Finding light in Illumination: An interview with artist Behnaz Karjoo

Behnaz Karjoo is an internationally renowned illumination (tezhip) artist. She developed a deep interest in the arts from a young age and went on to study illumination under world renowned Master artist Mujgan Baskoylu, an expert of paper cutting, miniature painting and Turkish illumination. In 2016, she received the coveted ijazah (certification of mastery) from her teacher. Behnaz has exhibited nationally and internationally, including New York City, Sharjah, Kuwait, and Istanbul. She is a member of the New York Islamic Arts, an artist collective based in New York founded in 2010 by her teacher, Ms. Baskoylu.

Behnaz, an Iranian-American, is among the few practitioners of illumination in the U.S. I am very excited to be able to share with you some of her thoughts and experience as an artist, including advice for students who are just starting out studying the art of illumination.

What inspired you to study Tezhip?

It wasn’t one thing that inspired me, but I was drawn towards it gradually. My first encounter with tezhip was watching my cousin who was practicing the art. I must’ve been in second grade. I was intrigued by the symmetry and patterns and how my cousin patiently painted each part of the design. These memories must have never left me. When I was in art school I found myself incorporating subtle Islamic elements and motifs in my work. This pleased my mentors and encouraged me to look seriously into Islamic art. At the same time I came across a book on sacred geometry that gave me a lot of ideas for my work. I remember one day I was invited to a gathering at which I saw a very elegant piece of tezhip that amazed me. I knew at that point that this was my art. I had to pursue it. I was considering traveling abroad to find a teacher when news reached me that Mujgan Baskoylu was teaching tezhip in New York and this began my journey. 

Behnaz (right) with her teacher Mujgan Baskoylu

Behnaz (right) with her teacher Mujgan Baskoylu

Studying any sacred art like calligraphy and tezhip takes a lot of patience. What was your greatest challenge?

In the beginning my biggest challenge was the physical strain caused by working long hours in a seated position. Taking breaks, exercising, and being in good overall physical shape helped overcome this challenge. As for the required patience, the work I did when I was studying jewelry design in art school was similarly demanding and that was a good precursor to tezhip. It conditioned me for working long hours. Tezhip is a sacred art, a spiritual practice similar to the dhikr of the sufis. The repetitions of patterns in tezhip is similar to the repetitions of the names of God invoked by sufis. Therefore engaging with a mindset of prayer and dhikr, listening to spiritual music, and focusing on the sacred meaning underlying tezhip, the underlying unity, the focal point, all help in overcoming the challenges. 

How do you come up with your compositions?

You have to approach it with an empty mind and humility. Of course, when you study tezhip your teacher introduces you to many manuscripts and works of masters, which can be a source of inspiration. Also if the piece has calligraphy, the composition of the calligraphy dictates the general shape of the tezhip. The details of the design can also be inspired by the meaning of the calligraphy. At the end of the day, you never know, and often the pencil takes on a life of its own. 

Your advice for a beginner student who is just getting into the art

The most important thing is finding a good teacher. And to be very patient as gains come very slowly. My teacher had me copy designs for two years before I started designing my own work. I didn’t understand this at first, but now I see that it was essential for learning proper technique and acquiring the motor skills required for drawing and painting intricate designs. 

This is an egoless art. In the old days artists didn’t even sign their works. If you approach it with good intention and humbleness, with much practice and God’s grace, you will make good progress.  

Behnaz's website

Gallery of Behnaz's work: