See it for yourself: Biography of a Personal and Historical Text

By: Roshanak Keyghobadi | June 20, 2014

Above text:

This is to certify that Mr. Sayyed Hosien Zavar has been studying, from October 9th of 1931 to September 11th of 1934, Miniature Painting and Illumination at the Old Industries section of the Main Office of Industry and Agriculture with outmost seriousness and best behavior, and he has our approval.–Director of Old Industries

In a personal context, this document is a private artifact and a piece of my family history, which connects me to Sayyed Hosien Zavar not only as my grandfather but also as an artist. It always amazes me how little we know about the people who were/are so close to us until we start asking questions and making connections between fragmented memories and information in our lives.

My grandfather was born in 1904 in Mashhad, Iran and later moved to Tehran with his bother. He was always interested in art and painted all his life. In Tehran he studied Miniature Painting and Illumination at the School of Old Industries from 1931 to 1934, he married my grandmother when he was 33 in 1937 and they had five children. To support his family he joined the army and after retirement he dedicated his time to painting full time. He passed way when he was 63 in 1967 in Tehran. My family has kept some of his finished and unfinished works and numerous studies and sketches as well as his art materials and tools, which are valuable sources of information and inquiry about my grandfather as an artist.

In a historical context, this document is a public document, which is related to an important era of art and art education in Iran. According to Eftekhari[i] (2002), under the order of the government at the time, the School of Old Industries was established in 1930 by Haousien Taherzadeh Behzad. The mission of the school was to revive and restore the traditional arts such as miniature painting, textiles, woodworking, tile making and ceramics. I am curious to know more about the program of study and curriculum of the school? Who were the teachers and students? Who were their students later? What was the influence of the School of Old Industries on art and art education in Iran?

I also consider this document to have two authors. One is the Director of the School of Old Industries who wrote the letter and the other one is my grandfather who painted around the letter. The intension of the writer of the text was to certify that my grandfather, Sayyed Hosien Zavar, indeed studied at the School of Old Industries for three years and learned the required skills and knowledge for Miniature Painting and Illumination and he was also a serious and courteous artist. This letter was a verbal and official testimony to that fact.

Yet my grandfather also authored this letter by adding another layer of meaning to it through presentation of his skills and proving that what was written in the text was visually evident. He was clearly saying “Don’t take the words for it, see it for yourself.” On the right side of the letter where he has illuminated the wide margin, he is demonstrating his skill as an illuminator and on the lower part of the letter his skills as a miniature painter. The painting is depicting a woman holding a mirror and looking at her reflection. It not only shows intricate details of the woman’s face, clothing and accessories but also reveals the details on the even smaller reflection of her in the mirror and in reverse. Therefore this is also a “reflection” of the painter’s mastery. The relationship between my grandfather and the document is similar to a portfolio for an artist. This leads me to assume that the targeted audiences/readers could have been future employers or clients of my grandfather. Conceptually, he may have been also presenting the philosophical idea of artist as the tool for “reflection” of  beauty or the notion of art as an agent for “reflection.”

© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2014. This essay and the image above cannot be reproduced, quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole in any format without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.

Image: Illumination and miniature painting by Hosien Zavar, 1934.

[i] Eftekhari, S. M. (2002) Persian Miniature Painting 1921-1971. Zarin va Simin, Tehran, Iran.


Mona Lisa speaks Persian: An Iranian artist’s visual response to an iconic painting

 By: Roshanak Keyghobadi | June 2014
This article focuses on the visual response of a contemporary Iranian artist (Farah Ossouli) to a painting by a Renaissance Italian artist (Leonardo da Vinci), and it discusses how and why Ossouli has re-presented an icon of the western art canon through her creative discourse. Also it investigates Ossouli’s use of visual re-narration as a pedagogical tool for offering alternative social, cultural and political perspectives.
This article is published in the Visual Inquiry: Learning & Teaching Art, Volume 3 Issue 1.


Power of writing

By: Roshanak Keyghobadi | June 1, 2014

In Iranian culture and folklore it is believed that besides being elements of language and narration, letters and words possess hidden meanings and powers. In the 14th century A.D. a Sufi by the name of Fazlallah Abolfazl Astarabadi Ajami (1340–1394), who is known as Fazlallah Hurufi, and his followers who were called Hurufis, claimed that they had discovered “the secret of the words of divinity.”[i] They believed that “God is embodied in words and letters, and his words appear in the existence of human kind. Words of divinity are embodied within Man and he is therefore, the supreme manifestation of God himself.” Therefore, the human body as well as words and letters became symbols that carried scared meanings.

In Islamic tradition writing as a sacred practice also manifests itself in various forms such as Hilya which is a verbal portrait. According to Priscilla Soucek[ii] (2000), Muhammad b. Isa al-Tirmidi in Shama’il al-Mustafauiyah stated: “[A Hilya describes]the Prophet from head to foot and comments on the manner in which he moved, spoke, and behaved. The wealth of concrete detail in this text about his height, hair, eyes, complexion, torso, and limbs would permit a person to imagine the Prophet in his “mind’s eye” or by using what al-Ghazali calls “inner perception.”Hilyes became sacred objects, which were also considered to have protective powers and desirable items to carry in pockets or keep in homes.

Sacred writings were also used on pieces of protective garments worn by children or soldiers under their battlefield armors.These pieces of talismanic clothing covered with symbols and signs or verses of Quran were meant to protect the wearer from harm, evil eye and injuries. As Yasmine Al-Saleh states: “Talismans that contain inscriptions with the names of prophets and religious heroes have the power to protect an individual from hardship and danger by acting as a conduit between the two.”[iii]

Besides its supernatural powers, the visiual power of writing can be seen in exquisite late 10th and 11th century Iranian ceramic wares from Nishapur. Although the writings on the Nishapur plates and bowls related to their function as vessels for serving food yet the words also provided nourishment for the soul and spirit. Examples of such writings are “Eat with appetite” or “The thankful eater is comparable to the one who fasts patiently” and “Blessing, prosperity, goodwill, peace, and happiness.”[iv]

In contemporary time writing still holds its undeniable power and has become a dominant element in many of Iranian artists’ works. Mohammad Ehsaei, Mansoureh Hoseini, Siah Armajani, Hosein Zenderoudi, Parviz Tanavoli, Reza Abedini, Saed Meshki, Maryam Shirinlou, Mahmoud Bakhshi, Iman Raad and Shahrzad Changalvaee are among the artists that have marvelously explored semiotic, aesthetic and magical properties of letters, words and writing.

Images from the top:

  1. Talismanic shirt. Ink on stiffened cotton. Worn in battle contains prayers to Ali as well as Quran verses. Topkapi Palace Museum.
  1. Hilya. Calligraphic Portrait of the Prophet Muhammad. 18th century, Ottoman Empire, Harvard Art Museums.
  1. Nishapur Bowl with Arabic inscription “Blessing, prosperity, goodwill, peace, and happiness”. Iran, Tepe Madrasa. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2014. This essay cannot be quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole in any format without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.


[i] Shahidi, Z. (2009) Dabireh Journal.

[ii] Soucek, P. (2000) The theory and practice of portraiture in the Persian tradition.

[iii] Al-Saleh, Y. (2010) Amulets and Talismans from the Islamic World. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[iv] Bowl with Arabic inscription [Found at Iran, Nishapur, Tepe Madrasa]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011.