By chance, a few weeks ago I came across an audio recording of an interview that I did with the late Iranian filmmaker and photographer Abbas Kiarostami in May 2013, when he was having an exhibition of his “Snow Series” (1999–2002) photographs at Rossi & Rossi gallery in Hong Kong. In the past few days, after learning that the legendary Iranian cineaste had died in Paris on July 4, I listened to that interview again and transcribed it. Our conversation lasted less than 30 minutes and Kiarostami was tired from his trip and eager to finish a pack of cigarettes that he claimed would be his last. We spoke through an interpreter, although Kiarostami understood many of my questions. He wore his trademark sunglasses while we sat at a desk in the back room of the gallery, so it was hard to see his eyes. He didn’t particularly seem to enjoy talking about his own photographs, and it took some time before he would give up information about them or about what he thought of the works. But his own comparison between the “Snow Series” and Japanese sumi-e brush-painting best revealed the kind of meditative precision he sought, as well as the kind of relationship to nature he was evoking. Though very different than his socially oriented films, his photographs are similarly pared down and intensely focused, and should also be seen as an effort to get directly to the essence of things.



Making Graffiti an Iranian Art: The Works of Tehran-based Street Artist Ghalamdar, Ajam Media Collective



The works of 20 year-old Tehran-based artist Ghalamdar exemplify this new direction in Iranian street art. While the majority of artists operating in Iran are heavily influenced by motifs and techniques popularized outside of Iran, Ghalamdar is inspired by endemic calligraphic styles (khattati or khoshnevesi) and miniature paintings (negargari) that have been the primary subjects of 20th century modernist art. In several conversations with AjamMC, the artist discussed how Iranian visual and literary culture influenced his work and how dominant trends in Iranian street art have solidified.

The 2000s was the formative period for Iranian graffiti, just as street art’s popularity was rising across the globe through its commodification and exhibition. Artists such as A1one and Icy & Sot gained acclaim in the late 2000s, and several galleries in Iran began exhibiting their work. A1one was one of the first artists to experiment with Perso-Arabic script, but very few other contemporary artists have expressed interest in engaging with Iran’s calligraphic and figurative arts. Instead, the majority of graffiti in Iran is derived from internationalist motifs inspired by the Latin-lettered throw-ups of 1980s New York and easily-replicable figurative stenciling.

While graffiti culture was expanding, there were still very few notable artists due to the political and juridical climate. As Ghalamdar states, “When someone got caught doing graffiti in New York, the police would arrest them or fine them. But here, our crimes were not clear; the authorities didn’t know what to accuse us of. You could be accused of revolting against the government or disturbing the public; basically whatever [the authorities] wanted.”

Ghalamdar’s works in collaboration with Elf Crew

Ghalamdar began his graffiti career as a 15 year-old, coming into contact with local artists and their works. From 2011 to 2014, he teamed up with the Elf Crew, one of the first groups of graffiti artists to operate in Iran. Ghalamdar’s distinctive style has been featured as part of their collective, accompanying the pictorial features of Blind and Ali Fj-one with Persian-inspired calligraphy. In 2013, the crew worked at adrainage canal in the city of Tehran, painting approximately two hundred meters of walls.

While some graffiti artists produce work covertly, Ghalamdar states that he and his past crew members would often ask permission from members of the community in order to practice their craft. As Ghalamdar tells us, “Sometimes we talk to the residents in a particular area to ask them if we can paint there. I show them my ID and tell them that I’m an university art student. I remember once in a while they would come out to see what I was painting, but after a while they stopped being suspicious of our work and didn’t mind us.”

Although the situation was not devoid of risk for graffiti artists, changes in societal attitudes towards urban art have increased the awareness of independent street art. Towards the mid-to-late 2000s, dozens of municipalities across Iran began new beautification programs to revitalize cityscapes through massive artistic projects. While Ghalamdar is critical of the didactic message of these initiatives and urges that graffiti culture was alive and well decades before, he states that the projects might have opened up a space for independent artists to work, even if their work continues to be erased: “In some ways, the [beautification programs] have improved our situation. For example, if I approached a wall with a spray-can years ago, ordinary people would have looked at me in a negative way. Now however, most people aren’t surprised to see artists working.”


Ghalamdar’s work is unique in the realm of Iranian street art because it alludes to 20th century artistic discussions in Iran while maintaining the presentational form of graffiti. The artist sees tremendous potential in engaging with Iran’s cultural products, and hopes many will follow suit: “In this modern period, we are able to take our own elements, visual culture, our own literature for inspiration. We have had a lot of artistic circles throughout the last century that have experimented with traditional forms. We could do it [with graffiti], but most prefer to emulate.”

Ghalamdar’s digital works

The utilization of the “traditional” in 20th century works has been an important turn in the history of Iranian art. With the increasing economic and cultural penetration of colonial powers in the 19th century, artists began experimenting with different techniques and media from Europe and elsewhere; but art forms like calligraphy and miniature painting that had developed over centuries of contact between Iran and its neighbors were not lost in the changing political and socio-cultural climate– there was, in fact, a resurgence. With the establishment of the School of Traditional Arts (Madrese-ye Sanai’-e Qadima) in 1929, a new group of miniaturists were funded and trained by the Pahlavi state. These artists, emulating the styles and models of the Timurid and Safavid ateliers, influenced later generations of miniaturists in the 1980s and 1990s (called the negargaran) that include such artists as Mahmoud Farshchian and Mohammad Bagher Aghamiri.

It was the works of these later artists that compelled Ghalamdar to experiment with miniature painting two years ago. Unlike emulative practices of the negargaran, however, Ghalamdar strove to bring the artistic forms into the realm of pop-art– cartoonifying human figures and isolating them from their traditional literary and visual contexts. Ghalamdar’s early ventures into this style were done digitally, as he states that he did not have the necessary skills to work freehand. Using his background as an art student, Ghalamdar was able to contact several professors and research various aspects of miniature painting. After several months, the artist began producing his miniature work on walls of Tehran and Karaj, before moving on to calligraphy.

negargari and miniature-inspired works

For the experimentation with calligraphy, Ghalamdar turned to the Saqqakhaneh movement of the 1960s and 1970s, who used calligraphy, folk objects, and Shi’i iconography as part of their subject matter. Unlike professional calligraphers, this group of artists avoided the strict rules and preparation rituals of the craft in favor of abstraction. Saqqakhaneh artists directly inspired Ghalamdar to challenge the dominant pictorial material of Iranian street art in favor of developing an aesthetic with distinct Iranian markers.

“Seven or eight months ago, I went to see an exhibition featuring the works of Saqqakhaneh artists at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. There, I saw the works of Mansoureh Hosseini–may she rest in peace– and others like Tanavoli and Zenderoudi. I was looking atFaramarz Pilaram in particular when I thought about trying out a new artistic outlook. I was also listening to Dariush Dolat-shahi’s Third Eye: Improvisations on Tar, which also gave me an energy to pursue this type of work.

I worked on ten walls that were just for practice. I felt that this was a great start, and that no one else was doing this type of street art in Iran at the time. I practice Persian and Arabic calligraphy everyday in my notebooks. I never went to a class and never had a teacher– I just picked up a few books and then started writing myself. Though I draw in my notebook, I rarely use a pre-drawn model for my murals. There are particular forms that are internalized, but I try to bring something new out of myself each time.”

pieces from Ghalamdar’s notebook

While Ghalamdar’s has undoubtedly been influenced by traditional calligraphic practice, his work shares an affinity with the interlocking aesthetic of “wildstyle” graffiti, demonstrating an amalgamation of the two cultures of writing. Like the letterist works of the Saqqakhaneh artists, Ghalamdar’s text-based pieces have emphasized the pictorial form of Perso-Arabic script over the literary content of traditional calligraphic practice.

The artist recently showcased his latest calligraphic work at an underground workshop in central Tehran. The workshop is located inside an old house that was previously listed as a cultural heritage site, but was removed from the municipality’s list due to its small area. The owner of the house has scheduled its demolition, but not before opening up the venue to a number of Iranian street artists to showcase their work. This past spring, a group of prominent street artists under the name of Black Hand curated an exhibition in the same space, demonstrating that a variety of spaces–on and off the street–are opening up for Iranian graffiti artists to display their work.

Ghalamdar believes that shows like Black Hand’s exhibition and the “gallerization” of street art in general do not necessarily alter the message or form of graffiti. As he says, “In terms of presenting our works in a gallery, I really don’t see a problem with it. Right now the debate concerns whether our work has to be located on the street for it to be considered graffiti. In my opinion, street art is a package that encompasses a variety of practices like design, decor, and fashion– it’s something that doesn’t have limitations any more. The nature of graffiti is changing, but the core of it all– writing on the walls– shouldn’t be lost either.”

Ghalamdar’s work featured in an underground workshop in Central Tehran

Ghalamdar and his cohort are operating in a socio-cultural environment where many members of the Iranian public are familiar with graffiti culture and are actively promoting such works. Although Iranian municipal authorities (like those all over the world) continue to erase independent street art, more and more venues have been dedicated to presenting Iranian graffiti to new audiences.

The young artist’s innovative style is indicative of a new generation of Iranian street artists who are experimenting with Iranian artistic practices in their work. Whereas the majority of Iranian street artists operating today reproduce the formal and presentational idioms of global street art, Ghalamdar has engaged with endemic visual culture to produce works that are in conversation with Iranian art history. Additionally, the artist avoids reproducing the “traditional/modern” binary in his attempt to revitalise the Iranian street art movement by engaging with a variety of modernist and postmodern takes on Iranian subject matter.


Ghalamdar believes that departing from established international styles and engaging with Iranian art will help revitalize–if not create– an indigenous Iranian graffiti scene. As he states, “In my opinion, we still don’t have an authentic Iranian street art movement; right now most of us are just replicating what is being produced in the U.S. and Europe. We haven’t created a graffiti that we can call our own– all I can say is that there are a few individuals who are truly trying to produce original street art. I don’t think our ideas will be picked up immediately in Iran, but hopefully, this will change in the future.”

For further reading on the Saqqakhaneh movement, calligraphy, negargari, and the history of 20th century Iranian art, refer to Hamid Keshmirshekan’s Contemporary Iranian Art: New Perspectives


An artist created a giant mural across 50 buildings in Cairo without the government noticing Chris Weller Mar 30, 2016.

Amid Cairo’s brick buildings and heaping piles of trash is a sprawling work of art, which, at first, looks messy and incoherent.

But when you stand on the nearby hillside and read the spray-painted Arabic “calligraffiti,” as its creator Tunisian-French artist eL Seed calls it, the message reads loud and clear: “If one wants to see the light of the sun, he must wipe his eyes.”

The quote represents the importance of withholding judgment of people just because of their circumstances, says eL Seed, who first visited the community a few years ago. He’s called the piece “Perception” for just that reason, hoping to get people to see past the area’s physical appearance.

The entire piece took three weeks to complete, and eL Seed says it was done in total secrecy from the Egyptian government due to the country’s strict laws forbidding artistic expression.



Loud Art and Nuqat: ‘Executing Culture Shock’

Arab Hyphen


Saudi initiative LOUD Art has partenered with Nuqat, a platform for connecting artists in the the Middle East, to put on an exhibition with the title ‘Executing Culture Shock’.  Apparently the initiative is “aimed at challenging and examining the experience of cultural change and its effect on artists and designers.” The exhibition will be on until June 7 in Khobar.

Arabnews reports that the project featured a total of 37 collaborating artists. In the past, LOUD art exhibitions have featured artists such as:

The artists showcased work which “reflected their ideas of the concept of culture shock in a wittingly, humorous, satirical, and positive attitude.”  I haven’t been able to find a complete list of the artists in this exhibition but apparently some…

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Al Hangar and the New Generation of Saudi Artists

Arab Hyphen

d7hftxdivxxvm.cloudfront.netMyrna Award writes about  Al Hangar (The Warehouse) an initiative by young Saudi artists, who describe it as a cultural movement which aims to “ignite a sense of community.”

Artists are individually invited to show work at Al Hangar, similarly to a biennial. And so far, they’ve been inundated with requests to participate, an indication of both the buzz around the alternative space, and the growing energy around Saudi’s art scene.

The initiative is led by Ramy Alquthamy and Nasser Al Salem who hope to provide this sense of community for emerging Saudi artists, the “generation in waiting” as they were referred to in Edge of Arabia’s exhibition from a couple of years ago, Rhizoma, which aimed:

to provide a clear vision of the radical transformation in Saudi art, which is now more affiliated with its roots, to the real culture represented by the awareness of the different living conditions in…

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Iran’s Women Police Academy had existed for just two years in 2005 when Iranian artist Abbas Kowsari went to photograph a graduation ceremony. The women wore hijabs as they did things such as scaling walls, which is what they’re doing in the Kowsari photo on view in LACMA’s “Islamic Art Now: Contemporary Art of the Middle East.”

Kowsari had to ask permission to take the photo, and it has an understated feeling: Four staggered figures in flowing black robes look as if they’re almost floating up a brick and concrete wall. You could almost overlook the strangeness of the situation the photo depicts, one in which conservative tradition clashes with a certain kind of progress. And that clash is already a thing of the past, since Tehran’s new police chief no longer allows women to climb, practice karate or jump out of windows.

A lot of the work in LACMA’s new exhibition traffics in subtlety. “At the end of the day, these artists don’t have the same freedoms. You have to read between the lines,” says photographer Firooz Zahedi, who was born in Iran but left at age 9 and doesn’t consider himself an Iranian artist. Zahedi belongs to LACMA’s Art of the Middle East: Contemporary council, which purchased Kowsari’s work along with about half of the artworks in the exhibition. Zahedi also is partly responsible for the council’s relatively recent formation.

Late in 2010, his friend, artist Yassi Mazandi, took him with her to visit Linda Komaroff, the head of the museum’s Art of the Middle East Department. Komaroff had become interested in contemporary art coming out of the Middle East around 2006, after seeing an exhibition at the British Museum. She found resonances between the contemporary work and the historical work she had studied for years.

Michael Govan, who believes in giving curators freedom to shape their departments, had just become LACMA’s director at that point, and he encouraged her to collect contemporary work, as long as she found the funds. Her department already had a collectors council (its own group of donors) but its members weren’t terribly excited about newer art. So she began to wonder if she could start a contemporary council.

At some point during their conversation, Zahedi told Komaroff about photographs he had taken on a diplomatic trip to Iran with Elizabeth Taylor in 1976, because his cousin, Iran’s ambassador to the United States and a friend of Taylor, wanted her and other big names to be on Air Iran’s inaugural flight. Taylor, who had met and liked Zahedi, said she would go if he went.

Certain photographs Zahedi took during that trip look almost like ornate tapestries. In one, Taylor wears glimmering clothes she’d just bought at a bazaar and reclines in a tent of fabric she and Zahedi built together as a slapdash set.

LACMA exhibited these photographs in a small gallery in its Ahmanson Building. The opening, on Taylor’s 79th birthday, pulled in the Hollywood and Iranian community, and the excitement around them helped Komaroff get a viable council started. By the end of 2011, a growing group of people had agreed to contribute at least $1,000 a year to help LACMA acquire contemporary Middle Eastern art.

Zahedi remains a member of the council. “I like art in general, and some of the contemporary Middle Eastern art I really like and some is OK,” he says. “But for me to see an American woman like Linda so committed to this part of the world was inspiring. Many Westerners would like to avoid this part of the world.”

Hassan Hajjaj's Gang of Kesh Part 2 (2000)

Gift of the artistHassan Hajjaj’s Gang of Kesh Part 2 (2000)

Installed on the fourth floor of LACMA’s Ahmanson Building, “Islamic Art Now” (the first part of a two-part exhibition) is the first chance to see much of the work Komaroff’s department has acquired with the council’s help. For the past few years, visitors who came to see historical tiles, calligraphy or manuscripts might also encounter recent video work by Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj or a photo of a young woman in hijab and red boxing gloves by Iranian artist Newsha Tavakolian. But now there’s room for a full exhibit, since some of the permanent collection is on tour.

Komaroff’s department has a world-class contemporary collection, with almost 200 works. The Met’s Islamic Art department, in comparison, has fewer new works, and its holdings are less diverse (fewer young artists, less conceptual photography).

“We tend to see Islamic art as ending around 1900,” Komaroff says. The reasons for this, as usual, have to do with the unwieldy ways in which institutions work, the way history is written and the fact that much of the Middle East has been embroiled in conflict, keeping its art under-exposed. Plus, many people in the West see Middle Eastern culture as stuck in the past.

For instance, when art historian and curator Tim Stanley joined the Victoria & Albert Museum in London around 2002, he found the Middle East department had been subsumed into the materials department around 1900, and there had been little focus on new art since. Stanley spent his first few years at the museum constructing new galleries for Islamic and Middle Eastern art. When those galleries opened a few years later, they included a minbar, or pulpit, from 1468 next to a video of people in Cairo of today, praying in a mosque with a similar minbar in the background.

“We want to combat the idea that it’s somehow a dead civilization,” Stanley says. Since 2009, his department has been awarding the Jameel Prize to artists influenced by Islamic tradition. It’s a way to “demonstrate that our collection is a living artistic phenomenon,” he explains.

Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, gave a 2012 lecture in which he described driving around Abu Dhabi, thinking about how Middle Eastern art history has either been “erased over the course of much of the 20th century” or “simply never written,” whether due to a lack of interest or prejudices.

“Artistic practice in the Middle East,” Lowry said, has “parameters and a history we are only now beginning to see and understand.”

That “we” could refer to the Western curators who only recently started paying attention to art of the Middle East. But it also could apply to the artists beginning to understand their history in a new way.

In “Islamic Art Now,” the wall texts Komaroff wrote are especially open-ended, leaving the art itself to push at the parameters and tell complicated stories about tradition and history. London-based Iranian artist Mitra Tabrizi’s panoramic view of a residential area on the edge of Tehran shows figures dressed in solid colors, all moving as if entirely alone, in different directions, while a billboard of Iran’s revolutionary leaders looms behind them. The leaders, reads the wall text, seem “incapable of imposing order or direction.”

Hassan Hajjaj’s photograph Gang of Kesh Part 2 shows a group of women in hijabs made of patterned fabric posing next to motorcycles — their veils, in this context, are like gangster bandanas.

The photograph, about being badass while tied to a heritage, is conventionally elegant in the way it’s been composed, with the figures centered. It seems like a strategy: to stay familiarly beautiful while challenging perceptions.

“Islamic Art Now: Contemporary Art of the Middle East,” LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Miracle Mile; ongoing.