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″

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