Interview with Maryam Khosrowshahi, author of 'Sofreh: The Art of Persian Celebration' - LA (January 15, 2018)
Maryam Khosrowshahi is an art enthusiast, a collector and an avid floral designer. She has lived, worked and studied in Iran, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States and Switzerland, where she now works on the research and design of her personal projects.PT: Could you tell us about the genesis of the project?
MK: The project, derives from my interest in flowers and textiles. Both elements play a significant role in Persian celebrations. Having lived, most of my life outside Iran, I found myself vividly reminded of my origins during the two celebrations which form the subject of the book. The idea of the project was partly conceived on that basis.PT: What inspired you to create this book? Are there any books or writers on Persian culture that have influenced your work?
MK: For me creating a sofreh is an involved process. Unfortunately, however, it is essentially an ephemeral creation. The book, with all its hassles and shortcomings, provided the opportunity to document these fleeting designs. I was definitely influenced by the fact that the culture of sofreh, this exquisite niche in the Persian customs, has not received the attention and exposure it merits. I had never come across publications demonstrating and celebrating the beauty of these traditions in this manner – hence, the idea of doing so came about.PT: Did you have something else in mind first and then decided to write a two volume book?
MK: Yes, I did. I originally was thinking of writing about Persian textiles, mainly from the Safavid and Qajar periods. However, I wished to create something more personal. I was particularly interested in the marriage of flowers and textiles against a background of Persian traditions. I wished to present and preserve the customs of Persian sofreh, exploiting the loveliness of fabrics and flowers.
PT: How did the Dutch Iranologist Willem Floor and Parviz Tanavoli get involved in the project?
MK: Willem Floor and I were introduced through a mutual friend. Willem is based in Washington, DC, and I live in Switzerland. In 2012 we arranged to meet in Amsterdam during his yearly visit to Holland, and that is when he got involved. He has such a delightful and easy-going personality. He has written extensively on Iran, and is fluent in several languages including Persian.
Parviz Tanavoli was my art teacher in primary school in Tehran. As most readers would know, he is now a well-known sculptor, artist, author and collector. I reconnected with him in the late 1980s when we both lived in Vancouver, British Columbia. He has been a great source of inspiration, a friend, and a staunch supporter of the project. He has generously contributed a personal and illuminating preface to the book.PT: How long did it take from the idea phase to finish phase?
MK: I have been creating sofrehs and taking photographs for almost 25 years. I had also been doing some research, here and there and writing in bits and pieces. However, I started working seriously on the book project in 2011/2012, and it was completed in early 2015.PT: Did you find the editing process difficult?
MK: All I can say is that I had never done a book project, and with my demanding personality I did find the editing process extremely time consuming and truly arduous.
PT: The Nowruz spread is usually not a difficult task to prepare for most Iranians. However, people often hire a professional to design the sofreh-ye aqd because it's a complex task. Do you think your book may inspire some to do it themselves?
MK: I will address this question with two quotes from the book:
Book One, Foreword: "Nowadays, for the yearly celebration of Nowruz, the haft sinn is arranged in a fairly simple fashion with little preparation. To underscore this point, I have included images of modest, unadorned haft sinn compositions. Aqd, on the other hand, is usually a once-in-a-lifetime event; setting up a sofreh-ye aqd thus involves far more extensive preparation and greater expense. Hence some live compositions are quite elaborate. However, the 'staged' section, which features aqd compositions prepared expressly for photography, does include some more moderately adorned arrangements."
Book Two, Postscript: "I have for quite sometime observed family and friends frantically searching for fresh ideas for putting together a sofreh-ye aqd;.. Hence, my most important mission in taking up this project was to provide readers with sufficient tools to think about arranging a sofreh-ye aqd with peace and pleasure. I hope the ideas and images presented inspire many to think about the sofreh-ye aqd as a creative design – project a work of art, albeit a necessarily ephemeral one."
Yes, I am indeed hoping to have created a source of inspiration.PT: The book features the beautiful spreads that you yourself decorated. Why so many spreads? How did you decide which creations to include? Are you trying to preserve an important part of Persian heritage and at the same time document your own work?
MK: I wished to present a variety of ideas for different tastes, resources and budgets. I also wished to document and share my creations, as well as the creations of a few artistic friends, with others. I was particularly keen to preserve the customs of Persian sofreh for the younger generations of Iranians, especially those in the diaspora, and separated from their culture and origins.
PT: What was the biggest challenge for you?
MK: First and foremost, organisation, order and accuracy. A great deal of material, both in text form and illustration was available. However, they had to be assembled and structured to produce a user-friendly piece of work. Another challenging aspect was dealing with the mundane and administrative parts of the project. For me this was indeed a "labour of love". It was about creativity, art and beauty and the relevant essays and descriptions. I did not appreciate the idea of having to get into the tedious publishing and technical details.PT: Do you have any advice for other writers who maybe interested in launching a similar book you'd like to pass on?
MK: I believe it is important to do one's homework, do as much research as one can, and select like-minded people to work with prior to embarking upon a publishing project of this complexity – with just under 400 illustrations, texts by different authors based in different cities, writing in a language which is not their native tongue. Then trying to reach a "niche audience" which is scattered all over the world. This was an extremely ambitious project which thankfully, eventually materialised. However, I am embarrassed to admit that I was enjoying the proverbial "luxury of ignorance" when I embarked upon it.
Maryam Khosrowshahi will be presenting SOFREH: The Art of Persian Celebration at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), together with with Dr. Touraj Daryaee, Director of the Dr. Samuel M. Jordan Center for Persian Studies at UC Irvine on Saturday, February 3rd at 2 pm, followed by a book signing and reception. Please visit LACMA's website for more information or to RSVP.
In the near future, Maryam Khosrowshahi also hopes to have a live exhibit of her works at a museum, incorporating treasured pieces of their collection. For updates, follow the book on Facebook or visit the website.