Friday, 9 December 2011

'How To Eat a Pomegranate,' broadcasts to Iran and the diaspora

The earliest posts on this blog are about the work I did that was destined for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Esfahan, Iran. That was in 2009. Now, two and half years later, that same group of work, which fell foul of the coup d'etat in Iran in June 2009, and therefore did not go to Esfahan, has shown in three different venues: in London, Oldham, and York and has now been filmed by Manoto TV, a diaspora TV station based in the UK. The story and images of the work have been broadcast around the world on satellite TV, reaching a wide audience in Iran and the diapsora here in the UK. Here is the link to the programme which is a general cultural, magazine style programme with the film of me in my studio and at home and some of the pots at 14:36. It is about 10 minutes long. It is all in Farsi and there are no subtitles, so apologies, in advance to English readers but I hope some of you will enjoy it anyway.
This is a new link to the vimeo site. The Manoto site is unavailable at the moment so this is an alternative. Try both is you have problems. The vimeo link is the film alone so you dont have to find the right section.    
Manoto TV arts: Claudia Clare, English potter.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Remembering Atefeh

A ceremony of remembrance for Atefeh Rajabi Sahaaleh, (b. 1988 – d. 15th August 2004) who was executed, aged sixteen, for ‘crimes against chastity,’ in Neka, Mazandaran, in Northern Iran on August 15th 2004.

The ceremony was held at Derakht e Neda ye Iran, (Neda’s Tree,) in Hyde Park, Monday 15th August 2011.

The Context

The purpose of the ceremony was to remember Atefeh and also to set her life and the events leading to her execution in the wider social context in which so many girls and young women in Iran have been and still are imprisoned and executed for, ‘crimes against chastity,’ or ‘zena.’ This is a colossal human rights abuse, and the numbers are growing year on year, but it is also one which falls below the radar of most human rights activism. These girls do not set out to be political activists, they are not heroes of the revolution, nor are they saints or martyrs. They are ordinary, anonymous girls and women from villages, small towns and big cities alike, whose behaviour and whose very existence is criminalised.

Nasrine Satoudeh, a human rights lawyer currently serving an eleven-year prison sentence in Iran makes the following observation on Atefeh’s case and the countless others like hers:

The courts somehow deal much more rigorously with the women than with the men. The weakest point in our downfall is that this is happening right in front of our eyes but, sadly, we pretend that we just don’t see it.

Atefeh’s Pot

The pot was made about a year ago to memorialise the lives and deaths of these women. It was handbuilt, (using the coil method), and the inside painted yellow. The outside is painted with lilies and roses – iconic flowers associated with love and innocence – but they are entwined with wild flowers, suggesting neglect but still a certain beauty and innocence.

The plan was to smash the pot after the first firing and then, on the yellow, inner surface of the shards, write the names or numbers of the girls and women who had been executed for ‘zena.’

I’ve broken pots many times before but I have always done it in private, early on a Sunday morning when no one else is around. I’ve always felt nervous about frightening people with the noise and making a mess with the shards, which can be very sharp – I’ve cut myself on them before now. This time, however, I decided to include the breaking of the pot as part of a process of sharing the ideas and the story with an audience. Still uncertain about how this would work out, I decided, ten days in advance of the date, that I should do this as part of a memorial for Atefeh on what would be the 7th anniversary of her execution.

The Ceremony

Remembering Atefeh was a short ceremony, which took place in Hyde Park, next to Neda’s Tree, seven years after the sixteen year old girl was hanged from a crane. Eighteen of us gathered under a beautiful, mature, spreading tree close to the Iranian Embassy – which is visible though the leaves in one of the photographs. We started at about 7.15 under a cloudy summer-evening sky, as the light started to fade and a few spots of rain fell. Atefeh’s pot was placed on a box surrounded by a red woven rug. Joseph Bates, my nephew, played the flute, (Bach’s Partita in A minor,) and then Pegah Tabaei and I read about Atefeh’s life, her trial and her execution in English and Farsi. We lit candles to flute accompaniment and everyone gathered in a semi circle around the pot, still holding the candles, which lit up space under the tree, emphasising the gathering dusk beyond our circle and creating a sense of intimacy within it. After a short statement about the nature and extent of this crisis in women’s human rights in Iran, we had a minute’s silence which was broken with the smashing of the Atefeh’s pot over a concrete slab placed on the rug which caught the scattering shards in its weave. The ceremony closed with a poem, ‘Litany for Survival,’ by Audre Lourde, in English, and the last, ‘Sarabande,’ of the Partita for flute.

The rug was then rolled up and the pieces safely conveyed to the studio for reconstruction - now in process. I’ll be glazing the pieces and rebuilding the pot with some of the pieces left out so that the names and numbers are visible inside and the light will make the yellow interior glow.

The breaking and mending of the pot is a metaphor for the shattering of lives and the process of survival – of restoration – of ‘piecing myself back together.’ It is also a material equivalent of ‘breaking the silence,’ about rape and sexual violence.

Thanks are due to:
Joseph Bates – Flute
Pegah Tabaei – Reading Farsi
Iman Nabavi – Translation 

Golbarg Amanat - assistant
Ashkaan Bandoui – photographs
Niloufar Farrokh, Kamran Hashemi and Mana Mostatabi - much help, support and encouragement.
All the Iranian opposition groups who have helped out – and you are many!
Thank you.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Between Melting and Freezing

Between melting and freezing
The soul's sap quivers.
These lines are from Little Gidding, the fourth 'quartet' of the T.S. Eliot's epic poem, 'Four Quartets.'
The vase pictured above is the last pot I made for the exhibition, 'This Twittering World: contemporary painters celebrate T.S. Eliot's 'Four Quartets.' The landscape is The Glyme Valley, where I grew up. At New Year 2010/11 it was under a deep layer of snow which had just started to thaw, very slowly over the frozen ground. As the warmer air met the icey ground a dense layer of fog formed which gave the entire place a blue cast. It had a ghostly quality, silent and still intensely cold.
I'm delighted that this pot has so many distinct viewing positions and I'm particularly pleased with the colour. Took three firings to get it the way I wanted it - oh and 20 year's experience!
This is what I wrote about it for the exhibition notes:
As 2010 breathed its last and 2011 began, I took, my mother home to Wootton, the village where I grew up and where she still lives. The house was still buried deep in the snow that had fallen two weeks earlier but the weather had changed. The temperature was well above freezing and the snow began quickly to soften. The earth beneath had frozen so deep, however that the thaw was painfully slow. For four days, the still, silent battle raged between the frozen ground, refusing to let go of the snow, and the warmer air circulating above. It produced a dense fog, which, clung to the white ground, such that everything was in half tones of blue and appeared to melt into everything else.

Wootton is in the Glyme Valley, tree lined with willows and prone to mists and fog all year round. ‘Between Melting and Freezing,’ is both a recent memory and a much older one, connected to childhood and sledging down that hill. It is also a memory of my father teaching me how to paint snow.

Friday, 27 May 2011

The Pot Book

Snow ball fight, from the Nabeshima kiln, c. 1700-1800, Japan. (Not in The Pot Book)

A new post at last! I haven't forgotten you, but I now know I cannot write anything long and serious and write a blog and write all over facebook all at the same time. Many were the times when I thought 'oo, I'd love to blog about this,' but time tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'No you don't. Don't even think about it. Onwards. The next text awaits your attention.' It was relentless and, at times, remorseless.

So, for those that don't already know, The Pot Book by Edmund de Waal is now co-written by me. Long story. I'm sure if you go to E d W's website and find The Hare with Amber Eyes, it will be able to tell you what happened far better than I can. I know only that I got an email from Phaidon, the publisher, asking me to finish the book. 'Have you selected all the pictures?' I enquire, 'Weeellll not quite.'

So I agreed to finish off the picture selection - sort of. Almost all of the images were selected by Edmund. The few I gathered in came from Emmanuel Cooper's recent Contemporary Ceramics book and, happily, have now been approved by EW. Actually there are two that are my own selection but both approved.

As to the writing. Well, let's just say I have written a great many short texts about a great many magnificent pots. I am also VASTLY better educated in the matter of pottery history than I was three months ago. I have started to look at pots quite differently and museums too.

I am writing this at my mother's house so I have no pictures to upload now but I'll add some later.(Now added the one above.) If you have a facebook account you can find an album of my favourite pots. These are not in the book, they are pots I stumbled across on the way and loved. They are historic pots only, no contemporaries. There's much more i could say about this but I'll save it for another time. Do go to facebook and have a look.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Hybrid Love and Reflecting on Wisdom

Hybrid Love, is so called because of the Hybrid nature of the vase itself and also because Agapanthus is a symbol of love. The name, Agapanthus comprises, 'agape,' meaning love and, 'anthos,' meaning flower. When I refer to the hybridity in the vase, I mean that the upper half, with the flower heads against the cloudy summer sky, looks like a painting of specific Agapanthus flowers, which it is. The lower half, evolved as a flattened, designed pattern; something repeatable and general; a comment or a sign or signifier. At the base, it becomes self-consciously patterned, where I've stylised the roots and added the medallions with my potters mark and the date, 2010. The stems on a couple of the plants are ruled lines, or were, I think I changed my mind half way through when vacillating between general and specific/ pattern and representation.

It has two names this pot. The other name is 'Chinese Vase: Agapanthus.' Both are real, they just have very different feel about them. When reading The Four Quartets, I rebelled against,

'The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.'

Then the more I read it, the more I felt that the 'moves perpetually' bit releases the jar from the onerous weight of having to be an oh so still, well behaved, authentic Chinese Vase. So I renamed it, thinking that perhaps that perpetual movement might have something of my own vacillation.

Reflecting on Wisdom is the name I have given to the Iris vase. I also called it 'Searching for Renaissance,' which was exactly what I was doing. I wanted this vase to evoke the Irises in Italian Renaissance painting and to have the surface quality of a landscape painting or of the landscapes which appear as backgrounds to Renaissance paintings of Biblical themes.

The Iris flower has acquired countless meanings and mythological associations but the idea of the message and of wisdom and courage seem pre-eminent among them. The goddess Iris was the messenger to the gods in Ancient Greek Mythology and carried her messages back and forth along the rainbow. The Ancient Egyptians believed that the three petals stood for faith, wisdom and valour. This seems to have been absorbed into more recent, Christian and European symbolisms not least in the heraldic sign of the Fleur de Lis, which also proclaims these ancient virtues and also in the Christian Trinity. The flower appears repeatedly in Renaissance painting, as a symbol for the Virgin Mary, for love, and sometimes for the sorrow of the Madonna at the crucifixion. It is clearly able to adapt to circumstances and cultures and provide meaning almost wherever it is needed. I think my own meaning for it are most strongly associated with Renaissance religious iconography but I too find I am unable to fix its mood which moves between optimism and hope - it is abundant on the most ungenerous, unaccommodating ground - and foreboding - deep purple seriousness.

Floods at Moonrise

Moonlit landscape, floods, mist. It's a memory of home, when the river valley floods and mist rises. I've added a picture which shows the valley in late summer I think. The vase is gathering of three images and memories. The Glyme valley where I grew up; Portmeadow, in Oxford, where I lived for a time, and which frequently flooded voluminously and magnificently resembling a mighty lake, which froze in winter sometimes and provided the best skating facilities I've ever used; and Lordship Rec, in Tottenham, London, where I now live whose modest and manky ditch is nonetheless edged in vast, stately, mature willows of exactly the sort I grew up with. These are the willows pictured on the pot. There is a slightly mournful tinge to this vase: just after I photographed and drew them on to the surface of the vase, they were subject of major surgery. This is not entirely a matter for mourning. They were suffering. I could see the dead wood and was fearing for them. It is not least for this reason that I gave them a vase. I do want to congratulate Haringey's tree surgeon for doing what looks like an excellent job on the all the trees in our park and I do hope the willows will re-sprout in Spring, as anticipated and in that inimitable way that willows do.
This vase was also in part a response to 'The Dry Salvages' part of 'Four Quartets.'

Technically, the vase felt risky being almost monochrome as it is and almost wholly dependent on tonal variation. I'm not sure how I feel about the lustres. The silver base seems perfect and the rim - neither of which you can see in these images. The moon and its halo seem to work, but there are silvery flecks on the water which need to be well lit to be brought out. Either that or I haven't used enough lustre. The trees and water I'm pleased with. I haven't got to know this pot yet. So I'm still waiting.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

A Moment in the Rose Garden

This is the first of two or more pots. About four months ago I made a similar one. It was more asymmetrical but with the same surface imagery - a garden blooming and with signs of new life but also on the edge of decay. I left that one and turned to the one pictured above. I wanted to explore the imagery which associates with martyrdom. These are all flowers which seem to inhabit the narratives of martyrs and appear when they are pictured. The lilies are taken to be a symbol of purity. They often accompany images of the Virgin Mary and the Annunciation. They are used in images of saints and they adorned the funeral cortege of Diana, Princess of Wales, nothing to do with purity I guess but certainly an adjunct to the growing narrative of Diana as the imperfect saint, redeemed by early death. Their very association with purity always seems to indicate imminent loss - loss of innocence or loss of life - they are often considered one and the same - certainly in Catholic traditions.

Roses, red roses, are the flower of romance but these are dying, these are the decaying part of the garden. These blooms are spent. And then there are green apples, still small, new, yet to grow and reach the stage of ripeness and harvest. So there is hope and promise - possibly.
In this vase, there is not too much indication of a garden. I think the sister vase, still in its unglazed state, has more of a landscape quality, a sense of distance. Even so this one has some sense of distance with the sky and a feel of direction with the positioning of the lily flowers. There is also a hint of 'pattern motif,' in the entanglement of the apples and roses - rather in the way there is sometimes with pre-Raphaelite painting when painting a specific picture seems to become decoration - something more of a signifier, a sign, more general.

I'm delighted with the relationship between the colours: that rather unyielding white, the cold red and the stern blue/grey of the sky seem to me to work together perfectly - though I say so myself. It felt like a colossal risk to place all three with more or less equal weight across the same surface but I think it's worked.

The name of this pot has been confusing me. I kept wanting to name it, 'In the Garden of the Martyrs,' without really knowing why. It's such a precise and strange name that I thought it must have come from somewhere - I must have encountered it before, but I didn't know where. Google tells me that that there are two books of that name, but I hadn't encountered either. However, one of them, actually called, 'In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs,' is a reference to the Golzareh Shohada / Behesht e Zahra outside Tehran in Iran and to all of the other mass cemeteries in Iran where the 'martyrs' of the Iran Iraq war are buried. I haven't been to any of these places but they are certainly in my consciousness because they are often talked of in Iran and now in London too. Ayatollah Khomeini is burried in Golzareh Shohada and, now, so is Neda Agha Soltan and Sohrab Arabi.

I think I shall keep, 'A moment in the rose garden,'(from T.S.Eliot's Four Quartets), for this vase, and the other one will be called, 'In the garden of the martyrs,' and will be an image of the 'martyrdom' of Neda and an exploration of the way that her death has been pictured. I think there will be a third, ideally, which will be for all of those who have died opposing the ruling regimes of Iran since 2009 and since 1979. Navigating this 'martyr' business is not unproblematic though, hence my repeated use of inverted commas, it is not something I can immediately accept - not without question anyway.

I need to get closer to this work before I can really start to explain why. I do know that you need to be dead to be a martyr and I'm not persuaded that the violent deaths of so many young people should remembered in quite this way. It's slightly too fetishistic, slightly too celebratory for my liking. And we need to people to live and win this struggle and function and produce the renewed and flourishing society that Iranians want, not a procession of dead people to be endlessly mourned.

Work in progress and thinking about snow

I've come back from Wootton smelling of damp snow and wood smoke and feeling oddly disorientated to be in the city again. Only five days there with mum over New Year, but the persistent snow and fog made it feel like Narnia. Wootton is the village I grew up in. It's a about 10 miles north-west of Oxford on the edge of the Cotswolds. The land is flat coming out of Oxford to Woodstock, then, just as you leave Woodstock, the first hill starts. Wootton is a small village which sort of flows down a hill side, church at the top and 'the big house' and the school and the shop and what was a pub and so on and then it heads down hill to the river Glyme and goes over a bridge then up a steep path the other side is mum's house. The picture above with the gateway and the foggy snow leading down to the river is the view from her garden; the gate is close to the house. It's isolated. She lives on her own since dad died and when snow comes, it can be difficult to get to the house.
So it's just a bit too easy to get sucked into a haze of village and field and river and snow and fog and forget everything else, particularly since I've known it since the day I was born - February 1962, one of the coldest winters on record.
So, on to recently completed work, part 1 we could say. I'll start with the bowls which I've called 'Shabe Yalda,' the Iranian Winter Solstice, a series of bowls continuing the 'Ab Lambu' theme because, at this time, Iranians celebrate with pomegranates and water melon. The bowls I made this time just made me think of Shab e yalda, because I finished them on yalda night and because the snow had come and, by coincidence, I had wanted to create a pomegranates in snow feel so gave them all a snowy white tin glaze exterior. Not quite by coincidence: a few years ago I photographed pomegranates in snow and I always had wanted to make something that recalled that image. I also well remember eating pomegranates in Abadeh, in Western Iran, with friends just as snow was falling. So, here there they are, above the snow.
I'll sign this post off now and continue with a new one for the four more new vases which are the beginning of new work.