The island of Malta is not the most obvious destination for an Iranian emigre family. Yet that’s where Lida Sherafatmand moved to, a decade or so after the Revolution, with her parents and siblings. Lida is now a Maltese national and a successful painter. She was recently hosted by the President of Malta for an exhibition inside the presidential palace. At the end of the year, her works will go on display at the National Gallery of Jordan in Amman, and in March 2018, she will have a solo show hosted by Asia Art Funds in New York.
Lida joined Kayhan London for a conversation from Malta.
Tell us about your childhood years in Iran.
I was born in Khorramshahr, and was only two years old when the Revolution happened. Immediately afterwards, the Iran-Iraq war started. Khorramshahr was the city that got attacked. The fact that my birthplace didn’t exist afterwards made me question things. I thought maybe I did something wrong, and God punished me, and that’s why my city was gone.
There was a question in my head: why do people have to kill each other? Aren’t there other ways that we could live?
The first drawing I did when I was three years old was a drawing of the sun playing the flute. The sounds which came out of the flute formed angels that danced above the crowd and dropped flowers down to the people. With that painting, I was saying: ‘We can let the sun sing for us, and start dancing instead.’
When did you leave Iran, and why did your family choose Malta as a destination?
We left in 1991, when I was about 14, with my parents, brother and sister. Malta was really by accident. We were going to go to England, where one of my uncles had lived for many years. But we found out about Malta and thought, ‘Let’s just have a look at this island before going to England.’
We arrived in Malta. It was already November. We enrolled at school. One thing led to another, and we just stayed here.
What was life in Malta when you first arrived?
During the first years, it was quite hard to settle down. I didn’t even speak English when I came to Malta. Everything had to be learned from scratch. But somehow we managed to adapt.
In Malta, the culture is very interesting. It’s a crossroads between East and West. That also made us a little bit more comfortable here.
Within a year I spoke Maltese. And because they have the British system of education, I had to do my O-levels, which included English and English literature, within a year and a half.
When did you switch to art studies?
I was studying physics, chemistry, biology, design at school for O-levels. When it was time to take A-levels, I shifted to languages, and after that, I said: ‘I can’t wait any longer, I want to go to art school.’ I was 19. I started exhibiting from the age of 21. I started exhibiting in 1997, and I can say now that as of a year ago, sales of my work have stabilized. It took roughly 20 years for them to fall into place. Many people would give up after a few years. But for me, it’s such a big part of me that I can’t give up.
You often paint flowers. Why?
I used to do figurative painting. I travel a lot with paintings, and figurative paintings can be problematic, because they’ll tell you, ‘Why haven’t you painted Asian features?’ or ‘Why haven’t you painted dark skin colors?’ and this and that.
I was also trying to refine my visual language, to be a bit more deep and more effective.
Then I came across flowers. There’s no culture in the world that has problems with flowers. They don’t cause polemics anywhere. On an aesthetic level, people instinctively find flowers beautiful. It doesn’t matter if they’re educated or young or old: if you show a flower to a human being, they automatically say ‘Oh, that’s beautiful.’
In my paintings, the theory that I use is the neurobiological theory of art. It explains how people find a work of art beautiful just through their biological instincts – not because an art critic or historian said it’s beautiful. Since I’m interested in connecting with people, I wanted to be able to transcend the barriers of education, culture and time. So this art theory was ideal for me.
Are your flower paintings successful with collectors?
I started the flower paintings in 2012. At the beginning, they were not really being taken too seriously, because flowers look very nice and sweet and pretty, but – especially in contemporary art – the main trends are conceptual or minimalist. People think that a flower painter is not serious.
As time passed, I think the images started to have more effect, because they are actually symbolizing something deeper: an experience of life. Just because they look beautiful doesn’t mean that they’re just decorative paintings. There’s more to them. Images of these paintings are used every now and then during ritual sessions, and during training and yoga sessions. Sometimes a hospital might ask me for these images. It calms the patients while they wait.
Your works were recently exhibited in the palace of the President of Malta. How did that exhibition come about?
The President got to know me back in 2014, because she launched a research hub in ethno-botanical research: the relationship between people and plants. Since I was a flower painter, some people in her association recommended that I be represented in museums, precisely because I matched these flowers with human nature.
How did your exhibition at the presidential palace do?
They don’t do commercial exhibitions at the presidential palace, but the artist is allowed to provide a price list, and a percentage is given as a donation to the foundation of the president. I had 15 canvases on display. The exhibition sold out.
Does the President like your work?
Yes, she really likes the work – or so she says! She thinks they express a lot of hope and a lot of warmth, particularly in the times we are living in, with all this problematic terrorism and hatred and bitterness in the air. She thinks it’s a breath of fresh air to have this type of painting around.
Do you also think that you’re countering violence and ugliness with these flower paintings?
Yes. It was very perplexing to me when galleries would say, ‘Your paintings are very serene and beautiful. We are looking for violent art – we want something dramatic.’ I found it interesting that everyone was complaining about violence, and yet even on the art scene, it was the only thing that interested people.
My response is that if our reality in society is ugly, it’s our own fault, it’s our responsibility. We might as well propose some alternatives, and try to express those alternatives through these paintings.
They say one reason we don’t have peace is that we don’t have a precise, practical vision of it yet. If we can at least know this alternative called peace, if we know how it feels, then it makes it more real, and brings us closer to the reality of it.
Do you have a dream or something that you’re striving for?
There is too much bitterness and hatred in the air. I wish there could be a little bit more warmth in our world. It feels better to live that way.