Cities Inhabit the Place of Base

Interview with Artist Laila Tara H

14.08.2020

Where About Now Where are you right now reading these questions?

Laila Tara H Sitting in the courtyard of Numeroventi, Florence.

WAN Where would you like to be while reading these questions?

LTH Luckily, after 4 months trapped in the lockdown of London, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than sitting in a serene courtyard in warm, empty Florence.

WAN How does it feel to travel and be in Italy after the current world change?

LTH The journey itself was surreal, socialising is surreal, not travelling from bed to studio to bed to studio to kitchen to bed is surreal. In truth, It’s hard not to question whether travelling is wise at the moment. If it weren’t for the brilliant opportunity to be an artist in residence here, I doubt I’d leave my city of residence.

I am, however liberated in this space. Outside the confines of the 4 white studio walls I occupy in London, to create in freedom has made me myself again. This has been hugely aided by the Numeroventi team who made me feel at home and reminded me to take this life a little less seriously and drink a little more.

WAN You are an Iranian-British artist based between Tehran and London. Can you tell us more about the two cities and your relationship to them?

LTH Both cities inhabit the place of “base” in my life, they have been consistent in a journey of constant movement. Beyond their purposes as birthplace and heritage, they’ve fed into my understanding of art, of how we absorb and churn out culture as contemporary travelling beings.

WAN You were born in London and raised across Asia and Africa. Your paintings are reflections of your life navigating cultures. What was your nomadic past like?

LTH There is immense privilege in this, to exist as an unbecome being travelling through continents. My childhood was spent in open spaces that were in flux - under the pressure of development, clinging onto cultural autonomy. There is a painting of mine, Drive Thru, that has much to do with the invasion of McDonalds in cities like Tashkent and New Delhi. KFC serving curry and rice in Colombo. I miss this, I miss the bizarre inserts of symbols of ‘development’, the indicators of west that did not belong in places that were still recovering from its grasp.

It is fond to think back to childhood though, feeling like the airport was our spare bedroom as we shifted from bustling Tehran, surrounded by mountains and overcome with smog to our still garden in Nairobi. My heart swells now when I come across the fruits with which I grew up, tangy star fruits, lime filled papaya, and silky mangosteen. Equally, it contracts when faced with their ‘exotic’ labels and prices in London.

It’s difficult to come to terms with identity as a product of such migration, and even more difficult to write about. There is no way to condense down tens of cultures into any amount of words. And truth be told it shouldn’t. Though, we’re all sort of nomadic now. We hop through cities without thought and scroll through sights in ways that didn’t exist before.

WAN We read that you grew up surrounded by nature rather than urbanity. How do you see the relationship between the metropolises you live in and the country today?

LTH The urban is seeping into every crevice it can at the moment, if only it were the other way around with nature finding its way back into urban spaces. It’s astonishing the ways in which city scapes try to imitate nature rather than include it. The sheer performance of this.

Luckily for me, I live in one of the greenest areas of London, by Hampstead Heath, so I’m able to escape the nervous metropolis. For this, I am immensely grateful to London, a city skirted with dense forests, lakes, and cottages to make you feel like you’re whole.

WAN Your works seem to be full of symbols. Can you tell us more about your painting? What are the themes you are interested in and the techniques and materials you use?

LTH Huge question! Allow me to break this down, then break it down again, and hope it makes sense along the way.

I am at core a purist when it comes to art, not because of some deep seated philosophy, but because it is the only kind of art I knew until relatively recently. That’s my most honest take on it, growing up surrounded by traditional arts in the global South meant that my understanding of what art is was based on form, on story telling, and on - this is important, hear me out: beauty.

As I moved into the west and with it, art history, I was taught to read paintings. We read the work, their symbols and meanings. Our eyes flicked from one edge to the other, memorising to recite. We saw paintings as history lessons, packed with the tales the artists wanted to tell. Suddenly a fish on a table wasn’t just a fish on a table, it was some Freudian journey. Ok, it was all western, but it was proper. It fed into my misconstrued quest to learn to paint “properly”.

So suddenly, I’m in a studio in London, then Florence, then France, facing a nude man head on, with oil paint in hand and a canvas in front of me as a tutor tuts while I fail to grasp the sight-see method and it’s as though I’ll never be a great artist because I can’t figure out how to perfectly translate his parts onto this surface in this specific method. I began painting women. At least I could understand the soft curves and ripples as my own but it was still imitation - it always would be so long as I kept using methods and materials that were never meant to be held and used by anyone like me.

Next.

I’m sitting in class during my Masters, staring at a Persian miniature and an Indian miniature sitting side by side before me. It makes sense. I put brush to paper, these are materials I grew up with. They fit, I don’t have to argue with this method, only sink into it. It feels like home.

Now.

I paint using materials that come straight from the earth, or are made by people who work directly with it. My paints are natural, mostly earth, and my paper is natural hemp, made by a family in the Himalayan foothills who produce specifically for this. I understand symbols as stories, nothing too pretentious though - they’re my stories and my understandings of what’s going on around me. Read them or just look at them, either way I hope they’re beautiful like all the crafts and arts and life I’ve seen around me.

I see the north/west and south/east as an opportunity to play now, at least while I paint. My paintings are a place where each can take part and lay with each other. I’m not culturally homogenous and neither is my work. My methods are more rooted in Indo-Persian Miniature painting but my imagery isn’t confined by either, especially now as I’m entering new worlds of contemporary artists who create without restriction.

I should say, I still oil paint but only without purpose.

WAN What are the things which inspire your practice and how did it all start?

LTH I paint because I cannot imagine a life where I do not paint. It began with me and stayed by me as we learnt to understand each other.

But also refer above.

WAN What are you currently working on and where can we see your art in the future?

LTH Lockdown has, selfishly, been a profusely profusely productive time.

It has also made me incredibly conscious of my hands, even more-so than before. They’re this dangerously vulnerable part of the body. So, I’ve been painting hands, over and over and over and over again. They’re inspired by the delicate tones of Fra Angelico and the nimble fingers of my mother.

The three I love the most will be on show in September at Numeroventi for their show So Good So Close.

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