By Nadia Kurd
From manuscripts featuring gilded vegetal motifs to the tiled geometric interiors of mosques, design and ornamentation have played a foundational role within Islamic art. Such designs have long adorned a wide array of objects and buildings. While some historians attribute the prominence of patterning to the preference of non-figural representations in Islam, others argue this is a rather overstated misconception, noting the often-tenuous lines between secular and religious themes within Islamic art.
Since graduating with a BFA (Studio) in 2003, artist Soheila K. Esfahani has merged both the patterning traditions of Islamic art (particularly from Iran) and an approach informed by the “terrains of cultural translation.” For example, in her early painting series titled “Reed Flute” (2008), Esfahani drew from the well-known poetic work of Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (1207–1273) to create a number of calligraphic, acrylic on canvas works. These paintings feature verses in Perso-Arabic script and involve a process of pouring paint directly onto the canvas, which abstracts the text — ultimately rendering it illegible — and transforming it into pure design.
From painting to installation, The Immigrants: Canada 150 (2017) is comprised of 60 custom-made ceramic plates that are infused with images of clothing labels that emphasize the country of origin. Drawing inspiration from the theme of Frederick H. Varley’s painting the Immigrants (1922), the installation is made up of plates that are similar to the tourist souvenirs commonly found in North America that have been transformed to correspond with individual immigration stories. The installation was spurred by a story that resonated with Esfahani involving her second-generation Canadian-Bangladeshi friend. When Esfahani asked her to describe her culture, she provided Esfahani with a “Made in Bangladesh” clothing label from her favorite garment. By accentuating the manufacturing label, Esfahani writes that this installation, “questions displacement, dissemination” by “re-contextualizing culturally specific ornamentation and various collected souvenir objects.”
Her more recent work has continued to explore the circuitous yet closely regulated nature of global trade. For instance, in Cultured Pallets: Small Arms Inspection Building (2018) Esfahani takes the ever-present wooden industrial pallets and stencils onto them a nineteenth century William Morris floral motif named the “Persian,” a pattern very likely inspired by the historic sixteenth-century Ardabil carpet — one of the most prized examples of Islamic and Safavid art at the V&A Museum. Not only do these wood pallets feature floral designs, but they are also inscribed with the artist’s email so that when Esfahani disperses them, their new owners may be in touch.
Upon a closer examination of the histories between the West and East — an exchange frequently under the guise of resource control and colonialism — one sees how patterning and design are deeply ingrained in cross-cultural trade, which often sees objects being moved from its place of origin to be transformed into something else entirely. Moreover, while the floral motifs have roots in Iran, the attribution to Morris for the ‘Persian’ speaks to a sense of authorship and authority over the design. Esfahani brings together these layered histories to her work to rethink the meaning and implications of these exchanges on common and even disposable objects.
Esfahani once again explores earthenware and the subject of cultural exchange in Pattern (dis)Placement (2019). Here, the plate becomes a metaphor for “portable culture”, which “can be carried across cultures and nations.” In the Magic Gumball Machine of Fate (2019), for a fee of $2, visitors to the exhibition of this work are invited to take a piece of this patterned displacement home from a gumball machine. Within small plastic enclosures, the artist’s work is distributed and the recipient is encouraged to colour and share the image on social media. Much like the pallets and plates, these small drawings travel and exchange hands at every turn. For Esfahani, it is important to show the instability of categories and ideally, challenge the viewer to situate their own histories through her work.
Esfahani’s practice shows the interconnectedness of global networks to emphasize how it is almost wholly informed by political and cultural attitudes, clearly seen in the ongoing economic sanctions on Iran. Despite complying with international regulations on their uranium enrichment program, everyday Iranians continue to endure the most due to the lack of goods entering the country and the resulting widespread failing economy. These sanctions have “slapped barriers on trade involving Iranian metals, as well as its automotive and airline industries” and have adversely affected Iran’s oil and banking sectors, which have faced the most detrimental consequences.
In linking design with trade, manufacturing, and history, Esfahani’s work reminds us that the realm of design, including ornamentation, and concepts of beauty are deeply rooted in our values and ideas as a society – and that these are not merely aesthetic concerns. “My work,” writes Esfahani, “evokes issues on migration as people [are], ultimately, functions as ‘bearers’ and ‘translators’ of culture in our current globalized state.”
Nadia Kurd (she/her) is an art historian and curator based in Amiskwacîwâskahikan (Edmonton, Alberta). She tweets @nadia_kurd and her work can be found at nadiakurd.com.
 Soheila K. Esfahani, Artist Statement, 2019.
 Artist Statement, 2019.
 Artist Statement, 2019.
 Soheila K. Esfahani, interview by author, Edmonton, AB, May 31, 2019.
 Colin Dwyer and Larry Kaplow. “U.S. Is About To Reinstate Iran Sanctions. Here’s What That Means,” NPR, last modified November 2, 2018, accessed May 29, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2018/11/02/663377999/u-s-is-days-away-from-reinstating-iran-sanctions-heres-what-that-means
 Artist Statement, 2019.