always the flora and the fauna. It is going to be anywhere that I’m going to be.”
And, although Laila’s work is very miniature by the nature of the art form, her subjects are depicted in vast open spaces. “The paper that I’m using is all handmade. It’s a finished product of itself. It doesn’t need a painting”, explains Laila, “I’m very comfortable letting it do it’s thing. On the other hand, I think the void is a healthy thing. Empty space is an actor in and of itself and it’s helpful. Somebody can look at it and fill it in how they like. I also find that compositionally it has its own voice.”
Currently, Laila is showing work at indigo + madder in a two-artist exhibition – with Anusheh Zia – called Sky-Circles. The London exhibition focuses on the idea of coming to terms with coming back to life. “Every single work is about how uncomfortable I am right now [London is just coming out of a pretty tough lockdown]”, explains Laila, “There are these two pieces that have this hunched over body with all of these rolls. It’s all about coming to terms with your physicality after a year of not thinking about your physical body.” Another set of works in the exhibition also analyse the idea of going back to something but as someone else. “I think that is something that possibly a lot of people are going through right now”, she says, “We’ve all gone through this big change. It’s just a bit of an unnecessary pressure, as alluring as it might be.”
Laila also has a show opening at O Gallery in Tehran, Iran this December. “It’s going back ‘home’ and presenting my work”, she explains, “It’s work that I’ve been trying to do almost as an ode to my cultural history and then presenting that to the actual country is a bit overwhelming.” That said, she’s really looking forward to it. The theme of the exhibition is “tourists”, contemplating the notion of being a tourist in your own country.
Besides her paintings, Laila has collaborated with stationary company Papier on a series of notebooks and notecards. “It was one of my best experiences”, explains Laila, “It’s so playful, it’s so light, it’s so summery. We released it directly after the lockdowns, there was something so joyful about presenting something so light.”
And, as for the future, Laila has two solo shows in London and she’s also working on a few collaborations including kids pyjamas and furniture.