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Visual arts: Making Paradise, at the Aga Khan Centre (London)

09 July 2021

Susan Gray visits an exhibition inspired by Islam’s gardens

Jane Lee McCracken’s diptych. More artwork in the gallery

Jane Lee McCracken’s diptych. More artwork in the gallery

“MAKING PARADISE” is a small but stimulating exhibition at the Aga Khan Centre. On entering, there is a sensation is dislocation and bewilderment. Suddenly, visitors steeped in European art change places with people of different faiths or none, when confronted with the Western canon. “Making Paradise” offers a great exercise in empathy.

The curator, Esen Kaya, has created a show so site-specific that it is difficult to imagine it anywhere else. Inspired by the traditional Islamic chahar bagh garden design (meaning four gardens), each of the gallery’s walls stands for a garden quadrant. This can be understood as an interpretation of the four gardens of Paradise mentioned in Sura 55 (al-Rahman) in the Qur’an.

A film narrated by the Aga Khan, explaining the centrality of gardens to renowned Islamic buildings such as the Alhambra and the Taj Mahal, opens the show. “Gardens are a place where the ephemeral meets the eternal, and where the eternal meets the hand of man.” The film explains the universality of the concept of Al-Jannah — the Garden of Eden, or Paradise in Islam. Essential characteristics of Al-Jannah are that is green, contains trees and fruit, and most importantly running water, a river or a fountain. Kaya says everybody has their idea of Paradise.

Water is a key feature of Islamic garden design, with its roots in the irrigation channels needed to water fields and orchards in hot countries. “Water is life,” says Esen Kaya. The Islamic garden designer Emma Clark’s centrepiece fountain, in blue and white, is based on Moroccan designs and the fountains in the Alhambra. It brings the concept of water into the windowless gallery, through streams of white paper with cut-out flower shapes, simultaneously creating the effect of cascades of water, a 3D flower shape, and creating dapples of light and shade across the gallery space.

The streams are created by the American collage and installation artist Clare Börsch, who lives in Berlin. A soundscape of birdsong by Geoff Sample adds to the feeling of experiencing the outside inside, and dissolving the borders between the two. The Aga Khan Centre itself has six gardens embedded into its balconies and terraces, travelling up the building’s ten levels like hanging gardens.

Clark’s fountain’s blue-and-white palette is continued in Rachel Dein’s tiles, where intricate plants are shown in plaster relief, against a Wedgwood blue-grey background. Dein highlights Andy Goldsworthy as one of her influences in the incorporation of real plants into her work.

The Biro artist Jane Lee McCracken’s tile diptych Dear Hoopoe and Dear Nightingale is inspired by the 12th-century Persian poem “The Conference of the Birds”. Dear Hoopoe portrays the hoopoe open-beaked as he speaks to the gathered birds of the world of their quest and the difficult journey that they must make to search for their King. The white space to the left of the design signifies an opening for the Hoopoe’s voice to carry forth to the second design, Dear Nightingale, where more birds are gathered.

The diptych flanks Zarah Hussain’s Water sculpture, which manages to be a geometric pattern of turquoise, navy-blue, and white triangles, but also suggests a flower shape. Hussain positions her work at the intersection of science and spirituality, combining contemporary digital art with training in traditional hand-drawn Islamic geometry. Near by a Mughal era painting, in sepia tones, of traditional gardens stacked in layers underscores the continuity between tradition and innovation

Contrasting with these cool tones, the opposite wall is earthy and vibrant. The artist and environmentalist Borsch’s Geo Diversity III, a round, hand-cut collage of flowers and geometric shapes, behind layers of Plexiglass, takes centre stage. The work is alongside Olga Prinku’s Tulip, where the flowers are created on tulle stretched in embroidery hoops, using dried-flower material to create the highly stylised tulip petals, stem, and leaves. Tulips are one of the paradisal flowers detailed in the Qur’an.

Yasmin Hayat’s Fruits of Heaven, Plate 2 portrays tulips in luminous colours, using pigments that she has created herself from organic materials. In common with several of the artists on display, Hayat is a graduate of the Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Art.

Ross Taylor is a British landscape artist based near Melbourne, whose bright, sinuous landscapes feel Fauvist. To create a painting for “Making Paradise”, Taylor studied historical pieces from the Aga Khan Foundation collection, resulting in a canvas divided into four, and using the flattened slightly 2D perspective familiar in Islamic art. Taylor reports that the Islamic influences encountered while preparing for the show have now shaped his style.

“Making Paradise” is a celebration of nature mediated through human creativity and ingenuity. It offers a crystal ball into our shared urban and climate-challenged future, in which gardens may need to be outdoor rooms rather than vast spaces. The show adds to visitors’ vocabulary of garden design, expanding the borders of what gardens mean, and what they can be.

“Making Paradise”, at the Aga Khan Centre, 10 Handyside Street, London N1, runs until 30 September. Advance booking required at www.agakhancentre.org.uk

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