While living outside Iran, artist Marjan Baniasadi has recreated her homeland through the symbol of the carpet
“Making a map is about eliminating the unpredictable.”
—Karl Ove Knausgård
We make maps and maps make us; these inscriptions and diagrams on leather, fabric, metal, wood, parchment, paper and digital screen help us find our location in a world that is continuous, expanding and enormous. A map is a vocabulary we employ to speak to territory, when we tame/ transform it into sections, boundaries, regions, countries, continents etc. Creating a map is probably one of the earliest attempts at abstraction; corresponding to language, in which a physical entity is replaced by its sign. Hence, the word house is as authentic and useful in conversation as an actual house; much like the plan of a house is considered equivalent to the house for the purpose of visualisation and communication. Thus, ancient writings were pictographs. There was no difference between word and image.
A language maps the world, both tangible and other, but maps can be of other forms and phenomena too. A carpet is such a map that by its definition, design and perception, presents layout of a realm that exists on the threshold of fantasy and faith. Traditional rugs weaved in parts of the Middle East and Central Asia had patterns which in their structure were cartographies of a lost place. There was the Garden of Eden – revived, revised and represented in different formats. Walking on floral motifs of a carpet was not (supposed to be) different from strolling around the flowerbeds of paradise.
Marjan Baniasadi, an artist from Iran (who for some years has lived away; in Pakistan, Hungry, Germany) has been referring to this map-making tradition. In her paintings (watercolours) and porcelain sculptures, the carpet appears as the main motif. Significantly, the carpet has emerged as a potent symbol in the art of Pakistan, first with Rashid Rana’s magnificent and meaningful Red Carpet, 2009 (a comment on violence and its perceived link with the Middle East, a region prised for fabricating beautiful tapestry); followed by David Alesworth’s carpets (Oriental carpets with plans of English locations woven in them), and several others.
Marjan Baniasadi’s case is different. She belongs to a society identified with producing exquisite carpets. A foreigner visiting Iran or adjoining countries likes to purchase and take a beautiful (if not antique) carpet on the way out. It becomes an artefact that reminds his/ her short-spanned connection with the region, as well as for admiring the exotic object once at a distant setting. To Baniasadi, the presence of the carpet is significant for multiple reasons. It is a symbol of her homeland, as well as the sign of heritage a contemporary artist is dealing with. Unlike (or like) a foreign visitor, she travels with the carpet – not carrying the heavy rolled item, but its simulacrum in her work. Wherever she goes - Pakistan, Hungry, Germany – the carpet is with her: in her mind, eyes, hands, and art.
For her the carpet is not just a tag for lost luggage. Her carpets – painted or fired – are residue of a tradition that survives between nature and culture, between the past and the present, between real and imaginary. In her canvases and porcelain sculptures, she creates cartography of the garden: an assemblage of flowers, leaves, plants – replicating, and reminding an ideal landscape. As a painter, Baniasadi tackles the issues of tradition and modernity, as well as the matter of cultural identity, along with the problem of exotica, attached with vernacular cultural practices.
To Baniasadi, the presence of the carpet is significant for several reasons. It is a symbol of her homeland, as well as the sign of a heritage a contemporary artist is dealing with. Unlike (or like) a foreign visitor, she travels with carpet — not carrying the heavy rolled item, but its simulacrum in her work.
For a foreign connoisseur or consumer, the carpet is associated with the ideas of hard work (labour), beauty, distinct past – and comfort. But Baniasadi, in her art debunks all these associations and expectations. In her carpets, she observes the slow disappearance of the past, and its existence/ relevance from our lives. She has picked the motif of floral garden being a symbol of an incredible, yet incomprehensible past. In her paintings, crumbling bits of floral carpets emerge like withered flowers from a barren field; and strands of disintegrating rug are rendered here and there. In some other works, portions of carpets, occasionally stylised, embody her painterly surfaces.
Stories of these flowers (originating from rugs) continue in her art. She explores the lost world through the language of flowers, arranged in a way that these relate and retell the distance in time and difference in place. While living, and working outside of her country of origin, Marjan Baniasadi has built her homeland that can easily be transported wherever she moves. Segments of flowerbeds either from the pattern of a Persian carpet, or from one’s backyard have become the emblem of her original homeland.
But more than her identity as an Iranian, and a person residing outside, Baniasadi is – primarily – a painter. Strikingly subtle, yet tactile canvases confirm the ‘craft’ of an image maker. Patches of patterns in The Remnant Tale resemble countries on a world map. Similarly, torn carpets glued to a textured fabric is painted in Transition of Tradition; flowers entangled in the weave of a rug are in Fragmented Memories II; and a small strip of carpet with tassels on either sides in Rendezvous suggest an artist’s last look at her surroundings while journeying on a fast train.
You collect the past in your eyes, memory, sketchbook, paintings, but none of these are permanent. Marjan Baniasadi has opted for a relatively stable material, porcelain, to own, carry and display (on living-room cornice, at studio bench, in heart’s niche) her cultural goods. The choice of porcelain, for loosely rendered imagery is interesting, because as flowers grow in earth, her flowers are also embedded on an earthen material. She has combined two traditions of depicting floral motifs, in carpet and in ceramics. Along with her abstract paintings in squares, rectangles or roundish format, these tiny objects, flat or curved, become take away totems – only for the artist, who explores a tradition not for its own sake but for its meaning in a wide world of contemporary art.
One feels that for Baniasadi, executing sections of carpet in a static substance is an act to consolidate the concept of fleeting tradition into a solid idea. No matter where she is – the daughter of a diplomat, born in Brazil and schooled in New Delhi – the identity could come in some strange packages: carpets that maps the Garden of Eden. Marjan Baniasadi has reclaimed her homeland through her maps of gardens; the homeland can be her birthplace, her country of residence, her art – or all of them.
The writer is an art critic based in Lahore