Since the exhibition Doris Duke’s Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape, and Islamic Art opened in February, the museum, in tandem with Shangri La Center for Islamic Art, has hosted a steady stream of talks and workshops by Shangri La artists in residence past and present—Ganzeer, Ayad Alkadhi, Shahzia Sikander, and now Hamid Rahmanian.
Rahmanian, working with his wife Melissa Hibbard under their production company Fictionville Studio, is a successful filmmaker—his 2008 documentary The Glass House premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Born in Iran and now living and working in New York, Rahmanian has also worked at Disney as a development artist, co-founded the nonprofit ArteEast to promote Middle Eastern and North African contemporary art, and was a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow. But it is his latest project—a new edition of the thousand-year-old Persian classic Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings—that spurred Shangri La to invite him to be an artist in residence. Rahmanian put together a library of book of Persian miniatures and recombined thousands of pieces into new compositions to bring the Persian poet Abolqasem Ferdowsi’s tale to life. Shangri La head of programming Carol Khewhok approached the museum about doing an exhibition of Rahmanian’s digital illustrations for the milestone work, and curator of Asian art Shawn Eichman agreed, seeing it as an ideal companion to Doris Duke’s Shangri La. The exhibition is generously sponsored by the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute.
Surrounded by prints of his illustrations during the installation of Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings, which opens Thursday, April 2, Rahmanian talked about his four-year labor of love, which has led to new projects such as an upcoming Shahnameh pop-up book and a shadow play.
I read that your wife challenged you to tackle the project that became the book Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings. Can you tell us more about that?
In 2008, we were showing our last film The Glass House in Toronto, and after the screening they invited us to a concert about Shahnameh. The concert was comprised of western instruments—everything was very western. After 10 minutes I got bored, my wife got bored. Really, as Iranians we have so many resources, so many treasures of our own, but we always look toward westerners to translate our things, our culture, and we don’t value what we have ourselves. My wife turned to me and said, “You know, you Iranians you always say you have this, you have that, you have the best of everything, but you don’t do anything, you just talk. If you are serious about what you are saying, maybe you should sit down and do it instead of just talking about it.” So I said OK, I’m up for a challenge. Naively I thought I’m going to sit down a year and a half to finish this project, and the funding would be easy, but it turned out to be a four-year project. We were supposed to make a small edition of Shahnameh with a few images, but I had an idea to put this entire visual culture of the Middle East, from Mughal India to the Mediterranean Sea into one compilation book. And the funding was so complicated, it was a painful project. But you know all grand projects has this same kind of story—it starts small and becomes almost hard to carry out.
So I challenged myself, and Melissa really helped me on this trip that we went on together. And the result is people are loving it, has been on bestseller lists in different categories on Amazon, we are in the fourth printing now, and we are moving on to other projects like a pop-up book and shadow theater, fun stuff.
So the book has done achieved your goal—to turn a new generation on to this ancient story.
Yes definitely, and it’s not only first-generation Iranian Americans, it’s actually reaching the American public, non-Iranians, which was our main goal. To reach an audience not usually exposed to my culture, or if they are exposed, it’s through the prism of politics or religion. What we did with the book is highlight the strength of the culture, rather than pinpointing the shortcomings of the culture, which has a lot of buyers in this country, in this geopolitical situation that we live in.
You’ve said you want the Shahnameh to be as familiar to Westerners as its counterparts The Iliad and The Odyssey—but I don’t think your average young American even know those works these days. What makes Shahnameh so enduring in Iran?
What is unique about Shahnemeh is the fact that it kept the Persian language alive. After the seventh century Arab invasion, most of that region—like Egypt, Syria—lost their languages to Arabic, but Iranians kept the language alive because they had the Shahnameh. So it had a significant role in addition to being a great work of poetry. It has a sort of nationalistic role in keeping the language alive. The book was written a thousand and four years ago, to be exact, and if you read it today, you understand it. It has a complicated vocabulary sometimes, but generally you understand it—not like Shakespeare, where you can’t even understand the English anymore. This book is comprised of many beautiful stories that I think human beings have a weakness for. That’s why you have Hollywood, why you have film industry—because they’re all telling beautiful stories. This book has four tragedies, four love stories, endless battles, betrayals, lies—so it’s fun. And it’s sort of absent to the mind and eyes of Westerners due to many debatable factors. So I thought it would be interesting to create an accessible English language version of Shahnameh. There are a few academic ones out there but you have to reeeeally love the culture to read a thousand pages.
I created something that is a lot of fun, has a lot of images and Dr. Ahmad Sadri helped us translate it from the original language in an easy, accessible language. Kids 10 years old and above can enjoy it.
How did you decide on borrowing existing images and digitally manipulating them into something new as a way to illustrate the Shahnameh?
The inspiration comes from Ferdosi himself. What he did a thousand years ago is collect and put together the legends and myths of the Iranian into 60,000 couplets. He didn’t create anything from scratch. I thought it would be interesting to create something from the entire history of book illustrations and manuscripts from that region—anywhere influenced by Persian paintings, from Mughal India to outer the territory of the Ottoman Empire. From these works I collected over 8,000 pieces of…you name it, from the ear, moustache, hair, feather, flower, rocks, hands, body, feet, and recombined them together to a whole new composition. So what you see in the book has never existed the way it is in the book, but there is nothing in the book that has never existed before.
You can look at me as a DJ—he takes sounds that already exist, sounds of nature, and combines them, changes the tempo, stretches the sound, to create a whole new composition. So this is what I did.
You spent 10,000 hours on the book—how much of that was pure research?
From August 2008 to May 2009 I did research, and then from May 2009 I sat down 17 hours a day, 100 hours per week until the book came out at the end of February 2013. I didn’t get any funding from anywhere. We put up all resources ourselves. We had to buy 93 books, which alone cost me $15,000. Eventually six months before I finished the book, we hit the bottom of the barrel, we had no money. Zero. So I approached a friend of mine who helped me to fundraise among his family, who came and helped me to finish the book.
You’ve explained that Persian miniatures were made by teams of people, so technology allowed you to be your own team?
If it wasn’t for Steve Jobs, I wouldn’t have this book! (Laughs) It was a very solitary process. I had no team to work with. For six months one person helped cut things, and for another six another person helped me retouch. That’s all the help I had. Each page has 70 to 120 elements, taken from 5 to 33 manuscripts.
Did you develop a fondness for a character?
I developed a fondness of this visual culture, and bringing something from the East to the West. That’s why this book became a foundation that is creating many offspring, like the pop-up book that will be released in November, and a shadow play I am working on.
Is there a section of the book you like best?
The nightmares and dreams. There was a tradition of illustrating the Shahnemeh stories even before Ferdowsi combined them. We have the account from 1,300 years ago in Tajikistan that still exists. From then until now for some reason no one ever illustrated any dreams or nightmares in Shahnameh. I sort of imagined them, and sometimes the thoughts of the characters, or when they lie or talk to themselves. It’s kind of like a comic book bubble, a device to show the thoughts of a character. Most of the elements in the illustrations are not decorative, they all tell the story.
Can you point out how you altered things digitally to form one of your compositions?
[Points to a print of Piran’s Dream] This is from one manuscript, this is from another one. All pieced together. This used to be black and white. He had a cup in his hand, I changed it to the scepter.
Hear Hamid Rahmanian talk about his work yourself at these events:
• Lecture: Hamid Rahmanian | Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings
Thursday, April 2, 4pm, Doris Duke Theatre
• Shadow play performance: Zahhak: The Legend of the Serpent King
Friday, April 3, 5pm, Doris Duke Theatre
Learn even more about Shahnameh at this lecture:
• Ladan Hamedani | Shahnameh: The National Epic of Persian Literature by Ferdowsi
Friday, April 17, 4pm, Doris Duke Theatre