Garden of the Heart's Desire: A Disappearing Art Form Explored

Wed, May 01, 2019 at 12:45PM

An interview with Mahin Ghanbari by MOAS Chief Curator/Gary R. Libby Curator of Art, Ruth Grim


Beginning April 18 and running until July 21 of 2019, The Museum of Arts & Sciences will be showing a rare collection of 18th and 19th Century traditional Persian textiles in its West Wing and Root Hall Galleries. Over sixty examples of these elegant, sumptuously embroidered and woven works will be on display, providing a unique opportunity to experience the time-honored artisanship of this ancient culture. 

Following is an interview with Mahin Ghanbari, owner of the textiles in the Garden of the Heart's Desire: Selections from the Golzar Collection exhibition. 


FLORAL BED COVER, Silk with embroidery, colorful foliage and floral motifs,
19th century, Kerman Region, Iran

How did you begin with collecting textiles?

I have always had a lifelong passion for collecting traditional Persian textiles from the past. I think it began with a gift from my Aunt Golzar of a very old silk brocade textile with a ragged lining. I was only a schoolgirl then but I knew that objects like these were heirlooms that were handed down from generation to generation. I was very honored that my Aunt had entrusted this treasure with me and it sparked a lifelong desire to collect and preserve these precious and often delicate works of art. 

The intricate detail, elegant designs, and expensive gold embroidery on these pieces are indeed stunning but I think most modern Western audiences might be surprised to know how treasured these types of 18th and 19th-century textiles were in their day. Can you provide a bit of historical background as to how these works became so valuable in Persian culture?

Textiles are not only an intricate part of the daily life of Persians as they are used for coverings, clothing, decorations, and gifts. The great deal of effort and passion that epitomizes their creation also characterizes Persian life and these textiles become symbolic, intimate objects tied to the most significant moments in one's life. They are, therefore, rooted in personal and familial memory and are shared between spouses, families, and friends as well as passed down through generations. 

CURTAIN PATEH_DOOZI, Wool with emboidery, elaborate design,
19th century, Kerman Region, Iran

Garden of the Heart's Desire is an interesting title. Can you explain how you decided to give the exhibition this title?

Gardens are very important in Persian culture. They are physical space for social interaction as well as religious activities and scholarly contemplation. But gardens have historically been hard to maintain in Persia due to its arid climate. So, they require a good deal of devotion and cultivation which as, over time, given them a good deal of cultural significance. These earthly paradises containing running water, flowering plants, fruit trees, lush greenery, and singing birds are very important to Persian culture. Garden of the Heart's Desire explores these ideals as represented by the sumptuous tradition of Persian textiles, which like gardens, required meticulous craftsmanship and dedication. In addition, motifs from nature such as flowers, plants, songbirds, etc. show up often in these textiles, proving how important a thriving natural environment is in Persian society. 

What are the criteria you use to determine what pieces to add to your collection?

I would say my criteria are that the pieces I collect are Persian and of great beauty and quality. In addition, I'm very interested in preserving this unique and quintessential Persian art for so, in many cases, I have rescued fragile textiles to save them for future generations to enjoy. 

Where do you find most of the textiles you acquire?

I have found a good number of Persian textiles in Iran, certainly, but also have found them all over the world in the United States, Europe, Canada, and other countries. I have met many people over the years that share my interest in preserving and showcasing this disappearing art form. Thankfully, this network of individuals has led me to important pieces to acquire and is still doing so. 

You said this is a "disappearing art form." Can you explain that?

Hundreds of years ago, Persian textiles were painstakingly created by hand by trained weavers and embroiderers who learned their art through passed-down instruction. This tradition has largely faded away with the industrialization of textile industries throughout the world in the past century and a half. The type of time-consuming, highly-skilled artistry represented by the works in my collection is no longer abundant in Iran or, indeed, most places on the globe. 


SUZANI RASHTI-DOOZI, Wool with applique, piecework, and embroidery,
floral and foliage motifs, Isfahan Region, Iran

Which of the works on exhibit do you consider the most important and why?

This is a good question that allows me to express my thoughts and feelings about the pieces I have in my collection, including the ones in the exhibit. I view each piece as a unique entity with its own characteristic that stands out and gives a very clear message. Strangely, I sometimes spread them all around the house and literally communicate with them, feel them, examine them, and try to understand their response to me. I actually apologize to them when I feel I have not paid the attention they deserve. They are (like) my children. I love them each and all and I give them love each as I see fit, they are all important, and equally important. I hope the viewers of the exhibit share my feelings and observe them as each being unique and being its own entity; they all deserve that. 

Any interesting stories to recount regarding finding and acquiring certain pieces? 

Again, they all have very interesting stories, starting with my first "acquired" piece: GOLZAR. 

But what may interest your readers, is the story of finding, and acquiring a pair of Royal sashes. We were visiting Paris at the time and learned about an Antique center in the outskirts. After a long taxi ride, I entered heaven. At one booth, there was a Persian lady from Northern Iran who had lost her husband who had been an avid collector of Persian Art and Antiques. Yes, she had the pair of Royal sashes that appeared to be late Safavid/early Qajar period. She told me that Sotheby's was interested in these and she expects them to show up in a couple of days. I told her that I am truly interested, and I am here. After long negotiations and convincing she agreed to sell them to me. I held them tight, all the way to the Hotel, and hand carried them all the way back home. They will be prominently displayed in the exhibit. 

INDIGO EMBROIDERY, Indigo dyed cotton with chain stitch embroidery, flora motif,
19th century, Tabriz or Isfahan Region, Iran

What are your plans for continuing to grow the collection? Any specific types of works you are most interested in finding?

I never planned to be a collector. I always felt that I am a Textile lover, and looked for an opportunity to find what I love and acquire them to preserve and promote. I still follow my heart, and passion for preserving/promoting these unique art forms which are a window to the glory of the past. 

In closing, what is the most important thing you would like our visitors to take away from the experience of this exhibition?

I want to see the visitors leaving the exhibit with a happy feeling and excitement of being an extension of a glorious past where and when human beings did the seemingly impossible, and created a world better than before, and left it for the future generations to do the same. This should serve as an aspiration for all to join under the banner of humanity to create a better world perpetually. 

In addition, the Art of textile, and textile art was dominated by women artists. As the visitors leave the exhibit, I would like for them to remember the resourcefulness, the ingenuity, and the creativity of these dedicated women that have created these masterpieces in the face of the inherent obstacles of the period. 


Mahin Ghanbari was born in Iran to a family with a long artistic background and tradition. She holds an MFA degree in Ceramic Art from the University of Florida, and a B.Ph degree in Art from the College of Art and Architecture from Pennsylvania State University. Mahin taught Ceramic Art at the University of Florida and several art centers for many years and exhibited her work in numerous galleries and universities. She has been a lecturer and presenter in national and international conferences. Along with her teaching and studio work, Mahin has always had a keen interest in Persian woven arts, which started in her early youth. She started collecting unique and rare pieces of Persian Textiles (18th through early 20th century), along with researching their origin, age, function, and restoration. It has been her passion to collect these exquisite woven pieces of art. Her goal is to promote awareness of this little - known art by sharing it with others. 

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Sponsored in part by the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Arts and Culture, the Florida Council on Arts and Culture, and the National Endowment for the Arts.