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The GAP Arts Summer Residencies - Silk and Stories by Hassan Rahmani

The second blog in our series focuses on the artist Hassan Rahmani and his residency at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Sophie Culverwell

Hassan Rahmani was born in Afghanistan. As a child he was not particularly interested in art, in fact he wanted to be a doctor. He only started writing and painting on his journey to the United Kingdom in 2015. Hassan believes art is a good way to raise questions, communicate with others and send a message. Hassan asks questions through his art practice, whether it is in his writing, painting, photography or kite making.


Hassan’s inspiration

During his residency Hassan spent time visiting the properties the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust cares for. He also spent time viewing the Trust’s collections to inspire and inform his work.

Hassan was particularly inspired by the presence of a Mulberry tree in the great garden at New Place, the site of William Shakespeare’s home from 1597 until his death in 1616. In the early 1600s King James I ordered the planting of thousands of Mulberry trees across England, in the hopes of establishing a native silk industry. Hassan was inspired by the thought that William Shakespeare may have planted a Mulberry tree as a money making venture. Legend has it that the Mulberry tree currently at New Place was propagated from a tree that grew while Shakespeare lived there. Unfortunately the trees introduced by James I, and the one in the great garden at New Place, are Black Mulberry trees rather than the white variety where the silkworm make their homes.

John Gerard’s Herball

When viewing the Trust’s collections he viewed a copy of John Gerard’s Herball. This stunningly illustrated book explains the origins, properties, the culinary uses, and the dangers and benefits of herbs and other plants. It gives us a wonderful insight into the drugs, remedies and poisons that are central to the action in so many of Shakespeare’s plays.

The book was compiled by the botanist John Gerard, and was first published in 1597. It draws heavily on the writings of the Flemish physician and botanist Rembert Dodoens, but also includes plants native to England at the time. The book is illustrated with more than 1,800 prints depicting plants, including both varieties of Mulberry trees.

Engraving taken from the Herball.jpg
Image of mulberry plants from John Gerard's Herball

Layla and Majnun

Silk was originally developed by the ancient Chinese. It was later brought to the West by travelling traders and merchants, passing through Afghanistan and other Asian countries, along what now is referred to as the Silk Road.

As well as silk, stories travelled along the Silk Road. Variations of stories which originated in the East were adopted and developed by people in the West. William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet is described as a tragic tale of forbidden young love, this description could also be attributed to a story which originated in the 7th century called Layla and Majnun. It was later popularised by Nazami Ganjavi in the form of a poem. Hassan was struck by the similarities between the two works.

Nazami Ganjavi’s poem tells the story of Layla and Majnun, two ill-fated lovers. Majnun falls in love with his cousin Layla, but he is prevented from marrying her by Layla's father. Majnun becomes obsessed and starts singing of his love for Layla in public. The obsession becomes so severe that he sees and evaluates everything in terms of Layla. Realising that he cannot marry her, he leaves society and roams the desert among the beasts. However the image of Layla was so ingrained in him that he cannot eat or sleep. Layla is married against her will, but she meets Majnun in secret and they recite poetry to each other from a distance. Layla's husband later dies, which removes any obstacles to her union with Majnun. However Majnun is so focused on the ideal picture of Layla that he flees into the desert again. Layla dies of grief and is buried in her bridal dress. Hearing this news, Majnun rushes to her grave, where he instantly dies.

About Silk and Stories

Hassan’s work will be on display until the end of the summer at Shakespeare’s New Place. He has used a series of illustrations and paintings, some of which are in the collection of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, to make a series of silk kites. The kites are made using a craft he learned and loved as a child in the mountains surrounding his home city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Hassan likes kite-making and kite-flying because it makes him feel free, he can fly his messages for the world to see.

Silk and Stories by Hassan Rahmani

Hasan describes the experience of his residency…

“This residency has enabled me to enjoy a new way of making and using kites - to demonstrate, in a simple way, my ideas and to tell a story. Creating kites with silk has been a new experience for me, as I mostly work with waste materials such as old plastic bags or paper.  It’s had its own struggles as silk behaves very differently to plastic! But I have really enjoyed working with this new material and working out how to transfer and print images onto it”.

“During this residency I have learned about Shakespeare and his works, and have got a strong sense of how people lived in England from visiting the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s properties. I have also explored how he may have been influenced by stories travelling from the East.

At the same time I learned about Nazami, an Azerbaijani poet, who I didn’t know a lot about before. In Nazami’s time in the 11th century, people used to travel freely across vast landscapes in their caravans, trade along their route, tell their stories and then return again at will – no barriers, no passports, and no visas. It made me think about how borders between countries today are completely manmade and that they can shape and manipulate our thoughts. The world may have developed massively, and technology helps us to travel across continents in just a few hours, but our brains are more closed now and borders are restrictive and sometimes impossible to cross."

Hassan’s work will be on display at Shakespeare’s New Place until the end of the summer 2022, find out more here.