A exuberantly colorful hand-painted tile.
A exuberantly colorful hand-painted tile.
Tableware patterns are derived from the artist's native Kurdistan.
A plate festooned with fish revisits Kurdish rug motifs from the artist’s earliest memory.
Deer on hand-painted vases revive ancient cave drawings.
Tiles painted in turquoise sunbursts brighten a kitchen backsplash.
Virginia artist Rezgar Mamandi.
Rezgar Mamandi’s earliest memory reaches back to his family home, and the vivid impression made by a huge, handwoven rug. Its central picture of sprightly fish chasing each other around a large, light-blue circle captured his youthful imagination. “I was always playing there, pretending I was fishing and swimming in the sea,” he recalls fondly. “Maybe that’s one reason I love to show fish in my painting.”
An artist with strong ties to his homeland, Mamandi was raised in the historic village of Musasir, now called Rabat, in the Kurdish region of northwestern Iran. The ancient town was a religious capital in the Mannaean civilization some 3,000 years ago.
These days, the artist works from his studio in a bright, new apartment in Sterling, Virginia. Along one wall, tiles and other ceramic forms are stacked on open racks, ready for his hand-painting. Finished works and those in progress line shelves opposite. Mamandi pulls out one 20-inch-round platter with intricate, geometric bands in dazzling black-and-white patterns. Nearby, a colorful, nearly completed wall tile shows two hunters—one pointing a bow-and-arrow at a bison, the other directing his spear toward a bull. The inky forms exist in separate quadrants divided by jagged lines, like national borders, and stand out against a terrain as fragmented as a mosaic of multi-hued stones.
Brimming with energy, harmony and folksy charm, the animals and figures recall prehistoric cave paintings. Here and throughout Mamandi’s art, main motifs are enfolded by meticulously detailed backgrounds, or framed in richly ornamented, symmetrical borders that bring a formal order to each spirited, hand-painted piece.
The painter’s exacting embellishments conjure a broad Middle Eastern past. “I always say, when we moved from caves to houses and palaces, especially with the tiles, we were telling our stories and history—with the colors, with every way we could express them,” Mamandi notes. While several of his favored subjects, from winged lions to rams and circular sun symbols, derive from ancient tiles unearthed in his village, “We can’t say this style is based on a Kurdish house,” he explains. “It’s a Mesopotamian house.”
Mamandi started drawing at an early age, never dreaming that one day he would become an artist. After studying health at Iran’s Urmia University for two years, he left school and opened a bookstore and publishing business with a relative in Sanandaj, a center of Kurdish culture in Iran. He had moved to the city to take classes with well-known Kurdistani painters, but found little time to attend. Still, he recalls, “I never stopped painting and sketching.”
During a difficult time for Kurdish activists and writers starting in 2005, Mamandi relates, “a United Nations office in Turkey accepted my case as a refugee.” Settling in Avanos, Turkey, he prospered as a self-taught painter on ceramics, exhibiting his work at one of the city’s largest art galleries. “I had a good life,” he remembers.
Four years later, the artist was offered refugee status in the United States and emigrated in 2010, at age 33. “This is the land of opportunity,” he says, “but for a couple years, it was very hard.” While working in restaurants in Chicago, he also pursued ceramic painting, researching and testing clays and glazes that he found to be different here from those he had worked with in Turkey.
Then in 2013, when presenting his art for the first time at a craft show in Oak Brook, Illinois, Mamandi recalls, “My life changed. People admired my work; a lot didn’t believe I painted everything myself.” As he traveled around the country, the artist came to a show in Gaithersburg and discovered that he liked the DC area. He moved to Virginia in 2019.
Today, Mamandi considers himself a tile designer. “That’s my passion,” he says, citing the freedom of creating sumptuous designs on expansive, flat surfaces. Recognizing, however, that “everyone may not need a tile, but everybody needs a mug, a plate, a bowl,” he continues, “I wanted to bring that culture, that design, that symmetry to this country in every way possible.”
The artist paints on blank earthenware forms, which he glazes and fires in a kiln off-site. Creating the brilliant colors and precise floral, geometric and architectural patterns of his art—inspired by Kurdish women’s clothing and rugs—may require up to six different colors dappled in one spot.
Reflecting back to his birthplace—where he was surrounded by beautiful design traditions and listened to age-old stories told by his grandfather—“I always thought that the past was maybe better than now,” the artist observes. But he remains encouraged by the future. “In a thousand years, I never thought I would come to the United States and start painting tiles and plates,” he says, brightening. “When you think about your past, you see a lot of small things happen that attach together to bring you here. Now I know why.”
For more information, visit mannapottery.com.