Birds and their ways have captured human imagination since the Paleolithic Period, when they were depicted in caves. Evidence that they have influenced human culture is found on the Paleolithic cave walls at Lascaux in France, and in the last work of Van Gogh, in the works of Shakespeare and Mark Twain, also in the paintings of Chinese artist Wang Xuetao. Researchers Marzluff and Angell reveal how our attitudes towards birds may affect our cultural trajectory, and that crows in particular share similar characteristics with us to a surprising extent. To know the birds is to know ourselves. In any case, it seems that the brains of birds and humans are similarly wired. Of course we can’t communicate directly through speech, but an emotional attachment is often formed between us.
“As a child,” says Dr. Mohsen Keiany, who was born in Iran and later emigrated to England, “I listened intently to various bird songs, which helped me to re-imagine a story my father used to tell from a mystical book called The Conference and Speech of the Birds, a literary masterpiece by Persian poet Farid-ud-din Attar (d. 1221 A.D.)” It is an allegorical rendering of the Islamic principles of Sufism.
“As a child,” says Dr. Mohsen Keiany, who was born in Iran and later emigrated to England, “I listened intently to various bird songs, which helped me to re-imagine a story my father used to tell from a mystical book called The Conference and Speech of the Birds, a literary masterpiece by Persian poet Farid-ud-din Attar”
Dr. Mohsen is a highly qualified and experienced artist, art teacher and lecturer in visual arts, with an M.A. in Fine Arts, and a PhD and post-doctoral degree in architecture from Birmingham City University, which specializes in rural and nomadic symbolic arts, crafts and architecture. He has taught animation, painting and drawing in various educational institutions for 17 years, while his work has been showcased in over 70 national and international venues and he has received several awards.
History, religion and culture as themes feature strongly in his work. Visible too is the influence of spirituality, more especially the influence of Sufism. His art not only entertains viewers, but enhances their understanding of diverse art traditions and the human condition. In his recent show titled “I was a Bird,” at Karachi’s Sanat Gallery, these points were noted.
His style, technique, and use of materials blends approaches from both East and West. His most important cultural inspiration, however,comes from past and present Persian traditions. As well as the influence of Islamic spirituality, references to Persian miniatures, manuscripts, archaeology, history, pottery, music and calligraphy have played a part in his development. He does not sketch for his paintings. First, he creates a textured surface, then meditates in front of the canvas or board. “Everything is there. I don’t search for them,” he says. “I just see images and take them from the texture. Later I add more colours and living creatures.” Furthermore, a necessary part of his work, we are told, is to “represent the Creator as the most delicate form of consciousness in the universe.” In fact he has found art as the best guide to spirituality.
Although he works with a variety of subjects, his work at Sanat was confined to birds, mostly crows, and this work has excited a number of interesting comments. Firstly, let us look at the crow in Persian culture. Some poets have used “the ungainly crows,” with their dark plumage and “gruesome caw” as signals of the approach of gloomy autumn and winter, usually as substitutes for the melodious nightingales, and the beautiful pheasants which enliven nature in the spring. To some, its appearance and mournful call were supposed to presage or cause separation or estrangement, though on the other hand, in that culture to see two crows in the morning is a good omen. Meanwhile, in Arab culture, divination may be done with the use of crows. In Western culture it may be a symbol of bad luck and death, though not always. It may also be a symbol of life, magic, mysteries, intelligence, flexibility and destiny.
Among Mohsen’s works in “I was a Bird,” his diptych stands out because it differs from all the other pictures, displaying fine, fat turkeys, symbols of abundance, an encouragement to celebrate one’s resources that nourish our physical, emotional and spiritual aspects. They symbolize also the unlocking of the richness of life, the Earth Mother, and incredibly it has been said that these birds’ red wattles represent the third eye, which is the centre of energy and intuition! Can we believe this? Some would say that the canvases are full of metallic and contemporary monotonic patterns, resembling 18th century locomotive trains and the Fordian industrial revolution. In this diptych, in truth one can see the industrial type of base, with spanner and machinery parts as if from an engine, and -ah!- from somewhere a patch of blue. Although the birds contain many small, mozaic-like parts, obviously screwed in place, they display no sense of captivity or misery. On the contrary, they look happy and purposeful, while the areas of orange and blue complement this.
Elsewhere we see birds in the forest, in an attractive combination of various shades of orange, combined with many cleverly cut plants – monstera deliciosa, hollyhocks . Where these birds are going is anybody’s guess. There is also a picture showing 3 generations of birds in a more crowded environment, with bigger plants. Looking closely one sees how each individual piece of metal is textured, some attached with nicely cut screws, some with screws that are delightfully rustic.
To a pilot, visibility is of paramount importance when taking off or landing. Yet we see a bird carrying a good cargo of spanners, and with its eyes covered by something resembling the visor worn by knights of old, either in battle or when jousting. Is this bird landing or taking off? Beside it is a smaller bird, perhaps learning to fly, and with 3 guitar-like pieces round its neck. Then to add variety, in another piece, hovering above the plants is a crow with wings outstretched, like a kite in Karachi doing its evening calisthenics on the window frame, except that in this picture its feet are carefully lifted.
Keiany’s pictures are amazingly intricate, and with a definite variety and richness about them. One could say that in his works the birds which once thrived in pure and serene landscapes are now confined to cluttered habitats redolent of the modern industrialized areas found all over the world, and from which the real birds have fled. The artist himself as a youngster used frequently to visit a charming village with many, many trees and hundreds of birds. Visiting this place later an an adult, however, he found a town full of litter in place of the village. He felt no desire to go there again, and thus he realized, “I was a bird.”