When you glance at Meida Noorbahr’s artwork, the words “methodological” and “finesse” come to mind.

Whether it’s a circle, square, rectangle or polygon, her exquisite, intricate designs are drawn to mathematical precision.

The Iranian refugee, who has been residing in Malaysia for the past four years, is no ordinary artist, but a master of tezhip, an old Islamic decorative art form believed to have flourished during the Ottoman Empire. The word tezhip means “turning gold” or “covering with gold leaf” in Arabic.

Though she majored in mathematics at university, Meida studied art and calligraphy throughout her schooling years. Later, she continued private lessons with several teachers, learning different methods.

“I studied math because my parents wanted me to have decent education but numbers made me very tired. I needed something else to relax and art gave me that balance,” she says.

Eventually, Meida found her calling in tezhip.

This art of illumination has been practised for centuries, especially in the Middle East.

In the Middle Ages, it was widely used to decorate Christian religious texts and prayer books. Gradually, however, picture illustrations became more popular, and illumination became restricted to decorating the capital letters in main headings.

Tezhip’s primary function was to “dress” the writing. It was used not only to decorate the Quran, but also other books, both religious and secular. The designs traditionally consist of stylised plant, animal and cloud motif.

When Islam entered Iran, tezhip was used to adorn prayer books.

“In Iran, it was mostly employed in handwritten books and on the edges of calligraphic or religious texts. Although the main ingredient in illumination is gold, it can also be done with paint as well as with gold leaf,” says Meida, one of few such artists.

Gold is used in a thin leaf prepared by beating it to fineness. The gold leaf is powdered in water and mixed with gelatine, and then brought to the desired thickness. In the early years, earth paints were preferred although synthetic paints were employed later.

The illuminator, known as the muzehhip, first uses a needle to impress the designs he has drawn onto paper attached to a hard boxwood or zinc base. He then places the perforated paper onto the material he intends to decorate, and fills the holes with a sticky, black powder. When the paper is removed, the design is left behind. The motif is then rounded out and filled with the gold leaf or paint.

Meida has modified the technique and starts off sketching on an A4 paper. Then she traces the design onto a thick cardboard. She follows by using a fine brush and paints the design using poster or water colour. Thereafter, she mixes the crushed gold leaves with water, honey and gelatin, and adds them in as embellishment.

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Meida Noorbahr, from Iran, surrounded by some of her artworks at her home in Kuala Lumpur.

Traditionally, the colours most often utilised are sky blue, orange and dark blue. Black is never used.

“There are nine steps involved in creating a piece of illumination artwork and it can be symbolic,” explains Meida. “In Iran, we use ‘herbal’ colours – that means we boil the herbs to get the colours. Since I can’t find most of the herbs here and it’s time-consuming, I use regular colours.

“The ideas and designs come to me naturally but I tend to like using circles and sky blue in my work. Motif-wise, I like flowers.”

If the colours don’t suit Meida, she uses a razor blade and scrapes it off. A perfectionist, many a time she has crumpled a sketch before beginning anew.

Most patterns in Islamic art feature geometric forms and often used are shamsa, which means sun (refers to the circular shape or the rosette) and lohe, Arabic for rectangle.

“This kind of art requires deep concentration and accuracy. That’s where my mathematical knowledge comes in handy. It also takes a lot of patience and sometimes, I even have to hold my breath to get the fine designs in. It is a slow, time-consuming process but the satisfaction is indescribable once the work is completed. I’m able to project all my feelings into one work, and this helps me de-stress.”

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Flowers are among Meida’s favourite motifs in her artworks.

For someone who could only converse in Persian when she arrived in this country to seek asylum, Meida has come far.

Despite working as an administrative staff at the refugee clinic, Meida finds time to pursue her passion and raise two children, while seeking ways to add to her income.

Meida does commissions and sells her work to interested buyers. Her hobby has since turned into a business and the time taken to complete a work is dependent on the size of the design.

To contact Meida, call 011-1161 4049 or 03-4266 3248, or e-mail meida.h78@gmail.com.