Fife Contemporary Blog >
On This Day – 17 March 2011

Ten Poems from Hafez – Jila Peacock

On this day ten year ago, Fife Contemporary opened Ten Poems from Hafez as part of StAnza 2011. Iranian-born painter and printmaker Jila Peacock created a hand-made artist’s book of Persian calligraphic shape poems using words from Hafez of Shiraz, the metaphysical poet of Iran. Hafez was an inspiration for Goethe and much admired by poets such as Tennyson and Byron. Jila’s own English translations are accompanied by calligraphic shape poems from Persian script, which depict the animals mentioned in each poem to symbolise metaphysical truths.

St Andrews Town Hall

I came late to Hafez, by Jila Peacock

I am a painter and printmaker working in Scotland but my childhood, is another country.

I was born in Iran in 1948 when my Iranian father, a London University educated doctor, brought his new English wife back with him to Tehran from post-war Europe.  Although English was my mother tongue, my parents decided to send me to an Iranian primary school, hence my first written language was Persian.

In the year 2000, forty years after leaving  Iran, I finally returned to my first language with the prime purpose of reading the metaphysical poets of  Persia in the original Farsi. Reading the Divan of Hafez for the first time, I found myself experiencing the poems in a thrilling almost palpable way.  As an artist, I began to try and give these poems visual form.


I was already aware of the tradition of figural calligraphy in Islamic art, and it seemed an obvious step to apply this ancient technique to the images in Hafez’s work. Choosing poems in which Hafez uses animal symbolism as a visual metaphor, I first produced simple drawings of the animals onto which I superimposed the written words.  I had been taught the basic elements of writing with a reed pen back in my Iranian primary school days.  Skilled calligraphy however, requires hours of daily practice over many years, but what I developed was the ability to fill a silhouette, with writing resembling a legible nastalique without the need for an evenness of script so obligatory in more general use. These were true shape poems, in which the outline and the shape of each image was made from words of the whole poem. I now had my template and began to choose more poems to transform. 

Jila Peacock

Also playing during the exhibition was the animated film of the work, ‘The Tongue of the Hidden’ made with director David Alexander for Channel 4 in 2007.

King Solomon’s Horses

When the exhibition closed on 22 March, a display of work by the Primary 5 class of Lawhead Primary school, in response to the exhibition, went on display. The class visited the exhibition and completed a drawing exercise at the Town Hall. The class them returned to school to take part in a workshop which gave them a chance to try out printing skills.

Primary 5 pupils visiting the exhibition

Leave a Comment