Maryam Hashemi talks spaceships, the British countryside, and Muslim ladies

In retrospect, the Euphorium Bakery in Bank was probably the least fitting place I could have chosen to meet Iranian-British artist Maryam Hashemi. Amongst the sea of terse bankers in well-fitted suits, she stood out as an oasis of colour, somehow effortlessly combining sports apparel and warm woollen garments. I immediately feel as if we should relocate, perhaps to an independent coffee shop with tables made out of upturned storage boxes, or to an art gallery, or somewhere else where I won’t feel so horribly embarrassed by the amount of guffawing going on around us.

But Maryam is utterly at ease, and I soon realise that she has an amazing ability to talk to anyone, as well as a wicked sense of humour. Her philosophy seems to be the utmost embodiment of live and let live, which she doesn’t fall short of applying to herself – ‘I don’t necessarily consider myself only Iranian. I borrow things from different cultures and make them my own’. And indeed, when she moved to London in 2002, she tells me that she was ‘a different person’.

‘People who’ve known me throughout say they don’t recognise me. And it’s true… I suddenly gave myself the freedom to change my attitude towards who I am. It wasn’t that being in Iran stopped me from expressing myself. I still did what I wanted – but I had this constant rejection attitude. I was fighting a home battle. And obviously when I moved to the UK, and my rebel persona didn’t have any meaning anymore, I had to work out who I was from scratch.’

Fittingly, this marks the only period in her artistic life where she has very consciously chosen the subject matter of her art. In 2010, after eight years in London, Maryam released a set of self-portraits: ‘I was explaining my own story to myself’.

Otherwise, Maryam sees her work as free-flowing extension of her subconscious. ‘I love to let go and allow images to appear. I’m just the tool that brings them forth.’ And so she often works with lines and ink, letting herself see images in the patterns. ‘I take responsibility from my conscious self and let my subconscious do the job. It’s just like dreaming – all the symbols there have a meaning, but I rarely choose them on purpose’.

Subconsciously or not, Maryam seems to have reproduced the definition of Surrealism; ‘to resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality’, as outlined by the poet André Breton. However, Maryam tells me that she is still unsure about how to categorise her art.

‘When I was a student, I was quite Expressionist. I liked to evoke hard feelings, and then there was a phase where I just liked to make people cringe. My teachers would call me “Scary Mary”! But eventually I got bored of that and when I started exhibiting I felt that my work was quite surreal. But that didn’t really chime with me because I do feel that there are narratives in my art. One of my friends, Steve Ash, described my work as Magic Realist and I identify with this more as it brings together the abstract and realist aspects of my work’.

Ladybird

Ladybird

There is perhaps a symbolist aspect to Maryam’s work working in parallel – recurring images include the fish and the pigeon, though their meaning hasn’t always been obvious. ‘I’m only now beginning to understand the symbols that I’ve been using for years, like the fish. I can tell if I’m in a good state or not from how my fishes look. Before, my fishes were sad, frozen, even dead. Now I think that I must have had really stagnant energy! And now, if I see that my fishes are getting stuck again, I think I should probably do some feng shui’.

Despite the jokes, she is incredibly eloquent when explaining what she thinks might have drawn her to the fish. ‘They’re life force, essence, creativity – which is probably why they’re always at the table at Norooz. They’re an ancient symbol, and I’ve noticed that many artists and religions use the fish symbolically too.’

Her other influences are equally diverse, ranging from the pre-Raphaelites (‘I like to find things. I like the mysteries in their work’) to Christian iconography. She admits, however, that she is not really in control of what affects her art. ‘People often compare my work to Frida Kahlo, who I actually didn’t like much at first. But she nonetheless triggered something within me… the self-portraits… the way she explains and explores herself.’

Nonetheless, Maryam’s interests go far beyond the artistic sphere: ‘I’m fascinated by the occult, and everything that people call supernatural’.  When I ask her if she’s ever had a paranormal experience, her answer is suitably mysterious. ‘All the time. I’m psychic’, she tells me with a cheeky grin. By the end of the interview, this doesn’t look half as incredulous, especially after she reads my palm and correctly guesses my birthday. In any case, life for Maryam is not so much about the surface value, but what goes on underneath.

‘I get bored with things like politics. I like to go much deeper than the everyday puppets and figure-heads. And that’s just how I see my art. It’s all about the layers. Often people say that they see more and more in my paintings each time they look at them’.

However, Maryam has sometimes found that meaning in her art has been taken to an extreme she hadn’t anticipated. ‘One day a friend and I were putting on a “surrealist” party, for which we had planned all sorts of things, like making the washing-machine play Benedictine chant, renaming the rooms as the ‘poetry room’, ‘fear room’, ‘games room’… As part of this, I found some cheap coasters with pictures of the English countryside in a charity shop, and I thought that I would add something to make them completely incongruent. And what did I paint? A Muslim lady and a spaceship! Frankly, there’s no way you’re going to find a Muslim in the British countryside with a spaceship at the same time. It’s just not possible’.

‘For me it was just about being a bit silly, putting a bunch of opposites together, but then they ended up being curated.  Fery Malek Madani visited me to select works for a group exhibition of Iranian art in Brussels, and while I was showing her my paintings, she got distracted by the coasters. She ended up focussing more on them than anything else, and actually sold them all! The coasters were just the start of a whole series made completely out of tacky and kitsch items.’.

‘Now my friends buy me stuff from markets with the line “Hey, you should put some Muslim ladies on it!”. It’s gotten me thinking… Is this how they travel, on a spaceship? Or maybe they don’t know the spaceship is there at all? That for me is the real interest. Some people assume it’s all a political statement but you can’t say something is political just because there’s a hijab in it’.

Similarly, Maryam’s veiled series is more about the hijab’s symbolic potential than it is about symbols of oppression. ‘I didn’t mind wearing the veil when I was Iran – when it actually stayed on my head. Besides, I like dressing up. There’s so much you can do with the veil – it’s this amazing, flowing fabric, and there’s flaps and folds everywhere. I used to sit in coffee shops, smoking and drinking my tea and wearing it. It’s amazing how to see how differently other cultures wear it too – in the UK you see them worn by Arabs, Somalians, and every culture has their own practice.’

Bandari Girl

Bandari Girl

‘The first painting of my veiled series came after a trip to Bandar Abbas and seeing the amazing masks there. I bought one that’s for a wedding, in a beautiful, deep red. Ultimately, I find the hijab, masks, and all other religious attire that Muslim women wear so feminine. I remember watching this documentary where a woman was walking her camel in the south of Iran. The way she walked – albeit completely covered in fabric – it was just so feminine. When I first moved here, I thought back on the hijab as a mask that I wore to fit into my society. But now I realise that there are masks everywhere you go. It’s all about taking off your veils and seeing what lies beneath. Just how the veils in my paintings are constantly changing…’.

‘I’ve completely stopped doing things I don’t like now. I’ve realised that there’s no point in doing something just to feel accepted. I’m actually thinking of doing more in film. The most recent thing I did was for BBC1, for a great mini-series called Capital directed by Euros Lyn with the Kudos Production Company. One of the characters was an artist whose painting I was creating, so I had to do five different canvases, each at a different stage of creation. The schedule was very tight – I had to create the initial work on our house-boat where it was moored in the Netherlands, and then keep making trips to London. I actually ended up sleeping in the prop room in Ealing Studios! I just couldn’t stop working on the piece. I was still adding details to it when we were on set, the smallest details that you could never see on TV anyway. It was an amazing experience and I was so grateful to be part of it – everything is so easy when you’re working for wonderful professionals who like what you do, and you don’t have to alter or explain yourself at all. At the end, the director said there were “ah” sounds when everyone saw the finished work on the set, and the Production manager even said she had tears in her eyes when she saw it on TV.’

For BBC1, 'Capital'

For BBC1, ‘Capital’

‘For a long time I had this constant, dull, background fear, and I would take on any job, but now I know it’s counter-productive. It’s often taken me so long to heal from a stressful project or bad experience. Art is the easiest when you’re free to create and do what is closest to your heart’.

See Maryam’s website here

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Credit: Tiara Ataii