A: I am a polymath – I can’t keep track of all of the things I am interested in! I see my whole life of experience and interests as shaping what I do. In simple terms, I am an artist and an academic.
I am mixed heritage, ½ English and ½ Northern Indian, but I don’t belong to either. I moved back and forth between Europe and Northern India throughout my childhood and youth.
In England, I trained as a designer, an applied artist with a first degree in fashion design. As a child my imagination was inspired by the glamour of early Bollywood movies (1940s-60s) and courtly dance (Kathak). So, once I had finished my design studies, I studied dance at the Academy of Indian Dance. There, I designed productions and learned about Indian music. At the same time, I began working in museum interpretation, giving workshops at places like the V&A and British Museum; this is where I got into education.
In 1992, I was motivated go to Jaipur to study painting with a hereditary master of South Asian painting. There, I focused in on the material history of painting, the sensibilities of the artist and how culture influences art. The experience made me a virtuosic illuminator, but it also informed my art historical practice.
I have also I worked closely museum conservation departments, which led to a research project on Persian illuminated manuscripts at the Bodleian Libraries; this was just before I began teaching for City Lit.
All of these perspectives work as a mycelial network, the tiny thread-like roots of fungi that connect plants and trees together. My students enjoy seeing it all come together.
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Q: Your focus as an art historian is Islamic art; can you tell us why you have chosen this focus? What inspires you about this area of art history?
A: Fusion. Islamic art, like any art really, is a fusion of influences. As a culture, we are fond of compartmentalising, but the reality is that things are more complicated than that. Islamic art is visually stunning and dense because it is a fusion of cultural influences from Europe, Africa, South Asia, including Christian and Buddhist forms and ideals. No culture exists in a vacuum.
One of the most interesting periods of development in Iran (14th-16th century) when there was a lot of political upheaval. Art flourished because artists wanted to survive and it changed because of ideas brought from across the empire. Art history exists in society and it is exciting to study how art and artists reckon with and persist in society.
Q: You are also a practicing artist; could you explain how your art and art history are linked?
A: It has taken a lifetime to understand myself as an artist. I’ve been insecure about calling myself an artist maybe it was because I trained as a designer. However, training as a designer has helped me to work to reason and clarity. Being an artist is a thinking process. All of it feeds into my art history: processes of making, understanding how culture emerges in and through art.
I think this is why people like to learn art and painting, because it is the process of knowing yourself. All the thoughts that come to me while studying art history and deciding how to present something to say to my students is part and parcel of what I am saying to myself, which is being digested, coming out consciously or unconsciously in my own art practice – it is back to the mycelial network.
Q: What is your most favourite work of art and why?
A: This is the most difficult question. I am not so interested in finished works of art. The exciting bit is the process, the evolution of an artwork. So, I can only think of drawings here. There is not a favourite, but there are certain ones that really resonate because they say so much about how the artist expresses what is going on in their mind. I have chosen an Eastern drawing and a Western drawing from approximately the same time (14th/15th century).
The Eastern drawing is "Two demons (djinn) binding a captured dragon", it is anonymous, but attributed collectively with a body of similar drawings to "Muhammad Siyah Qalam". These drawings are done with a brush and depict demons from a parallel universe as it was belief that humans live side-by-side with demons, hence the tales of Aladdin.
The Western drawing is by Dürer. What I love about the drawing is that Dürer never went to Turkey; he only saw drawings by Giovanni Bellini’s that he made in Turkey. The drawing is Dürer’s concept of an Ottoman king, his Western imagination of an Ottoman Sultan.
Q: If you were to learn something new at City Lit, what would you choose?
A: I want to go and learn more about Western art, attend more art history courses. We enrich our understanding in our specialist field by learning as much as we can. Perhaps the Renaissance, to start. I would also like to study creative writing to extend my factual and academic writing.
Q: If someone was curious about studying art history, what would you say to encourage them to follow that curiosity?
A: I think about how I got into art history, what was it that excited me. Even if no one has studied it before, there is probably something that has really excited them visually.
My mother was a curator at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle. While waiting for her to finish work, I would wander around the galleries. As a result, I spent hours in front of Edward Burne-Jones’s, Laus veneris (1873-75). My curiosity about it led me to the term ‘Pre-Raphaelite’, which got me into the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which got me into Arts and Crafts and so on and so forth.
The best starting point is to find that thing that really excites you and then look up a course that connects you to it. So, for example type in ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ into City Lit’s website (or Google) and you get a great starting point.
Don’t start where you think you should; start with something that gets you at that passionate, visceral level because that will automatically create pathways into other areas of learning.
Sarah Jaffray is an art historian, educator and curator who is currently Art History coordinator for City Lit. In addition to teaching at City Lit, Sarah is also a lecturer for University of Arts London.