Homa Delvaray: A contemporary Iranian graphic designer and her mission

By: Roshanak Keyghobadi | December 8, 2010

In November 2007, a group of young graphic designers from various parts of Iran who grew up after Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979 put together a poster exhibition called Rokhsat. As they explained in the exhibition statement, in Iran’s traditional sports, a young wrestler asks for rokhsat (permission) from the elders when he presents in the ring. The group demanded rokhsat from the generations before them (and their viewers) to present their design innovations and artistic visions. This was an open invitation for a glimpse at contemporary design practices in Iran and specially a venue for identifying the new generation of Iranian women designers1.

In contemporary Iran vigorous engagement by a large group of women graphic designers in all aspects of design practice and pedagogy has been an undeniably powerful force, and their presence in the national and international art and design arenas is making the new face of Iranian graphic design visible. Among this group one designer stands out for her unique style and extraordinary personal visual language: Homa Delvaray.

Delvaray is not only active in designing posters, books, CD covers, logos and creating Persian and Roman fonts, but also teaches college-level drawing and illustration, serves as an editorial board member of Dabireh2 design collective and Rang Magazine (a graphic design magazine online). She regularly exhibits her work inside and outside Iran, and her designs have been featured in several national and international publications related to design and typography.

In an introduction to her recent virtual exhibition3, Delvaray declares that “the essence of art is creativity and confrontation.” She explains: “I do not believe that transmitting the client’s message to the viewer in the easiest possible way is the only mission of the graphic designer… If a graphic designer is supposed to have a commitment, it would be finding a new way of communication for what he/she has to say in order to relate to the viewer. There are no pre-assigned general rules to help achieve this goal sooner. The designer has to choose and try new approaches to challenge himself/herself.” Delvaray believes that by simplifying design and making it obvious to the viewer a designer would insult the intelligence of the viewer and assumes that they are not able to “solve a simple riddle” or “comprehend complicated relationships.”

Delvaray’s works can be described as complex, enigmatic, dynamic, challenging, packed (conceptually and formally), and of course confrontational. Her wayfinding and experiments may start with basic typographic practices but end up with highly sophisticated design methods and approaches. Learning from visual traditions of Iran, from miniature painting and lithography to metal work and carpet designs, Delvaray layers, twists, turns, stretches, stitches, weaves and gives dimension to elements of her designs and paints them with vibrant colors associated with Iranian arts and crafts.

What makes Delvaray works challenging and confrontational is the way she mixes and matches local and global cultural codes and signs and simultaneously conceals and reveals the intentions of her designs. She actively involves her viewers by presenting them with fascinating formal and conceptual visual conundrums. For example, at first glance Delvaray’s 2007 poster design for the Contemporary Iranian Graphic Design 9th Biennale titled Goftegoo (Dialogue) resembles a primary sketch for a carpet design with a symmetrical composition and highly decorative and ornamental nature. Flowers and paisleys dominate the visual space yet when looking closer an array of icons, symbols and mechanical objects such as emoticons, punctuations, letters, numbers and cellphones come to surface. The monochromatic treatment of motifs and visual elements gives them the same importance yet touches of yellow are subtle points of emphasis in the entire poster.

Delvaray explains the idea behind this design4: “Chatting or sending SMS [Short Message Service] are tools of communication which have the most usage in today’s world. [An] increasing number of digital services has contributed to this mode of communication which has entered our culture and created a new culture with limited and incorrect syntax and has forced us to unintentionally use abbreviated and meaningless words and has created Penglish [Persian English]. Yellow is the sign for danger. There is a danger in choosing to have dialogues of this kind. Using Iranian motifs and combining them with the elements of the virtual world is an attempt to show how Iranian culture is changing and confronted with the increasing spread of tools of communication and the way it is adopting them.”

In the field of graphic design and visual communication, aesthetic and artistic practices can invent and introduce imaginative spaces for revealing and challenging cultural and political obstacles and limitations. Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller5 state: “Design can critically engage the mechanics of representation, exposing and revising its ideological biases; design can also remake the grammar of communication by discovering structures and patterns within the material media of the visual and verbal writing.” John Bowers6 argues that the engagement of designers and their active role in the production of culture has significant social and political meaning. “Designers are more than makers, observers, or controllers of information and ideas. At their best, designers are participants in the creation, critique and dissemination of culture.”

What distinguishes Delvaray’s work is her sensitivity and meticulous way of putting together complex ideas and elements with diverse visual histories and components, and assigning new meanings to their new identities. She looks at the “old” and “traditional” visual elements as “raw materials”  to work with and rejuvenates them by using them in contemporary contexts. “I am not interested in pleasing the viewer but I am aiming to excite them with my new works and ideas,” Delvaray says. “I would like to work on the viewers’ taste and perception.” She believes that designers can change the “collective taste” of a society and culture by respecting their viewers’ intelligence and educating them via thought-provoking and powerful designs.

© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2010

1 The women designers of the Rokhsat exhibition were: Shahrzad Changalvaee (b.1983), Asieh Dehghani (b.1982), Homa Delvaray (b.1980), Maryam Enayati (b.1978), Zeynab Izadyar (b.1984), Zeinab Shahidi (b.1983), Reyhaneh Sheikhbahaey (b.1980) and Soha Shirvani (b.1980).

2 Dabireh is also the title of a journal of “critical writings and professional commentary” on typography. The founder and chief editor of Dabireh is Reza Abedni. Abedini is a prominent Iranian graphic designer who has introduced the Iranian contemporary design and typography on an international level. The majority of Dabireh’s editorial board members—such as Farhad Fouzouni, Homa Delvaray and Shahrzad Changalvaee—are former students of Abedini and among the most successful and innovative young designers in contemporary Iran.

3 Homa Delvaray exhibition at VitrinRooz.com, February 24 to March 9, 2010.

4 E-mail correspondence with author, August 2010.

5 Lupton, E., and Miller, A., Design Writing Research: Writing on Graphic Design. London: Phaidon Press, 1996. (p. 23)

6 Bowers, J.,Introduction to Two-dimensional Design: Understanding Form and Function. Canada: John Wiley & Sons, 1999. (p. 13)

Image: Homa Delvaray, Goftegoo (Dialogue), 2007 poster design for the Contemporary Iranian Graphic Design 9th Biennale.

*This article was originally published in AIGA’s VOICE on December 8, 2010.

*To see Homa Delvaray’s works visit http://www.homadelvaray.com/

Narrators of Silence: Two Iranian women and their telling art

Review by: Roshanak Keyghobadi | April 12, 2013

Silence is a complex dual notion. A person’s silence can evoke anxiety and discomfort in others and can be read as a sign of withdrawal and lack of awareness whereas on a transcendental level it can be interpreted as enlightenment and inner growth of an individual. The space that silence provides can reside between two points and from one state of mind or state of being to another. Although working in two different mediums, two Iranian women artists, Golnaz Fathi and Newsha Tavakolian, have captured the essence of silence in their new series of artworks that are currently on view in two Chelsea galleries in New York (Golnaz Fathi’s works are on view at Sundaram Tagore Gallery and Newsha Tavakolian’s work is on view at Thomas Erben Gallery both from April 11 to May 11, 2013). The un-written is repeated on Fathi’s canvases and un-seen is seized in Tavakolian’s photographs.

Fathi is a self-taught painter but has previous training in calligraphy and graphic design and Tavakolian also taught herself photography when started her career as a photojournalist at the age of sixteen. Both artists are internationally known and have exhibited their works in Iran and abroad extensively.

In her recent works Fathi makes her delicate marks with fine pen on large single or multi-panel canvases which are predominately variations in black and white with occasional introduction of red and yellow. She leaves her works untitled and open to interpretation. Although Fathi transforms writing to abstract forms and unreadable signs, yet her marks are rooted in Iranian calligraphic traditions and rituals such as repetition and meditation.

In Iran calligraphers such as Mir Imad Hassani (1554–1615), Muhammad Reza Kalhur (1829–1892) and Mirza Ghulam Reza Isfahani (1829–1886) produced magnificent pieces of siyah mashq (black exercise) which were calligraphic practices as well as tools for learning the properties of letter forms. In black ink, calligraphers would write and rewrite letters, words and verses of poetry continuously and on top each other, sometimes to the point that the writing surface would be covered with several layers of black inscriptions. Usually the majority of these exercises were destroyed after they served their purpose. Gradually siyah mashq evolved into an artistic independent form with its own aesthetic context and connotations and became a source of inspiration for artists such as Fathi.  Beside its functional and practical purposes siyah mashq also opened up a space for contemplation and meditation for the artist. The repetition of thousands of lines and forms which Fathi painstakingly and meticulously creates hour after hour, are contemplations of a contemporary artist who is becoming more aware of subtleties and nuances of space and silence.

Space and silence are also explored by Tavakolian in her new series of photographs titled Look.Very similar to the repetition in a siyah mashq exercise, for six months at 8 pm Tavakolian took several photograph of few people that she knew and lived in the same apartment building as her. They posed in front of her bedroom window which framed them and provided a view of another apartment complex in the background.

In Tavakolian’s photographs individual women and men drowned in their thoughts are embraced by their silence. Looking at them brings to mind a verse of poetry by 14th century Iranian poet Hafez, “I do not know who is residing inside my heartbroken body…where I am silent and it is wailing and restless.” (Dar Andarooun-e man-e khasteh del nadanam kist…ke man khamousham o ou dar faghan o dar ghoghast).  Tavakolian is the narrator of these individuals’ stories and by photographing them in this room has created a common thread which stitches all the characters to each other. Yet every photograph is coded with personal and cultural signs and symbols related to each specific character.  Cell phones, keys, series of photographs, hand bags, food leftovers, crumbled papers and tissue, towels, cosmetics, a birthday cake, a knife, a glass of water (half full or half empty), an ironing board, a clock, and a framed picture of a child are among some of these coded objects.

The viewers see two women with their headscarves and still in their mantuas as if they just arrived or maybe will be leaving the room, there is a woman in her bath robe and head towel, and another covered by a blanket resting on a sofa. There is a woman sitting in front of a cake with candles and a sharp knife placed next to it. A man in his formal attire is sitting on a bed holding his legs to his chest and another man with shaving cream on his face is sitting at a table.  The characters’ eyes look away or if looking in the camera pass through it which reveals their intense disengagement with their physical surrounding and being absorbed in their mental private spaces. It seems that Tavakolian has caught and entered these spaces and states of resting, recovering, waiting, thinking, remembering, or being heartbroken.

Visually Fathi’s paintings and Tavakolian’s photographs depict silence in a powerful manner. In Fathi’s canvases (specifically her black and white compositions) the silence is manifested by the open white spaces which are opposed to the forceful vibrating and condensed black and grey masses. These dark masses of energy create a dynamic space which intensifies the calm and stillness of the negative white spaces that are coexisting with them on the same surface.  In Tavakolian’s photographs silence is visually depicted by stillness of the human figures that lack vibrant movements or dynamism in their gestures and body language. These women and men reside in a space other than the space that they are actually and bodily occupying and offer the viewer their utter silence, which may cause us discomfort or can be a source of reflection and contemplation.

© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2013

Photo by: Newsha Tavakolian, Look, 2012. C-print, edition of 7, 41 x 55″

See Golnaz Fathi’s painting, Untitled, 2011. Pen and varnish on canvas 57.5 x 50.4″
at http://www.sundaramtagore.com

Continuing discovery

To engage with works of art is to go in search of fresh connections, unsuspected meanings, to engage in acts of continuing discovery. The more informed these are, the more sensitive we are likely to be to the complexity of the world…
Maxine Greene (2001)


This is a circle to view, write, and have a conversation about art.

Writer and editor: Roshanak Keyghobadi

Roshanak Keyghobadi is an artist and independent scholar who writes regularly about Iranian contemporary art and artists with special focus on design and typography. She holds a doctoral degree in Art and Art Education from Columbia University and her MFA and BFA are both in Graphic Design. She blogs at artCircle.