Working life | 'I often start my artistic process with a poem' - Museums Association

Working life | ‘I often start my artistic process with a poem’

Lynsey Ford talks to the artist Shahrzad Ghaffari about her work at London’s Leighton House Museum
Working life

How did the Oneness Project come about?

Leighton House invited me to give a proposal before the first lockdown as part of the museum’s capital project, which will provide additional visitor and learning facilities, exhibition spaces and disabled access to all parts of the museum.

I will be the first contemporary artist to create a permanent installation at the museum, designing an 11m-high mural that will decorate the grand helical staircase in the new wing. The Oneness Project is about unity, renewal and cultural fusion.

I sought inspiration from the 13th-century poet, Rumi, and his words “one I seek, one I know, one I see, one I call”. His poems refer to the universal themes of love and knowledge, transcending language, religion and culture.

Can you describe the artwork?

The turquoise brushstrokes weave themselves into the form of a double helix, starting from the base of the mural before it rises towards the skylight. Turquoise symbolises hope in Persian culture, and the double helix resembles a new DNA blueprint that embraces different cultures. I use silver in the artwork as it serves as a mirror that reflects everything within Leighton House. The double helix mimics the staircase, and the turquoise represents the tiles in the museum. I also use burnt orange and brown, as they represent the brickwork outside.

The Oneness mural

How do you approach your work?

Coming from a family of Persian masters, I originally trained as a classical painter, but I now focus on abstract art. I made a lot of sketches after months in the studio, and studied the museum’s 3D design plan, which helped me to prepare the mural, which will stretch across three floors of Leighton House. I often start my artistic process with a poem, and if something moves me, I go to my canvas and paint. This year also sees the launch of my new collection of bold, vivid signature paintings.


What was the day-to-day impact of lockdown on your work?

I’m based between Canada and Iran, so it’s been hard, as the project had major delays due to travel restrictions. But generally, it hasn’t affected my routine, as I create artwork in solitude. I’ve also conducted a lot of Zoom meetings with the amazing team at Leighton House. Normally, I would go to my studio in Vancouver. But during the lockdowns, I have worked from the confines of my home, which has been quite a challenge because of space limitations.

What do you hope will be the legacy of the project?

My hope is that visitors will feel an immediate connection to the artwork and be touched by its universal message of love – the idea that we remain truly as “one”. I hope that future generations will appreciate the legacy and heritage of different cultures, and embrace the beauty of “oneness” through the design of the artwork.

Lynsey Ford is a freelance journalist

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