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

AN INTERVIEW WITH ADAM WILLIAMSON AND RICHARD HENRY, FOUNDERS OF ART OF ISLAMIC PATTERN Islamic Art Hands-On Interview by Valerie Behiery, Islamic Art historian, Ph.D.

“Learning through doing is critical, it’s not simply about acquiring a critical analytical understanding of the designs. A sensitivity to the contemplative dimension of the work, both as a student and as a teacher, is essential.” (Richard Henry)

There is a resurgence of interest in the traditional Islamic arts. The difficulty for artists in Europe and North America who want to learn and master the arts of illumination, geometric design or arabesque is where to find such training. Adam Williamson and Richard Henry founded their London-based educational enterprise, Art of Islamic Pattern, with this challenge in mind. It offers a variety of courses catering to different age groups and levels in the London studio and around the world, as well as special study trips to cities like Istanbul, Fez, or Granada. Williamson and Henry are both skilled craftsmen who understand the practical and philosophical aspects of Islamic pattern and design. And between them, they have taught at Birkbeck University, Cambridge University, the British Museum, Central Saint Martins, the Slade School of Fine Art and The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts where they both studied. Artists in their own right, they have each received commissions from notable public and private clients.

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Portrait of Art of Islamic Pattern founders: Adam Williamson (left) and Richard Henry (right), Istanbul, Turkey 2014 / Courtesy of the Artists

You established Art of Islamic Pattern in London in 2008. The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts (PSTA) is also now based in London. How would you describe the specific aim and focus of Art of Islamic Pattern?

RH: Our courses have a specific focus upon the Islamic tradition. PSTA looks at the full sweep of world traditions. We are perhaps more with the public facing, in the sense that our courses are designed for the layperson, irrespective of background and we are not formally part of any academic institution. The PSTA is more academic in focus with courses for MA and PhD students. Many of our own students have gone onto study at PSTA.

AW: The courses are primarily practical in nature. There are contextual slide lectures, but the rest of the time students are drawing geometric and biomorphic patterns by hand or with a compass and straight edge. The final stages of courses and trips culminate with creating a work in a traditional medium.

LEFT: Adam Williamson, Sculptural Bench, large twisted oak with inset curving slate carved with poetry sitting on large Portland limestone semi circular feet, Oxford University (commission), England / RIGHT: Adam Williamson, ash sculpture, Geometric Moon Jungle, 2008 / Both images Courtesy of Adam Williamson

Both of you studied with Keith Critchlow, a master geometer and architect who believes in the universal or spiritual aspect of geometry. Is this also your approach?

AW: Keith Critchlow was a great teacher who appeared in my life at the perfect time to connect the dots. His teaching methods seemed purely inspired and intuitive which gave his classes an enjoyable, unpredictable and dynamic energy.

RH: Both of us regard the face-to-face teaching of geometry and traditional art as a form of transmission from master to student. We believe that there is a contemplative dimension to the practical work, which is embodied within the shapes and proportions used. These are the fundamental principles of sacred geometry.

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LEFT: Richard Henry, Damascene Variation, mixed media collage on paper, 120×75 cm / RIGHT: Richard Henry, Working Drawing: Progressive drawings of decagram and Girih motif, 70x50cm / Both images Courtesy of Richard Henry

What is important for you in the teaching and learning of Islamic geometry?

RH: Learning through doing is critical, it’s not simply about acquiring a critical analytical understanding of the designs. A sensitivity to the contemplative dimension of the work, both as a student and as a teacher, is essential.

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Richard Henry, Doha Girih, mixed media collage on paper, 100×100 cm / Courtesy of Richard Henry

Richard Henry, Girih Composition, wooden tiles (oak, cherry, walnut) with incised pattern, 50x50cm / Courtesy of Richard Henry

Many people who want to learn the Islamic art of pattern might be afraid to start for a variety of reasons. What would you say to these prospective students?

RH: Our introductory courses and study strips assume no prior knowledge of Islamic art and are open to everyone. We generally have a mix of abilities on all of our courses and study trips. Our students come from a range of backgrounds and have a broad range of interests and motivations. Some are professional artists or designers seeking to develop a particular aspect of their work, others are from non-art backgrounds who are driven to explore the art and culture of the Islamic world more deeply and there are others who find themselves at a professional crossroads, and wish to change careers to something more creative and more personally or professionally fulfilling.

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LEFT: Adam Williamson, White Sculpture, Hannah Peschar Sculpture Park, England, height, pine, 2008 / RIGHT: Adam Williamson, Stained glass window, Cambridge Muslim College (commission), England, 2012 / Both images Courtesy of Adam Williamson

You and the two other tutors, Lateefa Spiker and Sama Mara, are all practising artists who integrate Islamic pattern into your art in different ways. How do modernity and tradition come together in your art?

AW: We don’t see tradition as something historic but view it as constantly growing and developing, a way to pass down skills and knowledge. This would have been the same view held in antiquity when various structures were developed to teach, for example the guild systems used in both east and west. With the industrialization of much of the world, these systems were lost. People today have an interest in understanding and experiencing these skills, which are now difficult to access. Maybe this is why there is a lot of interest in the courses we facilitate.

imageSama Mara, Installation view of A Hidden Order, Exhibition at The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, London, 2014 / Courtesy of the Artist

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Sama Mara, Installation view of A Hidden Order, Exhibition at The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, London, 2014 / Courtesy of the Artist

Education is at the heart of what you do. You, Adam, have been involved with PSTA’s outreach educational projects, most recently –in partnership with Lateefa- , with the Ahousaht community on the coast of British Columbia in Canada. Could you say a few words about this project?

AW: Yes, it has been a pleasure to teach on a series of outreach programs for PSTA. It was a particular highlight to work with the First Nation community of Ahousaht. I have been interested in West Coast art, especially the cedar carving, since I was a teenager.

The aspiration for this project was to allow a wider and deeper sharing of traditional knowledge through the direct language of nature, which informs art, number and geometry. The First Nations have an active relationship with nature. Experiencing and hearing about their rituals and remedies and how they are successfully applied to daily life has been an uplifting education for both myself and Lateefa.

The practical outcome of the three trips was a series craft projects, all using cedar. Cedar has always been seen by the locals as the tree of life. It is used to make cloth and rope and used in house building as well as for artwork. For the first project, we created a series of paintings on woven cedar bark. For the second project, we built a 14×24 foot cedar dome and, for the final project, we carved 50 cedar boards that were installed as part of the Flores Island Wild Side boardwalk trail.

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Lateefa Spiker, Geo Moon Wave, gold leaf on board, 70×70 cm / Courtesy of the Artist

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Lateefa Spiker, Whirling Arabesque, 1×1 m, gouache, acrylic and oil on canvas / Courtesy of the Artist

Students at Work

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Richard Henry and students. In the Hackney studio / Courtesy of Art of Islamic Pattern

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LEFT: Student (Alan Griffiths) at work, Fez, Morocco, 2013 / RIGHT: Student at work, Istanbul, Turkey 2014 / Courtesy of Art of Islamic Pattern

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Adam Williamson and students. Granada, Spain 2010 / Courtesy of Art of Islamic Pattern

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Students at work. Dar Seffarine Fez, Morocco, 2013

http://islamicartsmagazine.com/magazine/view/islamic_art_hands-on/

Calligraffiti Mural by eL Seed on the Sharjah Bank Street Building by Islamic Arts Magazine

Maraya Art Centre, Sharjah’s innovative contemporary visual arts hub, is bringing the striking calligraffiti of acclaimed French-Tunisian street artist eL Seed to the city of Sharjah in a compelling live outdoor street art initiative, Jedariya.

The project ‘Jedariya’, conceived by Maraya Art Centre in aid of beautifying Sharjah’s streets in order to attract more tourists to the Emirates while involving Sharjah’s diverse youth population with the arts, consists of an elaborate painted calligraffiti mural on the walls of the Sharjah Bank Street building by eL Seed.

eL Seed is famous for his unique style of calligraphy – fusing elements of both the graffiti and Arabic calligraphic traditions – which uses complex design to call not only on the words and their meaning, but also on their movement and flow, luring the viewer into an alternate frame of mind. Exhibitions and public wall displays of his extraordinary work can be seen in many locations and landmarks all over Europe, the USA, and the Middle East. The artist found inspiration for the Sharjah art piece in a beautiful poem by acclaimed Iraqi poet Ahmed Bu Snida, a well known and beloved poem in Sharjah.

imageCalligraffiti Mural Art by eL Seed / Courtesy of the Artist and Maraya Art Centre

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Calligraffiti Mural Art by eL Seed, detail / Courtesy of the Artist and Maraya Art Centre

Maraya Art Centre Manager Giuseppe Moscatello, remarked “Street art adds a new dimension to the urban landscape, transforming walls into canvasses that celebrate the culture of the people who inhabit the space. It is a wonderful way to not only add beauty to the everyday but to create a dialogue between the man on the street and the world of art and we look forward to engaging the community and especially the youth in this ongoing project.”

eL Seed has been busy painting the Sharjah Bank Street wall from first light till sundown. To face the vertical challenge of the enormous facade, he is secured in a harness and rappels and abseils around the building – spray-painting, stencilling and creating the mammoth masterpiece in plain public sight. He has also been instrumental in drawing a growing interest from the local youth by live tweeting and posting photos taken from his birds-eye-view perspective.

“We are proud of the immense artistic talent that can be found in Sharjah and remain committed to supporting the arts every possible way. By bringing world class art projects into our beautiful Emirate’s public areas we want to not only foster an appreciation of the arts among all, but also attract artists and art lovers from Sharjah, the UAE, and all over the world as well as encourage and inspire young artists to develop their talents and aspire to greatness.” said HE Marwan Al Sarkal.

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Images from the Launching Press Conference, L-R: Giuseppe Moscatello, HE Marwan Al Sarkal, eL Seed / Courtesy of Maraya Art Centre

imageImages from the Launching Press Conference / Courtesy of Maraya Art Centre

imageImages from the Launching Press Conference / Courtesy of Maraya Art Centre

Maraya Art Centre intends for all projects led under this initiative to have a community incentive, which sometimes can be as simple as merely getting young people involved in the arts, while at other times may require them to actively participate in aid of raising awareness for an important cause, in addition to creating beautiful landmarks in Sharjah

http://islamicartsmagazine.com/magazine/view/calligraffiti_mural_by_el_seed_on_the_sharjah_bank_street_building/.

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.

Infinite Possibility: Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian Portugal’s Serralves Museum offers a retrospective on the work of an Iranian artist feted by New York’s glitterati but whose geometric designs are inspired by Islamic art

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When a 20-year old Iranian art student moved to New York in 1944 from her hometown, the ancient city of Qazvin, she soon found herself mixing with the brightest players on the city’s art scene including Willem de Kooning and Andy Warhol. John Cage crowned her “that beautiful Persian girl”.

But the work of Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian had a different source, not in Warhol’s Factory or Manhattan’s Studio 54 nightclub but beneath the crystalline high-domed hall of the Shah Cheragh mosque in Shiraz, southern Iran. There, she had experienced in 1966 a transformative encounter she compared to “walking into a diamond in the centre of the sun”.

The first museum survey of Farmanfarmaian’s work isolates the past 40 years from an illustrious and lustrous career. Not only does it showcase a wealth of material, it highlights recent forays into moving sculpture and painterly works on paper that suggest fresh potential in an artist who is now 90.

Infinite Possibility – Mirror Works and Drawings 1974-2014 is presented at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto this winter. Curated by the museum’s director, Suzanne Cotter, the period of her career covered by the show reflects Farmanfarmaian’s complete adoption of abstract geometry, a genre she made her own in the 1970s by translating it into three dimensions via mirrored sculptures and reliefs.

The show presents the artist, who signs her works simply as “Monir”, as a prolific and interdisciplinary figure. Passing visitors to Serralves will be drawn in by the aesthetic majesty of the riches on display; on the surface alone, the dazzling lustre of this period of Monir’s work is hard to resist. But beyond the glittering surface lies grit: in her practice as an abstract artist, Farmanfarmaian was and remains a pioneer both as an Iranian and as a woman – the most celebrated, and perhaps the only, contemporary artist working in mirror mosaic.

Seeing Farmanfarmaian’s work exhibited at Doha’s The Third Line gallery in 2013 prompted Cotter to bring both Monir’s sculptures and sketches to Porto. The artist later thanked Cotter in an interview with Artforum, the international magazine, for “being the first to notice that my drawings were something different and deserved a special focus”. Cotter wants the sketches to be seen as abstract compositions in their own right, not merely as preparation for three-dimensional works.

Most of the material included in Infinite Possibility comes from Monir’s personal collection and has not been previously shown in public. As with many artists of her time, both she and her work were marked by Iran’s political circumstances and a swathe of her oeuvre was lost in the throes of the 1979 Iranian revolution. Indeed, the works on paper were originally born out of necessity while the artist was deprived of her Tehran studio for a decade after leaving once again for New York when the revolution broke out.

In her dedicated workshop, which reopened in Tehran in 2004, Monir works alongside artisans and craftsmen trained in traditional Persian decorative arts and construction including aineh-kari (mirror mosaics) and khatam-kari (inlaid marquetry). After some initial persuasion of the artisans in the 1970s, with some reluctant to take orders from a woman, many of the original craftsmen are dedicated to Monir and remain in her atelier today.

In many senses, Monir works in the spirit of old masters. Her Tehran workshop recalls the studios of 17th-century European painters, but also that of the collaborative Persian kitabkhana, which defined the artistic output of the early modern period in Iran. The kitabkhana (literally, ‘the house of books’) was the atelier of artists and craftsmen working in the service of the Persian court in the 1600s. Designs on paper were circulated around craftsmen from different disciplines, including potters, architects, and illuminators working on the borders of manuscripts – so that the same patterns appeared in different media. As with the kitabkhana, Monir’s designs on paper have also informed textiles, sculpture and interior design throughout her career.

Monir also has taken both sculptural and architectural commissions from a dedicated pool of patrons. Her large-scale mirror mosaics have iced everything from the Senate building in Tehran to the Dag Hammarskjöld tower in New York. An early version of one of her Mirror Ball (1974) spheres sat on Warhol’s desk: its sparkling siblings are lined up at Serralves in a silent disco.

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Monir in her salon, Tehran 1975, as seen in the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art catalogue. Photograph: The Third Line, Dubai/The Third Line, Dubai
Within Infinite Possibility is an example of her geometric vision in a domestic context. At the end of the exhibition are double doors of frosted glass that she originally fashioned for her New York apartment in the 1980s. A glowing portal, they throw the grey light onto the surrounding walls through interconnected shapes scattered on their translucent surface.

Monir’s work fuses the heritage of traditional Iranian craft, particularly that of architectural decoration, with the western philosophies of minimalism and abstraction that informed her friends and contemporaries like Frank Stella and Robert Morris. Geometric, pattern-based abstraction has appeared in Islamic art for thousands of years. A similar aesthetic boomed in Western art during the 1960s, as geometric minimalism became a popular art movement as a measured, rational cousin to the volatility and physicality of abstract expressionism.

In both instances, geometric art retains a connection with a scientific and mathematic thought, be it the late ninth-century Persian polymath Omar Khayyam or the modern geometer. The axiomatic coordinates of Farmanfarmaian’s sculptures allows them to tessellate into the “infinite possibilities” that she envisages. An animation in Bahman Kiarostami’s Monir, a documentary film about the artist which had its premier at the Serravles exhibition, shows the six elements of her Convertible Series (Group 8) from 2010, splitting and re-connecting into a kaleidoscopic myriad of combinations.

Although Monir’s work resonates with this global dialogue of sixties’ minimalism, her mirror sculptures are not only dimensional but also display a unique animate quality. It was an idea sparked from watching the changing hues play across the glass interior of the Shah Cheragh mosque as people circulated within. Surfaces of her Families (2011-2013) – groups of up to six variations on a single shape, grandly showcased in the second half of Infinite Possibility – are similarly faceted so that “every colour moves”, as the artist explains in the Kirostami documentary: the experience changes each time a visitor is reflected in the work’s surface. The monumental, rotating Square (2014) signals a move into kinetics, where twisting quadrangles are stacked on top of each other, their surface reduced from the signature scattering of mirrored pieces into a single veneer of polished steel.

Considerations of Monir’s oeuvre have often searched for spiritual symbolism. This results not just from her connections with traditional craft but from the influence of religious architecture seen in the mosque niches of her grand Murquanas (2012) or the origami-esque Nomadic Tent Design (1978). And with the mathematical foundations of repetition and progression, many have deconstructed her works to find a connection to Sufi numerology. But the artist shakes off such claims in Kirostami’s Monir, where she describes her motivation as purely secular and formalistic. There are no attempts to calculate the infinities of existence, she says: “It is just the hexagon and line, [there is] no philosophy behind it.”

Her method of working is simultaneously intuitive and calculated. In another scene from Monir, which takes place in her workshop, the artist grazes a ruler across a sheet of squared tracing paper, taking a pencil to shade in a grid of lozenges, whilst muttering a chant of “here, here, and here”. There are echoes of automatism in the impulsiveness of her drawing, at odds with the mathematical perfection of her sculpture. In her drawings, so generously laid out at Serralves, scribbled half circles are scattered like confetti over frames of geometric line. Within nets of triangles, rectangles and hexagons, Monir has inserted shards of mirrored glass, working across mediums whilst still employing her artistic vocabulary and compositional principles.

Within the Serralves retrospective, Monir’s work begins to occupy a third space, the intersection of an imagined Venn diagram between spheres of sculpture, architecture, painting and draughtsmanship. Works mounted on the walls take their cue from her education as a fine artist on canvass under the tutelage of the American modernist painter Milton Avery in the 1950s. In her most recent drawings, delicate petals and blooms have begun to creep in, making flowerbeds within her famous hexagons and undulating semi-circles. These motifs mark a return to softer elements plucked from the beginning of her artistic career, where she created still lives of flowers, department store illustrations and monotype prints – an endeavour which won her a medal at the 1958 Venice Biennale.

Her always untitled sketches provide a greater scope for her experimentally. As the fine, calligraphic line used to conjure the blossoms increasingly intermingles with the graphic solidity of shape, the designs on paper would present a sculptural impracticality. One begins to realise that these drawings are, as Cotter says, more than potential brainstorms for large-scale works; they are drawings for drawing’s sake. The textures within her works on paper explore the infinite possibilities that drive her practice even further than before, and are shown in compelling independence at this exhibition.

After having made art for more than 70 years, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian is still very much a practitioner. After Porto, the exhibition will be travelling to Monir’s second home, with a showing at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York opening in March.

The author’s visit to the exhibit was supported by the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art. Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian: Infinite Possibility – Mirror Works and Drawings 1974-2014 is showing at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto, Portugal through 11 January

Natasha Morris for Tehran Bureau

http://www.theguardian.com/world/iran-blog/2014/dec/27/-sp-monir-shahroudy-farmanfarmaian-iran-infinite-possibility

The Wall Street Journal | Rethinking ‘Islamic Art’

Ismailimail

Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum features diverse, high-quality works to dispel the idea of a homogenous aesthetic.

[…] Everything in the museum seems committed to dislodging all legacy of this perspective, using beauty to lure us in close enough to appreciate the distinctiveness among Muslim civilizations.

– Lee Lawrence, The Wall Street Journal, Asian and Islamic art writer

Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum, building designed by Fumihiko Maki. (Image: The Wall Street Journal / Janet Kimber) Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum, building designed by Fumihiko Maki. (Image: The Wall Street Journal / Janet Kimber)

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ہم سب

ہم سب مل کر چلیں گے

A Fine Balance ©

A blog about work, life and the pursuit of balance.

Shapes of Space

The shape of space to come

Sufi Events

"We carry inside us the wonders we seek outside us." - Rumi

RoamingArtist's Blog

Artandtravel.com weblog

Pakistan Travel & Culture

Pakistan Travel & Tourism, culture, history and news articles.

History and Chronicles

INDIAN HISTORY

All About Asia

The Asian Diaries

Drawn&made

Hello, this is the creative blog of Mark & Heather, we're freelance designers.

ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

ASHA: Blast From The Past

The Blog of Aligarh Society of History and Archaeology [ASHA]

hmmlorientalia

Some remarks—often with photos!—about manuscripts and the languages, literature, scholarship, and history of Christian culture in the Middle East.

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