‘Pearl of Pomegranate’: An Interview on Art and Faith with Anusheh Zia for Interfaith Week.
For Interfaith Week (12-19 November), St James’s invited the artist Anusheh Zia to exhibit a painting in the side chapel as part of the church’s arts programme. Titled Pearl of Pomegranate, the artwork has been produced with natural pomegranate pigment. The pomegranate is a symbol of hope, community, eternity and paradise across many faiths, Christianity, Judaism and Islam among them. There are many images of pomegranates at St James’s, especially in the Grinling Gibbons reredos above the high altar in the church. In the interview below, Anusheh spoke with the Associate Rector, Revd Dr Ayla Lepine, about her work and its significance in relation to symbolism and interfaith dialogue. You can see more of Anusheh’s work here.
Ayla: How did you get started as an artist, and what’s your journey so far?
Anusheh: I started exploring art at a young age, inspired by the freedom it offered. I was encouraged by my school art teachers and my journey developed at Central Saint Martins. There, I discovered a profound connection between my art and Islam, enriching my artistic journey and my exploration of faith. It enabled me to learn more about my faith through an exploratory and artistic lens, allowing me to study concepts and the finer details of its practice more deeply. Integrating natural materials into my art also makes my journey one of reflection and connection to the natural world, and I feel that this element gives the course of my art practice a raw presence.
Tell me about this painting and why you work with natural pigments? Are some more challenging or more satisfying to work with than others?
The ‘Pearl of Pomegranate’ painting, part of a series also including paintings made with olive leaf extract and turmeric, is created solely from dried pomegranate seeds. I applied the powdered seeds by hand, creating layers that bring a unique texture, light fragrance, and a connection to the natural world. Working with natural materials in this way allows the painting to evolve over time, emphasising notions of geological time and the painting’s eventual transformation. I’m drawn to natural materials for their ephemeral and raw qualities, offering viewers a direct engagement with the natural world and a sense of wonder. Each material brings its own potential and possibilities.
What does interfaith dialogue mean to you, and why is it important?
Interfaith dialogue, to me, means fostering empathy, respect, and peace among people. Opening a dialogue is crucial for broadening minds, exchanging views, and understanding different perspectives and experiences. In recognising our common humanity, where no life is more valuable than another, we can form the basis for connecting across faiths and promoting equality.
A recent series of paintings you’ve done are responses to the Muslim times of day for prayers. What do you feel is the connection between prayer, spirituality and art?
Yes, I have created a series of paintings depicting the sky at the Islamic prayer times of dawn, midday, afternoon, sunset and night, using natural materials such as blue spirulina, turmeric and rose petal. The first moment I formed a link with prayer, spirituality and art in my work was very organically – ever since I noticed the strokes and markings of bodily imprints that would momentarily appear on an Islamic prayer rug over the course of a prayer. It highlighted to me the core human element in a seemingly repetitive religious and spiritual observance. The prayer rug, a functional, everyday object in Islamic culture, serves as a canvas in some ways or a metaphysical transport. It is a surface through and upon which one could potentially unpack, explore and discover infinitely – holding whispers of forgotten supplications, moments of contemplation, gratitude and surrender, focused and wandering vision, as well as the capacity for new revelation. People tend to iron out with their hands any folds or creases on the rug as they lay it out before them, like priming a canvas smooth for a new painting. I feel that prayer, spirituality and art carry the potential to intrinsically connect with one another, and in the same vein, they each are, respectively, a mode of connection to an essence beyond ourselves.
The symbol of the pomegranate is important and profound for many religions, especially Christianity, Islam and Judaism. There are many pomegranates in carvings at St James’s, especially the Grinling Gibbons reredos. What does the pomegranate mean to you?
In my faith, the pomegranate is considered a fruit of paradise. Therefore, to me, it refers to the heavenly afterlife, hope, promise, love and sweetness. The pomegranate seeds are akin to eggs, protected gems or pearls, and present a physical correlation to anatomy and the human body. I see the pomegranate as a symbol of a sweet, adorned and abundant life after death on earth, with layers and layers of infinite beauty.
What has been your experience of sharing your work at St James’s, and why did you decide to show your work in a sacred space?
It has been a very sensitive and moving moment to share my work here. Particularly, to be displaying the ‘Pearl of Pomegranate’ painting. The Saint Porphyrius church in Gaza, by reputation the world’s third oldest church, was bombed on Thursday 19th October 2023, killing Palestinians sheltering there. This in my mind echoes the history of St James’s Church itself, which was bombed in 1940. The current situation makes this a heartbreaking moment of honouring the lives of all innocent civilians from every faith. Today, in St James’s, the painting is a calling for hope and for peace, and, for me, an affirmation of faith in the peaceful abode in the highest heaven of those civilians.