Laila Tara H (b.1995) is an Iranian-British artist whose small-scale paintings on paper draw on the tradition of Indo-Persian miniature painting. Her Iranian heritage, and years spent moving through continents, has informed the language through which she articulates her own history of living in different cultural settings. Symbolic forms and multiple, concurrent narratives punctuate the space. Detailed figures, faces painted in profile, disjointed limbs, delicate foliage, birds, reptiles, and golden suns are all arranged in stark, startling compositions, creating a deeply personal narrative. Paper is cut and folded, puncturing, and destabilising space to introduce three-dimensional depth and shadow play. She uses pigments that are either naturally derived including deep blue lapis lazuli, walnut ink, clay earth ochre or from found materials such as crushed red London bricks.
INTERVIEW WITH LAILA TARA H AND ART HISTORIAN SACHA LLEWELLYN
SL: Can you tell me about your journey of becoming an artist and how you first came across Persian and Indian miniature paintings?
LTH: We all made drawings when we were children, I just never gave them up. Becoming an “artist” has not been a straightforward walk.
I studied International Politics, while painting on the side - spending summers in ateliers with oil paints in hand and life-models in sight. A metamorphic moment came when I enrolled at the Prince’s School of Traditional Art in London to undertake an MA, and after studying traditional crafts, I specialized in Persian and Indian miniature paintings in my second year.
When I put brush to paper, it felt so natural, like talking in a mother tongue. I had seen such works in two places: either relegated to sections of museums dictated by geography when I was in London or adorning domestic spaces across the SWANA region. The general perception in the former was that they were decorative artefacts, and in the latter, I felt they acted as reminders of cultural placement. These elaborate, colourful, finely painted works on paper were on a much shorter pedestal than the works in oil on canvas that independently adorned the larger halls.
Without the-thing-we-no-longer-speak-of (covid-19), I’m not sure I would have had the freedom to paint with such rigour. It took those months of heavy silence to give me the go-ahead. With no distractions and no sense of future, I was able to produce paintings that were reflective of myself and entirely independent of my surroundings - I’m trying to hold on to that feeling still.
What have been the challenges and joys of adapting to the traditional art form of miniature painting to the 21st century?
This conversation comes up often in relation to my paintings. Miniature painting, in each of its many homes and forms, is a tradition. As such, it’s a living thing. We have folios of phenomenal works across the globe that date from the 13th century onwards and because of the way that they’re presented as artefacts, it’s easy to feel that they reached their peak and disappeared. In reality, there are many people who have taken that tradition and are pulling it forwards towards themselves.
It’s worth noting that in many cases, the context has changed. I’m not a man in the 16th century who has been under the tutelage of a master painter his whole life in the company of other men, each with their own responsibility in the creation of a single masterpiece. I don’t paint folios for manuscripts that tell tales of fierce kings or moral gods. Frankly, I lack interest in grand historical narratives and globally with the advent of film, camera, news, and broadcasting - I think we’re okay on that front. What we share are our techniques and our materials. We’re tied not by experience but by process. I’m not producing artefacts; I’m producing paintings for myself that just so happen to live on pristine walls rather than in dense books or beneath glass boxes.
Your titles read like poetry – in what way do the words accentuates the visual impact of the image?
Never have I had such fun with titling my work. For the exhibition at Purdy Hicks Gallery, many of the titles are taken from, or inspired by, the poems, games, and verses we learn as children. We’re all a little confused emerging from the past years and in addition to that, I’m at this age/life stage where things are getting serious. I hit 27 this month. It’s young, I know, but life seems like it’s defining itself. Everything is becoming a more solid version than what it was before. The paintings for this show, all in the new green of late spring, talk to this shift. The paintings are mostly about relationships and how those childhood games and verses are showing themselves in real adult life. The altered verses are sort of an amalgam of childhood lessons and adult experiences.
The natural world appears frequently in your work. In what way is nature a creating and inspiring resource for you?
We moved a lot when I was growing up and there were a very few things that stayed consistent: our furniture, nature, and that we’d move again. Recognising the same plant or flower in a different continent brought it all together. There’s a sense of safety in that.
Living in London, with its industrial and production-centric values - nature provides me with a sanctuary. I am an obsessive gardener. My favourite body-part is my green finger. My terrace is ablaze with daffodils now, the oranges are in bloom and in the summer months my little terrace is going to struggle to contain itself. Quiet solace in a mad city.
There are empty spaces in your work, what meanings do these carry?
There have always been empty spaces in my work - I’m not sure I can do it any other way. We have more than enough so extraction is permitted! In this style of painting, the smallest thing can take the longest time, it deserves its own space to float. I also fall back on this Taoist idea that sometimes a thing can only be useful because of the emptiness: a room or a vessel wouldn’t be anything but a cube or a ball without their void.
Can you talk about your choice of pigments?
I love pigments. Nearly all the pigments I use are natural, derived from plants, earth and stones. They’re either being made by myself or carefully sourced. My own are from rocks found during visits to Iran, from old orange bricks, or bits found on Hampstead Heath. We don’t talk enough about the mass-production, waste, and questionable materials in art production. It’s also a matter of relevance to my practice though, I’m still in relative keeping with the traditional materials that by-pass that industry.
Throughout history, women artists have been marginalised and sidelined. What is your experience of being a woman artist today, and does your art reflect the possibilities and challenges of being a woman?
We’re beneficiaries of all the women who fought and resisted. They carved space for female artists. For many, chisel is still in hand.
My art is a product of my myself, and my first point of call is my physical body - everything else is a derivative of that experience. In terms of output, I can’t separate myself from my ideas. In real-life terms, being an artist means working on my own time and as a person carrying the burden of the female anatomy, that’s a relief. I hope that if motherhood comes my way, I can continue making with this accommodation.
Is there a woman artist – from the past or present - who particularly inspires you?
There are 3 artists who particularly inspire me. I recently saw the beautiful exhibition of Louise Bourgeois at the Hayward Gallery and then swiftly popped to Marlborough Gallery to continue the feeling. I love the themes that she explores in her work, especially domesticity, family, and the body. I also love the work of Betye Saar. I followed her exhibition ‘Call and Responses’ at the Morgan Library in New York in 2020. The way she places small parts to compose a whole resonates with my own work. And then I greatly admire Shirin Neshat. Her 2-screen film installation Turbulent (1998) is so powerful in its evocation of gender roles and cultural power in Iran. These three women are all storytellers in the most intimate and honest ways.
Why is there an H at the end of your name?
It’s short for Hossaini. Unfortunate timing that anti-MENA sentiment swarmed life as I was entering school. International schools can be wonderful and inclusive places, but they can also go unchecked a lot of the time and my experience carried plenty of racism and xenophobia. At least, it was enough for me to unofficially change my name when I was 12. I remember it so clearly. Sitting in the passenger seat of our car in Ankara, after being denied into the American school because I held both a British and an Iranian passport and asking my dad what he would have named me if they didn’t settle on Laila. Tara stuck, it felt right and ambiguous.
Laila Hossaini lives on official documents and in my most personal life, but Laila Tara H is the shopfront.
(Sacha Llewellyn is an independent writer, with a particular interest in women artists. She has curated numerous exhibitions, including 'Winifred Knights' at Dulwich Picture Gallery (2016), and 'Fifty British Women Artists 1900–1950' at the Worshipful Company of Mercers and Leeds University Art Gallery (2019). In 2017 she won the William M. B. Berger Prize for British Art History.)