Soheila Sokhanvari works in something of a sanctuary, which is apposite considering that her work is inspired in part by illuminated manuscripts. Nestled in green, villagey space outside Cambridge, her neo-monastic studio is a whitewashed, tin-roofed room owned by the Wysing Arts Centre; one of a row of connected spaces whose slanted ceilings and split-pane doors suggest they might have once been stables. This, too, is appropriate as she has previously created sculptures around taxidermy horses.
Sepia-toned images hang in a neat row on the simple white walls, showing groups of laughing holidaymakers and fashionable young things posing on car bonnets. These could be reproductions of 1960s Hollywood promo shots, but in fact they are pictures copied from the artist’s family photo album, lovingly inked in shades of Iranian crude oil. This is the first hint that things may not be quite as they first appear.
Soheila shows us what she is working on – a modern-day icon with her father (a former model) playing the saint. The bright colours, she explains, will never fade, thanks to the time-honoured technique she employs. Egg tempera, applied to vellum, never loses its intensity. Each layer of paint on the parchment is a testament to egg yolks washed, dried and pierced, then mixed with pigment made of powdered semi-precious stones, ground to a paste on frosted glass. This is part of what makes Soheila’s work so laden with meaning; the very materials she uses tell half the story.
Lapis lazuli from Afghanistan (but procured in Venice) creates a beautiful deep blue, the kind used to depict the Madonna in early Christian art. This royal blue is applied to the lapels of Soheila’s father’s jacket. Malachite offers a darkly verdant shade of green. In manuscripts and icons, costly pigments honoured the subjects of the paintings and denoted worth and value. In Soheila’s work the flesh tones in the piece are rendered in crude oil, which, juxtaposed with the gold leaf of the background, casts a wry glance at what carries value today.
The piece Soheila created for The Auction Room‘s Middle Eastern Contemporary Art sale portrays her mother in the role of Shahrzad the storyteller, set against an islamic-style patterned backdrop representing the universe. I hope that whoever eventually takes this piece home will continue to explore and absorb the meaning of this work: the fusion of east and west, modern and ancient, aesthetic and political. They will not be disappointed.