DEEP FOCUS: THE PHOTOGRAPHY OF ABBAS KIAROSTAMI by HG MASTERS, From ArtAsiaPacific

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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.

More: http://www.artasiapacific.com/Blog/DeepFocusThePhotographyOfAbbasKiarostami

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

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More: http://ajammc.com/2014/05/27/making-graffiti-an-iranian-art-ghalamdar/

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.”

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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.

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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

 More: http://ajammc.com/2014/05/27/making-graffiti-an-iranian-art-ghalamdar/

Two Iranian Artists and the Revolution BY ROBIN WRIGHT – CULTURE DESK SEPTEMBER 15, 2015, The New Yorker

More: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/two-iranian-artists-and-the-revolution?mbid=social_facebook

Parviz Tanavoli: plenty of ‘nothing’ – exhibition

An exhibition in Wellesley, Massachusetts, highlights the work of master Iranian sculptor who has made folk and religious forms his own

Shadi Harouni for Tehran Bureau

It is rare for an Iranian artist to be widely celebrated at home, withstanding the scrutiny of a nation in love with both art and the contemporary and yet highly critical of its living artists because it recognizes the contemporary as a category imposed from the outside. Born in 1937, Parviz Tanavoli has become a legendary figure through a prolific career as artist, scholar and teacher. Iran’s first significant modern sculptor, he works in a style distinctly his own, undeniably modern, and entirely Iranian.

In bringing together over 50 years of his art in his first US solo museum exhibition, the Davis Museum has the task of engaging with thousands of years of cultural heritage, which Tanavoli draws on with fervour and ease. He neither imitates nor ignores the Iranian visual lexicon, but rather makes it his own and expands upon it.

Tanavoli is one of the handful of artists responsible for the Saghakhaneh style, which developed in the early 1960s as young, mainly western-educated artists sought to reconcile distinctly Iranian forms with the language of contemporary art. In doing so they turned to traditional forms, touching on pre-Islamic and Shia Muslim art and architecture, as well as Iranian folk motifs.

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Disciples of Sheikh San’an (1975) Photograph: Courtesy of Parviz Tanavoli

Among those associated with the style, Tanavoli’s work embodies the widest range of cultural signifiers, from the grandiose to the familiar, from the ancient to the now. His scholarship has been impressive in its scope and influence. Tanavoli has published books on locks, talismans, gravestones, horse and camel trappings from tribal Iran, rugs and textiles, make-up boxes, tablecloths, ceramics, and the magic of letters and numbers, among other topics. He is by temperament a collector, and the innumerable hours he has spent scouring flea markets, villages, and artisans’ workshops have deeply affected his work.

It is indeed often difficult to distinguish an established cultural motif from one Tanavoli has established. When one thinks of an Iranian form, one is as likely to visualise a Tanavoli as an ancient relief. The pseudo-cuneiforms covering his more recent Wall series are just as much etched into my mind as the 2500-year-old inscriptions on the side of a granite boulder at the foot of Mount Alvand in Hamedan province, to which I made weekly pilgrimages as a child.

As the country has grown more secular, Tanavoli has built up and maintained certain religious motifs as a significant part of his visual lexicon. A good example is his relationship to locks, as fastened by devotees to the lattice grillwork of Shia shrines.

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The Poet (1973) Photograph: John Gordon/Courtesy of Parviz Tanavoli

He shows the same devotion to saghakhanehs, small niches in walls offering passersby drinking water in memory of Imam Hussein, who with his followers was cut off from water before his martyrdom at the battle of Kerbala in AD680. Tanavoli’s devotion to form while excluding function releases the artistic tradition from its mythical aura.

While the lock has been a site of both ingenuity and metaphor in Iranian heritage, it is Tanavoli’s sculptures and extensive research that make it so significant. He ties in religion, myth and history with contemporary hope. He equates the praying hands that fasten locks onto shrines with his own, which sculpt them in the studio, often as small breasts or disproportionate penises.

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Innovation in Art (1964) Photograph: Courtesy of Parviz Tanavoli

Tanavoli’s fervour for Iranian formal heritage is balanced by a sense of irreverence and play that give his work relevance beyond a specific cultural context. In Innovation in Art, 1964, he cuts a vaginal opening into a handmade Persian rug to make room for a toilet ewer, a scatological object most common and most rejected in the Iranian domestic psyche. The ewer is painted after a Jasper Johns Target and the intricate patterns of the rug are flattened into kitsch as they are crudely traced in paint.

His signature Heech series, which has for years been a staple of Tanavoli’s practice, was conceived of in 1965 as a protest. The three letters of the word heech, meaning nothing or nothingness in Farsi, took form in the decorative Nastaliq script both as a protest against the empty overuse of calligraphy in the increasingly popular Saghakhaneh style and the individuals, the institutions and the market that embraced this emptiness. The many years Tanavoli has spent with Heech, and the sheer number of pieces produced with his factory-like ambition, take it beyond the cynicism of its initial protest.

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Parviz Tanavoli Photograph: Courtesy of Parviz Tanavoli

It is radical for an artist to make “nothing”. But Tanavoli’s heech is constant neither in form nor narrative. The pieces are made in all sizes and media, from bronze to fibre-glass and neon lights. Heech emerges from a box, melts into its chair, lies beneath a table and embraces another. As it takes form it grows both endearing and ridiculous. Its irony, not lost on the artist, points to his nostalgia for the figure, a need for play, for narrative, for history.

Tanavoli cannot stay on a heech hiatus. However freely he has drawn from and built upon his own heritage, he has always done so with great care. It is partly this sense of responsibility that has given him the popular status he enjoys in Iran. While it may be a source of pleasure and inspiration, it is no doubt also a burden for any artist, one he has borne seamlessly, and with grace and humility.

Parviz Tanavoli at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, curated by Lisa Fischman and Shiva Balaghi, offers more than 175 objects from the artist’s expansive oeuvre. The exhibition opens today and runs through 7 June 2015

http://www.theguardian.com/world/iran-blog/2015/feb/10/parviz-tanavoli-solo-us-exhibition-iranian-sculptor

Iran’s most celebrated visual artist, Parviz Tanavoli, speaks to MEMO about his work Amelia Smith Tuesday, 03 February 2015 16:32

Later Tanavoli went to Italy to study. It was on his return, he recalls, that he realised the role locks played in Shia Islam and Persian culture. In Iran public water houses were built in bazaars and neighbourhoods and during the hot summers passers-by would stop to take a sip of water. Gradually people started to make donations and the water houses became shrine-like decorated with imagery of the imams.

“People who have wishes or problems go to the shrines and tie up a strip of their clothing or fasten a lock to the grille of the shrine hoping that they can unlock their problems and cure their sicknesses or disease,” explains Tanavoli. “So the lock has great significance in Persian culture.”

In the sixties the lock became one of the iconographies central to a new movement co-founded by Tanavoli, termed Saqqakhneh, the Farsi word for water house. Dubbed spiritual “pop art”, Saqqakhneh sought to incorporate Shia symbols into art and often you will see padlocks on the body of Tanavoli’s sculptures and in the work of the young artists that joined the movement.

Another concept central to Tanavoli’s work is the principle of “Heech”, Farsi for “nothing”. Like the lock, the word Heech has been moulded by the artist and incorporated into the anatomy of his sculptures numerous times. It began in 1965, he says, in protest to the popularisation of calligraphy that at the time became fashionable and was exhibited in nearly every gallery. “I gave calligraphy up and only used one word,” he says.

Tanavoli describes the shape of Heech as malleable and soft, a word that can be put in a cage or on the walls. “I found there is so much in the Heech, that Heech is not nothing, Heech is something. Then later, as time went on, I realised that there is so much meaning behind it and so many poets prior to me, from centuries ago, have paid attention to this word and have used it and that is how it began.”

Parviz Tanavoli, Poet Turning into Heech (detail), 1973-2007. Collection of the artist.  Photo by John Gordon.The early poets, Rumi, Khayyam and Hafez, wrote a lot about Heech, points out Tanavoli, and posed the question of whether existence is nothing or whether non-existence is existence. “They wanted people to think about that – don’t underestimate the nothingness. As important as existence and thing are, no thing or nothing is important too.”

Work that features the Heech is the most popular and sought after of Tanavoli’s art. He says this is because people can relate to it and find something in the concept they can connect to. “It’s a simple shape, it’s abstract, and it’s very meaningful. It has a sculptural body different than other known sculptural figures,” he reflects. “I think there are many reasons it became popular.”

In 2008 Tanavoli’s The Wall (Oh Persepolis), a two metre bronze sculpture etched with hieroglyphics, made a record sale when Christie’s auction house sold it for $2.84 million, the highest ever paid for a piece of artwork from the Middle East. Despite this, Tanavoli says that commercial success has not compromised his work. “I didn’t follow the market or market requests, in fact I turned it down in many instances and I followed my path. I continued doing my thing and opted out. I haven’t changed, I haven’t really commercialised any of my art.”

Though Tanavoli would not describe himself as “political”, there is certainly a political element to some of his work. Most artists, he says, are somehow involved in the politics of their time. “All the artists I know somehow are, but they may not reflect it directly, they might be very indirect. Somehow artists stay away from it especially in the area that we live. It’s not very safe to be political.”

Heech in a Cage – literally a Heech coming out of a silver cage – was made in protest of Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, a facility set up to imprison and interrogate suspects in the “war on terror”. The prison has attracted worldwide controversy for its use of water-boarding, the force-feeding of prisoners on hunger strike and detention without trial.

“I was very bothered when they put all these people in jail without giving them a fair trial. The torture and the way they were kept. I always felt that even if there are innocent among them, this is damaging American democracy. I decided to make a monument to the innocents of the Guantanamo.”

Parviz Tanavoli, Heech in the Cage, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.  Photo by John GordonThe monument was intended to be an enlarged version of Heech in a Cage which would then be donated to the people of Afghanistan; Afghanis were once the largest nationality represented in Guantanamo. However, Tanavoli couldn’t find a sponsor or a location in Afghanistan willing to take it, and so the project was never realised.

Closer to home Tanavoli has been involved in a drawn out conflict with the local government. In 2002 the artist’s house was turned into a museum by request of the city of Tehran with the backing of then Mayor Mohammad-Hassan Malekmadani who was keen on art and culture. But when Ahmadinejad became mayor he closed the museum declaring “it wasn’t part of our culture it was foreign culture,” recounts Tanavoli.

The artist went to court and fought for six years to get his house back but by this time much of his artwork had been taken. Last March he retrieved 13 pieces through a court order, but a few days later people from the municipality hired trucks and cranes, came back, broke the door down and took everything again.

“They don’t like my work, they’re not even interested,” he says. “But now they have realised that it is worth some money and that’s all they’re interested in. I wish they had even taken care of it. Several of my works are broken, some are damaged, some kept in very bad conditions and not handled professionally and so they are going into a state of decay. I want to get them back. I don’t know if I will or not, I still haven’t given up.”

Tanavoli says that wide-spread censorship on art and culture is more relaxed than it was in the Ahmedinejad years, under whom hundreds of books were censored, publishing permits were denied, films were banned and theatres shut down. “It was the worst period of all these eight years,” he reiterates. “Things are loosening now, they are better and of course more books are published, films are shown and theatres are again going back to their lives. So it goes up and down.”

Though he has a studio and a house in Tehran, Tanavoli and his family moved to Canada in 1989 and now lives and works between the two countries. “I couldn’t sell my sculptures there. I wasn’t even allowed to sell my sculptures there,” he says, explaining why his family moved. “Our children had to go to college for higher schooling and they didn’t have any chances, especially the girls. We have two daughters, so we decided to move to Canada for the sake of the children and then also to re-start my life. It wasn’t easy but of course things are better now.”

A decade before his move Tanavoli retired as head of the sculpture department at Tehran University, at the time of the Islamic Revolution.

Tanavoli’s work can be found in private and public collections from the British Museum in London to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art in New York. At the beginning of February a retrospective of Tanavoli’s work will go on display at the Davis Museum, Wellesley College in the US where over 175 of his pieces will be exhibited. Tanavoli says it will be a good opportunity for Americans to experience Iranian culture which often gets lost in news reporting from such a volatile region.

“I am very happy this is happening, especially in the States, because of this embargo and lack of communication,” says Tanavoli. The US placed sanctions on Iran following the US embassy seizure in 1979 and has maintained them, and broadened them, for most of the period following this.

“I think this might open the door. Americans have the right to see the other side of our culture; I mean the cultural part not just all this bad news. Of course the embargo has stopped all of this for a long time. So this is a good time, a good period, and I’m very much looking forward that there is going to be communication through art and Americans can see a taste of the art of Iran and myself and that part of the world.”

Parviz Tanavoli’s retrospective exhibition will be on display at The Davis Museum, Wellesley College from 10 February to 7 June.