Without a Face: Six Iranian artists and six portraits

By: Roshanak Keyghobadi | March 19, 2014

صورت من صورت تو نیست , لیک… 
جمله توام , صورت من چون غطا
صورت و معنی تو شوم چون رسی
…محو شود صورت من در لقا 
مولانا

Art historian Shearer West (2004) describes portraitures as “aesthetic objects,” with “pragmatic and symbolic function.” West also explains that: “self-portraiture by its very nature engages in some way with artistic identity, but how that identity is represented and perceived is heavily influenced by the status and gender of the artist at different periods in history.[i]

Historically in Iranian miniature paintings humans have been depicted as ideal figures and portraitures were two-dimensional with minimal hints of chiaroscuro.  In the Safavid era (1501–1736) Reza Abbasi created a new genre in painting by enlarging and depicting single characters, which were more realistic and with individuality; and Sadeqi Beg has apparently “painted thousands of marvelous portraits.”[ii]

According to Priscilla Soucek (2000): “as the popularity of portraiture grew, there appears to have been a parallel evolution in writing about it that explored the connection between an image’s external appearance and its inner significance…by the late sixteenth century the Safavid poet and painter Sadeqi Beg can claim that the outer form (sura) of his portraits had almost been able to portray a person’s (mani) or inner essence. He also claims that some paintings are so lifelike that all they lack is speech.”[iii]

In the Qajar era (1785–1925) when new European painting techniques and photographic imagery were introduced to Iranian artists they started to explore other ways of visual representation. Aydin Aghdashloo (2005) observes that in the Qajar period Iranian painting gradually distanced itself from the realm of spirituality and imagination and sought to depict the moments of mortal and worldly pleasure and focused more on the subject matter. Aghdashloo believes that: “technically Qajar paintings possess a magical and rich quality, intelligent composition, brilliant colors, innovative ornamentation, and skillful portrait painting (shamayel negari).”[iv]

In contemporary Iranian art practices portraiture has been a popular genre and photographs of Bahman Jalali (Image of the Imagination)[v], Maryam Zandi (The portraits)[vi] and Newsha Tavakiloian (Look)[vii] as well as paintings of Aydin Aghdashloo (Occidental)[viii] and Simin Keramati (Self Portraits)[ix]; and silkscreen prints of Khosrow Hassanzadeh (Prostitutes)[x] are few examples.

In general portraits act as signifiers and they can carry cultural and social codes which represent politics of class, gender and power. One of the most important elements of traditional portraiture is depiction of the facial features, which can provide visual clues for deciphering ones identity or can act as internal or external narratives. But what happens if a portrait lacks facial features or the face is not obvious?

In the six portraits by six contemporary Iranian artists (Reza Abedini, Sadegh Tirafkan, Shadi Ghadirian, Samira Alikhanzadeh, Samira Eskandarfar and Amirali Ghasemi) the “face” is hidden, covered or omitted. Although in all of these artworks it seems that the absence of the face makes the portraits unidentifiable yet they become loaded sites of self-identification and reflection for the artists as well as the viewers.

Reza Abedini’s poster depicts the silhouette figure of himself where the face is covered with a cluster of letters.  When asked about the reason for hiding his face in his posters Abedini explained: “It has been mentioned that I always hide my face. It is true, I never thought about it. It was entirely unconscious. I still don’t like to have a clear image of my face in my posters.” [xi] In this image Abedini has positioned his figure in the center of the format following the composition of the Qajar paintings and photographs. Although his portrait lacks clear facial features, ironically it is the essence of his visual identity and individual expression. Abedini’s portrait is a self-referential image since not only his face is covered with Rezar typeface (that he has designed) but also he has used his silhouette repeatedly to the point that it had turned into his personal mark and logo.[xii]

Sadegh Tirafkan’s self-portrait depicts him holding a sword.  His face and part of his naked body are covered with a Lo-ng, which is a red rectangular cloth that men use in Iranian bathhouses for drying and covering themselves. Tirafkan has explained that the body with the covered face and the sword do not represent aggression but honor and patriotism. He has stated: “sword and Lo-ng are among the most important icons of manhood in Iranian culture. Sword is a defensive weapon rather than an aggressive one and it is used to defend ones dignity and country. In addition to cover a man’s body, Lo-ng is also a symbol of masculinity and humanity to a real man. In ancient Islamic civilization Lo-ng was worn by warriors and it was made of gold and silk threads…I tried to convey the humanistic message embedded in these ancient symbols of manhood in my culture…”[xiii]  By not revealing his face Tirafkan has transformed his self-portrait into an image that can belong to any Iranian man. His body language and gesture of holding a sword suggests heroic pride and empowerment. This can be a figure of a ghahreman or pahlevan (hero or champion) reclaiming his honor without showing his face, as it is customary for a javan mard (righteous man) to perform a good deed or act of kindness without revealing his identity. Tirafkan’s main focus is on masculinity and he is occupied with what he considers symbols of manhood.

In contrast Shadi Ghadiraian’s portrait focuses on womanhood. In her photograph a woman in a chador (veil) with floral patterns has a face that is replaced or covered with a frying pan. Other photographs of this collection portray women wearing various patterned veils with their faces replaced with other cooking or cleaning tools such as a teapot, a colander, a grater, a broom, an iron or a plastic glove.[xiv] Ghadirian explains: “I married my friend and colleague who is a photographer and writer in 2001. As soon as I mentioned marriage my mother started buying things like bowls, plates, iron, etc… and prepared my dowry and sent me to my new home.  Family and friends came to visit and they brought gifts such as broom, ladle, glasses, etc… I thought to myself…what are these things that women have to start their new life with? I stared my married life and used all of those things. I also had new responsibilities. What should we eat? What should we wear? My dual life started from there. For instance I would stir the food and read a magazine at the same time and many more examples such as this. Although I was in better position compared to other women. Because I did photography, traveled and liked my work but I was still responsible for all the housework. I created the series of Like Every Day at that period.[xv]  The objectified woman of Ghadirian’s portrait is a “product” of her culture and society.  Her body is transformed to a decorative figure covered with a wall paper-like chador and her face is transformed to a generic cooking tool. Does any one exist behind the chador and the frying pan? Ghadirian’s woman is confined in multiple ways and addresses the issue of a woman’s social and cultural identity as well as her personal identity.

Similarly the woman in Samira Eskandarfar’s painting is concealed more than once. First she is covered by a mask, which is made to hide her entire face except her eyes and then by her hands hiding her face. Eskandarfar has created many portrait paintings[xvi] yet this portrait is among the very few of her self-portraits with an entirely covered face. She explains: “this was an accidental photo and actually I was pressing my forehead because I had a headache … but I felt that it was an image that I could expand. It is a part of my Mickey Mask series which I created two years ago and is really a self- portrait. In this work the face is not under a mask but hands are covering the face and hiding the feelings. It is related to an inner dialogue and about the human condition.[xvii] Eskandarfar’s portrait delves into more personal yet humanistic and philosophical issues and contemplations. In her portrait Eskandarfar’s face is covered by her own hand and at will. By doing this she creates a barrier between herself and the viewer.  Her fingers with short nails that are painted in black nail polish[xviii] press her forehead, which is wrinkled under pressure. The gesture conveys tension and stress and creates anxiety. This can be the portrait of any woman in contemporary time that is dealing with her own feelings as well as trying to make sense of the world around her.

Samira Alikhanzadeh’s self-portrait is not a portrait of herself. It is painting based on an old photograph of a woman. She is wearing a green blouse pinned with a golden brooch, has long flowing red hair and wearing red nail polish.[xix] Her image and presence evokes feelings of liberation and confidence even though her face is covered under mirrors. Alikhanzadeh explains: “the images I use in my work date to the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s; a period following the banishment of the veil in Iran. By applying mirrors to the surface, I create a marked though incomplete, presence of the viewers within the framework of my composition. I thus make a direct connection between the subjects in the past and the viewers in the present. They in turn become a part of the composition and possible descendants of the subjects, looking into a past, or perhaps like I, satisfying their voyeuristic urge to enter the lives and memories of generations gone by.[xx]  By omitting the original face of the photographed woman, renaming it as a self-portrait and reflecting the viewer’s face in place of the actual face Alikhanzadeh combines and creates multiple spaces of identification and realization[xxi] which travel through time.

Amirali Ghasemi’s photograph focuses on the semiotics of an actual space and social setting. His image depicts a woman in a coffee shop in Tehran. Her face and hands are blanked out except for her lips that are revealing a Cheshire smile. She is wearing  a ring on her left hand finger, holding a cigarette and is wearing a watch on her right hand. Her hair is casually covered with a scarf and her head is resting on her hand. It seems that she is relaxed and looking straight into the camera.  Ghasemi explains: “coffee Shop Ladies is a series of documentary photos I took in Tehran…The faces of the young ladies portrayed in these photos are hidden by a blank space (stickers). By reducing the level of information that each photo can offer to visitors, I wanted to prevent the media from misusing and/or manipulating the images on a mass scale. Nevertheless, the connection with the real characters isn’t lost completely. When Coffee Shop Ladies is presented as part of an interactive program, viewers are free to find out more about the characters by clicking on the blank spaces, then listening to what the ladies have to say. Ghasemi’s photograph makes the viewer aware of the location in which the woman is situated. In a sense the photograph becomes a portrait of the site (coffee shop) rather than a person.[xxii] Ghasemi states:“due to the absence of public places, cafes are a symbol of social freedom in Iran. They are the only places where young people, intellectuals and journalists can interact…” [xxiii] Also in Ghasemi’s photograph the simultaneous presence and absence of the woman in her environment may point to the status of women in contemporary Iran.

Some of the common themes in the six portraits are identity, individuality, representation, negotiation, culture, class, gender and narrative of self and the other. It should be mentioned that each of the six images that were discussed is part of series (posters, paintings, and photographs) and can be studied in relationship to other similar images within its collective to investigate other interpretations and ways of reading. Also there are more artists that have created fascinating portraits with concealed features and faces throughout Iranian art history but at this instant and as a starting point I believe these six portraits make room for imagination and provide ample space for the viewers to interact with them and explore and create their own narratives.

Images from top left to right:

­­

  • Reza Abedini, Persianalite, 2008, exhibition poster, 100×70 cm.
  • Samira Alikhanzadeh, #24 from the Self Portrait series, 2011, acrylic and mirror fragments on printed board, edition of 3 + 1 AP, 140×100 cm.
  • Shadi Ghadirian, #6 from Like Every Day series, 2000, photograph, 50×50 cm.
  • Amirali Ghasemi, from Coffee Shop Ladies series, 2004, photograph, 30×40 cm.
  • Sadegh Tirafkan, from Iranian Man series, 2000, digital photograph, 64×48 cm
  • Samira Eskandarfar, from Mickey Mask series, 2012, painting, 200×150 cm.

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


[i] West, S. (2004). Portraiture. Oxford University Press.

[ii] Basil Gray, Chapter 16(b) in The Cambridge History of Iran (in Seven Volumes), vol. 6, Peter Jackson and Laurence Lockhart, ed., p. 889-900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

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

Click to access Roxburgh_Reading1.pdf

[iv] Aghdashlou, A. (2005) Moqademeh-e bar naqashi Qajari [introduction to Qajar

painting], Herfeh Honarmad, 13. In Persian.Tehran, Iran

[xi] Interview with Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2012.

[xv] Correspondence with Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2014.

[xvii] Correspondence with Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2014.

[xviii] Wearing black nail polish can be associated with being Goth, rebellious, complex and contemporary.

[xix] Wearing red nail polish can be associated with being glamorous, passionate, courageous and bold.

Suspended state of thingness: Mehran Mohajer’s photographs of nothing

By: Roshanak Keyghobadi | January 31, 2014

Where film lets us believe in more things,
photography lets us believe more in one thing.
Christian Metz

With no doubt Mehran Mohajer is an influential figure in the history of Iranian photography. Mohajer (b.1964, Tehran) is a photographer, lexicographer[i] and a lecturer in photography at Tehran University. He has written and translated articles in a wide range of subjects from photography, linguistics, and poetry to modern hermeneutic and analysis of debate. Mohajer’s photographs have been in several solo and group exhibitions in Iran, France, Germany, Greece, USA, and Australia.

In November of 2012 Mohajer had an exhibition of his photographs at Tarahan Azad Gallery in Tehran, titled “Nothingness/Poverty of.” I would like to focus on one photograph that belongs to this collection and in my view is a suitable point of entry to Mohajer’s complex and fascinating visual language.

This photo (above) does not have a title.  At first glance it appears to be an extreme close up of a printed matter such as a page of newspaper. Lines of bold type —one on top of the composition and the other on the bottom— frame the image and a bright ultramarine blue plastic ribbon in the center not only divides the image to right and left sections but also brings the top and bottom edges of the image together. Parallel to the blue line and on the right, the paper has been worn out and torn. The narrow tear has created a linear gap on the surface. To the left of the blue ribbon two noghteh (dots belonging to letters above and below) also create a visual line. The whole composition is subtly gridded.

The boldness of the type on top and bottom of the composition is in extreme contrast with the middle section of the photo where it seems to be offering the viewers’ eyes and minds an open white space to rest and contemplate. But upon keener observation the viewers soon discover that this white space is not truly quite and void of any marks. Reversed lines of type in shape of letters, words and sentences and another grid system made of rules and line that are printed in the back side of the paper show through the surface very lightly. Another interaction between typographic elements in the photo also happens in relationship to the two bold and macro lines of type and the two micro letters that peak through the torn gap on the surface of the newspaper.

Attention to the relationship between type and image, language and photography has been at play in several of Mohajer’s collections of images. For example in The light is off the room is dark (2003) and Image, text and money (2006) Mohajer uses newspapers as source of written ingredient for his images. In Migrant Packages (2004) handwriting, in Undistributed Packages (2005) misprinted papers, in Expired history (2006) stamped expiration dates, and in Flags (2004) printed type on fabrics make up the typographical components of his photographs.

In 2008[ii] Mohajer explained the connection between typography and photography in his works: After studying photography I have studied linguistics and since then I have got a split mind!…Therefore my interest in typography is not immanent and is not directed to its very nature. I am interested in the interplay of language and photography as two semiotic systems and the results, which can merge from this confrontation. Then typography is one of the possible manifestations of language itself, but having its own cultural significations.

But what is the relationship between this image and “nothingness”? What is the “poverty of” this image? In a brief and poem-like statement for the exhibition Mohajer (2012) stated that: Nothingness like desire, awareness and love is directed towards something. I don’t know what is this thing? Is it my eye or my mind? Or the outside world? These photos are contradictions that exist in my mind, on one hand I am passionate about photography and on the other I am fed up with all the sameness and “post” condition…so I returned to image/word and tried to reside in the materiality of the image/word and feel and sense this material.  And I touched and saw this nothingness.

Later when I asked him about the “Nothingness/Poverty of” photos he (2014) added: The nothingness series is a result of investigation in the mechanism of the camera and the mechanism of seeing and touching. In this collection I have tried to demonstrate the poverty of photography to its end. (based on Christian Metz’s logic in “Photography and Fetish”). The camera is so close to things, that in many instances the lens touches them. This closeness causes the thing to become separated from its surrounding and its status of thingness becomes suspended.  What is in front of the camera is not a thing in the usual sense (glass negative, photos, TV image, words in a book, or letters in a newspaper).  This suspension has happened twice; when the thing was selected and also when confronted by the camera. Although the subject matter of photographs are things in the material sense yet from a cultural perspective they belong to the realm of representation and they mediate between the world and us.  In fact our experiences of them are in the domain of seeing and thinking but the camera tries to touch them. Whether it is and effort in vain or successful, you can be the judge of that. 

Nothingness is commonly defined as “empty space” “utter insignificance” and also “the state of being no longer seen, heard, or felt”. Mohajer’s attempt to feel the materiality of what he calls “nothingness” and using the camera as the extension of his body to get extremely close to “things” transforms their state of utter insignificance and makes them worthy of seeing and touching. In the process of pausing and taking time to register all the details of what may be called “nothing” in Mohajer’s photographs, the viewer is pleasantly rewarded with unexpected surprises and sophisticated visual and linguistic enigmas. It maybe that Mohajer is hinting at the “poverty of” human perception and mind rather than things and opening up a vista to see something in everything even if we regard it as “nothing.”

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

Image: Mehran Mohajer, Nothingness/Poverty of series, 2012.

Mehran Mohajer: http://www.tavoosonline.com/SelectedArtist/SpecialEn.aspx?src=133&Page=1


[i] Mohajer holds a BA in photography and MA in General Linguistics.

[ii] From Mehran Mohajer’s e-mail correspondence with Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2008.

Intermediate world of Lailee and Majnoon: The three-dimensional painting of Farshid Mesghali

By: Roshanak Keyghobadi | January 2, 2014

در ره منزل لیلی که خطرهاست درآن
شرط اول قدم ان است که مجنون باشی
حافظ

In the path to reach Lailee there are many dangers
The first step and condition is to be Majnoon
Hafez

Most Iranians know Lailee and Majnoon’s love story through Nezami Ganjavi’s book of poetry titled Khamseh ye Nezami (1192). In this story young Lailee and Qays (Majnoon) get to know each other and fall in love while studying at the same school. Qays asks Lailee to marry him but her father refuses and forces her to marry another man. The grief of separation from Lailee transforms Qays to a mad man (Majnoon) and he wanders in wilderness. Still in love with Qays (Majnoon), Lailee becomes ill and dies of heartbreak. Finally Majnoon finds Lailee’s grave and dies next to her.

In 2006 Farshid Mesghali was commissioned by KIT Museum in Amsterdam to create a sculpture portraying the final scene of Lailee and Majnoon’s story, in which Majnoon visits Lailee’s grave. Mesghali is one of the most eminent artists in Iran with an international reputation and remarkably innovative and influential artworks that remain unmatched specifically in the history of Iranian illustration. Saed Meshki, in an introduction to his interview with Mesghali in 2007[i], recalls his illustrations and states:  “When my generation was spending childhood and adolescent years, Farshid Mesghali imbued the realities of our life with dreams and brought our dreams into reality. The stories of the Little Black Fish, Little Wizard of My Room, Blue Eyed Boy, Arash the Bower, Champion, and Moonlight Secretes were the frontiers of our dreams and realities.”

“Mesghali was born in Isfahan in July 1943. While studying painting at Tehran University, he began his professional career as a graphic designer and illustrator in 1964. After his graduation, he joined The Institute for the Intellectual Development for Children and Young Adults in Tehran, in 1968. During years 1970-1978 he made many of his award winning animated films, posters for films and illustrations for children books for this institute. In 1979 Mesghali moved to Paris and for next four years produced paintings and sculptures, which were presented at Sammy King Gallery in Pairs. In 1986 he moved to Southern California, USA and established his graphic design studio, Desktop Studio in Los Angeles. During 1990-1994 he created a series of digital artworks based on snapshot photos, which were exhibited in a number of galleries and later in L.A. County Museum of Modern Arts. At present time he is creating sculptures and installation projects in his studio in Tehran.[ii]

Mesghali describes a specific series of his sculptures[iii] as “three-dimensional miniatures.” His reference to the traditional Persian miniature painting facilitates multiple ways of understanding his approach and style. To begin with, the term “three-dimensional miniature” is contradictory since Persian miniature is known for its two-dimensionality and the spiritual meaning of its depiction of space. Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1987) in his essay ‘The world of imagination’ and the concept of space in the Persian miniature explains:

“The Persian miniature succeeded in transforming the plane surface of miniature to a canvas depicting grades of reality, and was able to guide man from the horizon of material existence, and also profane and mundane consciousness, to a higher state of being and of consciousness, an intermediate world with its own space, time, movement, colours and forms, where events occur in a real but not necessarily physical manner. This world the Muslim philosophers of Persia have called the “imaginal world’ (mundus imaginalis) or the alam al-khayal [or alam al-mithal][iv]…The space of the Persian miniature is a recapitulation of this space and its forms and colours a replica of this world. The colours, especially the gold and lapis lazuli, are not just subjective whims of the imagination of the artist. Rather, they are the fruit of vision of an ‘objective’ which is that of the imaginal world. The space is depicted in such a way that the eye roves from one plane to another, moving always between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional. But the miniature does not allow the eye to ‘fall’ into the three-dimensional pure and simple.”

Farshid Mesghali’s artwork resides in this visual intermediate world. This is a space that is neither completely two dimensionally painted nor three dimensionally sculpted. It possesses many qualities of a Persian miniature painting with its subject matter, atmosphere, linearity, framing and colors (gold, lapis lazuli, green, and red). On the other hand it is composed of many separate components, forms and solid elements that occupy their own place in the space and also in relationship to one another. This space invites the viewer to experience the artwork from many subjective and objective perspectives and imbues the figures with spirits.

The subtle physicality of figures is similar to forms of the characters in a rudimentary pop-up book which although seem two-dimensional yet they occupy actual space and the eye can roam around them. Mesghali’s Lailee and Majnoon are surrounded by red trees, which create an enclosed and private space for the lovers. Shapes of the trees are similar to drops of tears or blood (matching Majnoon’s feelings). He is standing above Lailee’s lifeless body that is floating slighting above the ground. She is peacefully resting with her hand on her chest with a black face and red headdress.  A bird is perching on the step behind Majnoon, a deer is standing close by and a butterfly is next to Lailee.

Mesghali (2006)[v] explains the process of creating Lailee and Majnoon’s sculpture,  “First I went to my favorite sources, the miniatures. What did they [painters] do with this subject? There aren’t a lot. There are a couple of Majnuns [Majnoons] at the grave of Layla [Lailee] mourning and also Majnun [Majnoon] in the desert sitting with the animals. So I decided to show them together. It is the only time that these two are together. It is the time that Layla [Lailee] is dead and he is at her tomb. The whole time they are separated, the whole story… I didn’t like to do the sad part, but the whole story is sad. Majnun [Majnoon] is suffering the whole time. Still I didn’t make the tomb. I didn’t put Layla [Lailee] in the tomb…She is in the air. I tried to give it a kind of transcendence feeling—she is raised… Just the hands of Majnun [Majnoon] are black and cover his face. He cannot look at the tomb, but he has to be present. It is a difficult situation. I made the steps: green and dark blue and then Layla [Lailee]… It is from life to death. Majnun [Majnoon] is in the middle step, between life and death, the moment and location that they could be together. The bird is a symbol of life and the trees. Later I added the deer, because Majnun [Majnoon] was all the time with the deer or the lions… The butterfly is connected with Layla [Lailee]. It is a kind of homage to Majnun’s [Majnoon’s] life with Layla [Lailee].”

In Mesghali’s sculpture sorrow and peace coexist in this moment and intermediate world, which floats between the physical world (mulk) and the world of imagination (khiyal).

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

Image: Farshid Mesghali, Leili & Majnoon, 2006, Installation at KIT Museum Amsterdam, Height: 200 cm.

Farshid Mesghali: http://www.farshidmesghali.com


[i] Neshan Magazine #13, Spring 2007

[ii] http://www.farshidmesghali.com/bio.htm

[iii] Sculptures such as Farhad, Rostam and Div, River and Horse rider. http://www.farshidmesghali.com

[iv] The multiple states of being can be summarized in five principal states which the Sufis call the five ‘Divine Presences’ (hadarat al-ilahiyat), and which Islamic philosophers from Suhrawardi onward have accepted fully as the ground pattern and ‘plan’ of reality, although they have used other terminology to describe it. These worlds or presences include the physical world (mulk), the intermediate world (malakut), the archangelic world (jabarut), the world of the Devine Names and Qualities (lahut), and the divine Essence or Ipseity itself (dhat), which is sometimes called hahut. The jabrut and the states beyond it are above forms and formal manifestation, whereas the malakut, which corresponds to the world of imagination (alam al-khayal or mithal), possesses form but not matter in ordinary Peripatetic sense. That is why in fact this world is also called the world of ‘hanging forms’ (suwar al-mu’allaqh), … Seyyed Hossein Nasr, ‘The world of imagination’ and the concept of space in the Persian miniature in Islamic Art and Spirituality, 1987, State University of New York Press, Albany.

[v] Farshid Mesghali, Interview 8.5.2006, Tropenmuseum by Sadiah Boonstra & Mohammad Babazadeh

Click to access TXT001667.pdf


Recovering the Past: “Letters” of Shadi Yousefian

By: Roshanak Keyghobadi | November 22, 2013

We lay aside letters never to read them again, and at last destroy them out of discretion, and so disappears the most beautiful, the most immediate breath of life, irrecoverably for ourselves and for others.”
– Goethe

In her recent exhibition at Shirin Gallery NY[i], Shadi Yousefian has created a visual narrative of recovering her personal letters and restoring what was destined to be lost.

Yousefian moved to the United States in 1995 when she was sixteen and until 1997 kept up a constant correspondence through handwritten letters with her family members and close friends. Ten years later she re-examined thick packages of letters that she had affectionately stored and realized that many of the events and details of the letters were not familiar to her anymore. She recalls: “The content of my correspondence were so deeply layered within hundreds of overlapping pages that their temporality remains an unordered flow- I could not remember what happened when, even as my own sense of identity and belonging has, in part, taken form through in the affective exchange.”

Yousefian’s act of recovery started when she reformatted the contents and form of the letters and gave a new life to them. By redacting, cutting, staining, gluing, nailing, and punching holes, she developed a ritualistic process which assigned a new meaning to her accumulated personal documents. To understand this process one must not only view all works on display in relationship to each other and experience the whole gestalt but also search for connections and meanings of each work within itself.

In her first attempts Yousefian cautiously deconstructed the letters by punching, cutting and nailing photocopies and later with more confidence she used the actual letters, still hesitant to interrupt their content, words and sentences. Gradually she detached herself from the content and concentrated on form.  Long strips of paper glued on top of each other become small squares or circles meticulously nailed and positioned in grids.

Yousefian chose to start working on the letters of family and friends first and later she moved on to her own letters[ii]. She explains the emotional and aesthetic divide between her own letters and the other letters:  “Where my friends’ letters were mostly impassioned and joyful, my own reflected the sadness and strain of my early years in the United States. I manifested this melancholic distance by presenting my own letters bare and unstained, where I animated those from friends by staining their pages with the wine and tea we once shared.

It seems that Yousefian has tried to give the emotional voices of the letters a unified and rational form in order to sort out her own feelings and thoughts about them. For example in Untitled (above images), nails hold down fragments of letters that are cut in shape of small squares.  Each squared specimen reveals a portion of a larger written content. In different handwritings, legible or illegible, rushed or controlled, pieces of various emotions are on display and the viewers can verbally and visually connect them together: “Hello…I am writing…I remember…congratulations…night…kiss…call me…joy…1377…try…I hope…life…photo…I laughed…I am sure…gradually…think…help…talk…”

Within this cohesive composition there is a tension between the materials and content. Colors of the papers, untouched or stained, are in natural tones of green, blue, sienna, ivory and white which are tranquil and quite yet they seem to move on the surface of the piece.  Although the organic handwritten lines of letters are interrupted by cutting and pining and then neatly positioned in a mechanical grid, each square preserves its character and holds one or few words, which transfer a message or trigger a feeling.

Rows and rows of nine hundred nails compose a visual sound. One can imagine the loud and repetitive action which can also be meditative and centering when Yousefian was hammering them down. This rhythm also flows in the colors, shapes and patterns that are reminiscent of traditional Iranian tile and brick works in Shiraz and Isfahan.

In her exhibition Shadi Yousefian shares her thoughts and creative process by walking us through her rituals of realization (finding and re-reading the letters), selection (choosing specific parts of the letters), detachment (cutting the letters), manipulation (making something new with the letters), and reflection (re-examining the letters in a new format). She explains: “… ‘Letters,’ effects an intimate, indexical relation between my past and present; and shapes the intangible mesh of lives entwined across a distance into an architecture of lived experiences.”

©Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2013

Above images. Shadi Yousefian, Untitled, 2011, 48 in x 48 in, Mixed Media. (Full image and detail)

Also see http://www.shadiyousefian.com


[i] Shirin Gallery NY http://www.shiringalleryny.com. Shadi Yousefian’s “Letters” will be on view from October 24 to November 28, 2013.

[ii] Yousefian asked her family and friends to send back her letters.

Composing in Space: Tactile Poetry of Farhad Fozouni

By: Roshanak Keyghobadi | September 2013

Farhad Fozouni is a leading figure in the contemporary Iranian graphic design with an international reputation and impressive list of accomplishments and recognitions. (1) Fozouni dares himself to get out of his comfort zone for the sake of creating new aesthetic experiences and meanings for himself as well as his viewer by creating unique poems. His tactile poetry not only reveals his continuous experimentation and discovery of new forms of artistic expression but also displays his desire to fully engage his viewers by getting them to touch and feel his words/images…

Read more here at Design Observer:
http://observatory.designobserver.com/feature/composing-in-space-tactile-poetry-of-farhad-fozouni/38096/

Conversations with the environment: Fiber arts of Tara Goudarzi and Atefeh Khas

By: Roshanak Keyghobadi | August 2013

Tara Goudarzi and Atefeh Khas are not guerilla artists1or yarn bombers2 yet they make their artistic statements by temporarily transforming natural or architectural environments with their large scale knitted and crocheted flower and roof installations which initiate a fascinating dialogue between themselves, their artworks, their viewers and the environment.

A Flower for Nature3  and Another Roof4 are two ongoing collaborative woven projects by Tara and Atefeh.  Tara usually weaves flowers with a hollow circle in the middle that is surrounded by larger loops and Atefeh weaves geometrical flowers. Their materials are inexpensive or recycled yarns, sometime sheep and goat wool threads that have been spun by women of Lorestan region in Iran and the size of their flowers vary and can be up to five meters. Tara’s and Atefeh’s flowers and roofs have covered parts of natural environments such as seashores, forests, salt lakes, cliffs or on other occasions have acted as a roof in natural or architectural spaces. Their soft and flexible woven creations are in harmony with the coarse surface of rocks, rough barks of the trees and solid walls of buildings.

Atefeh views their artistic process as a transformative experience and explains: “we go through a transformation which unintentionally is transferred to our viewers. The questions that we have raised for ourselves become the questions of our viewers such as why weaving? Why femininity? Why nature? Why Low Art?”  Low Art is what they call their woven works that is in opposition to the “High Art” which is an elitist term based on cultural, gender and class biases. In fact Tara and Atefeh question the system of positioning the artworks produced by women on the lower scale of artistic value. Since in many cultures weaving is usually categorized as a form of handicraft that is specifically produced by women and lacking aesthetic value5 Tara and Atefeh deliberately have chosen knitting and crocheting to bring forth the marginality of these artistic practices and situate them among other important contemporary Iranian artworks. Atefeh explains: “when viewers find out that we call our works Low Art they ask should they truly be called Low Art? In fact we want to challenge our viewers.”

Tara and Atefeh both studied painting at the Shahed University in Tehran and also had the opportunity to study contemporary art under renowned Iranian environmental artist Ahmad Nadalian6 for three years. In addition to making environmental art they create photographs and performance art pieces. Atefeh describes the nature of their cooperation: “our collaboration is very pleasurable. We welcome each other’s suggestions and enjoy the whole process of creating each piece together. It is easy to decide about the locations and the details.” Tara adds: “we choose specific sites for our installation to create a feminine space in those environments and we offer a gift to nature in order to emphasize the location.”

Tara and Atefeh are among those environmental artists who honor the nature and their process of art making is a way of contemplating, recognizing and gifting. They get engaged with the natural environment by temporarily transforming the appearance of each space7 and by offering a flower or a roof start a conversation between themselves, the environment and their viewers. They not only facilitate a new way of looking at each space of their art installations but also influence the meaning and context of each location. For example when they spread a massive crocheted pink and purple flower over the Salt Lake in Orumieh, Iran (2009) the vast and silent site becomes intimate and vibrant. All eyes focus on the central circle of the installation and it is as if they had spread a vast carpet in nature’s living room inviting the viewers to join their exchange with nature. In another installation Tara and Atefeh created a crocheted roof suspended between the trees in Isfahan, Iran (2008). Each opening in the knitted roof deconstructs the vast blue sky above as well as the surrounding trees offering the viewer many framed images. It creates a shelter, a place to stop, a chance to look at every detail of branches, leafs, sky, white clouds and to discover myriad of forms, colors, compositions and textures.

The ritual of giving flowers to nature is the way that Tara and Atefeh pay their respect and reveal their love and appreciation for environment. Their flowers become mandalas which represent their spiritual and feminine connection to specific sites. Their roofs not only represent shelters and protective shields but also are tools for visual investigation and transformation of ordinary to extraordinary.

Tara and Atefeh have taken many trips together and they are often seen weaving bracelets which they offer to friends that they make along the way. Tara’s and Atefeh’s bracelets like their flowers are not only gifts but a visual symbol for beginning a connection and dialogue.

© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2013.

Note:
  • All the artists’ quotations are from my online interview with Goudarzi and Khas in 2013.
Images:
  • (Top) Tara Goudarzi and Atefeh Khas, A Flower for Nature (2009), Salt Lake, Orumieh, Iran.  Photo by Shahrnaz Zarkesh.
  • (Bottom) Tara Goudarzi and Atefeh Khas, Another Roof (2008), Isfahan, Iran. Photo by Atefeh Khas.

Links:


1. Guerilla artists create and leave their artworks in public spaces with no authorization in
order to make political, social and cultural statements and display their views for the community.

2. Yarn bombers create knitted or crocheted yarn displays and installations in urban public spaces. Their works are not permanent and also called guerilla knitting or urban knitting with the purpose of changing the mundane city environments.

3. Goudarzi and Khas have installed  their projects titled A Flower for Nature in Iran, in different forms and locations such as in Masouleh (2011), in Hormuz Island (2011, 2010) and in Oroumieh’s Salt Lake (2009).

4. Goudarzi and Khas have installed their projects titled Another Roof in Iran, in different forms and locations such as in Masouleh (2011), Hormuz Island (2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011), in Shushtar (2010), in Polour (2009), in Esfahan (2008) and in Nowshahr (2008).

5. In Iranian culture weaving is usually associated with women and Iranian weaving is synonymous with carpet weaving. The oldest known surviving carpet in the world is Pazyryk carpet that was made in Iran in 5th century BC.

6. Ahmad Nadalian (b. 1963) is an environmental artist, art critic, and university professor.  He studied painting at Tehran University, Iran and was awarded a Ph.D. degree from University of Central England in 1995. His works vary from carvings and installations to video art and performances. You can see his art on: http://www.riverart.net, http://www.nadalian.com and http://www.wwwebart.com.

7. Goudarzi and Khas never leave any materials behind and are respectful of each site.

Sadegh Barirani: Designer of the “moment”

By: Roshanak Keyghobadi | June 1, 2013

آن خطاط سه گونه خط نوشتی ،
یکی او خواندی لاغیر ،
یکی را هم او خواندی هم غیر ،
یکی نه او خواندی نه غیر او ،
آن خط سوم منم .
شمس تبریزی

That calligrapher writes in three ways,
One, only he can read it and no other,
Another, he can read it and others,
The other, neither he nor others can read it,
I am that third way.[1]
Shams Tabrizi

For over forty years Sadegh Barirani has allowed “the letters find their way and form” on paper. Using his self-made paint brush and poetry of Rumi[2] Barirani has been visually capturing unique moments of meditation and excitement. Since his brush does not hold the paint for long and he has to write/paint fast, after a while his marks become illegible, abstract and independent. The result of this investigation is Barirani’s dynamic and rhythmic style of mark making which he describes as “a recorded cardiogram reflected on paper” that “registers his internal passion.”

Barirani is one of the pioneers of Iranian graphic design and well known for his distinctive poster designs. In1967 Barirani was commissioned by the newly established Roudaki Hall opera house in Tehran to design posters for their various performances as well as the Tehran Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra.  He was given total artistic freedom and also full access to the Graphic Arts Center’s workshop where he could create his silkscreen posters. Initially inspired by Polish posters, he created posters for ballets, folk dances, music recitals and operas and gradually incorporated his own expressionistic personal style as well as his signature black swift marks in his designs.

Sadegh Barirani was born on March 23, 1923 in Bandar Anzali, Gilan, Northern Province of Iran. He completed his elementary and high school in Bandar Anzali and Rasht and attended School of Fine Arts at Tehran University from 1948 to 1952[3]. In 1953 he attended classes on film and photography held by the audio-visual department of Syracuse University in Tehran and five years later he studied at Indiana University and received his M.S. in Audio Visual education. Upon his return to Iran he became the head of the graphic arts department at the Ministry of Culture and Arts in Tehran. In 1973, Milton Glazer invited him to the International Design Conference in Aspen Colorado as a distinguished modern international graphic designer and in the same year he traveled to Paris and worked and lived at the Cité Internationale des Arts.

After graduating from the university Barirani became interested in learning  more about “Western” contemporary and Avant-garde art movements[4] and traveled throughout Europe and visited museums and galleries in London, Paris and Munich.  But he soon turned to study of “Eastern” art and philosophy. He found inspiration in Sialk and Susa pottery, Persepolis reliefs, Persian miniatures, carpets and tiles and became fascinated with their meticulousness, simplicity, order and specifically the contour drawings.

Back in 1942 Barirani learned different techniques of painting in watercolor and oil painting under Amir Houshang Zarrin Kelk (Darvish) who was a student of Kamal-al Molk and also became familiar with mystical philosophy. In his interview with Saed Meshki (2006) Barirani explains

Iranian mystics are two groups. One group suppresses their excitements and has no movement …but the other believe that when the fervor and passion is boiling from the inside it has to be transferred to their bodies too; as you can see in the mystical dance of Rumi and also the dervishes of Kurdistan. Rumi also recited his poems in a state of passion and motion. The Iranian painters and calligraphers belong to the first group. The second group also engaged their bodies in their reciting and dance and movement. One day I thought of taking advantage of this motion and movement and express what we call “moment” and one feels onto paper and make it still.

One of the characteristics of Persian calligraphy is concentration and total mind/eye/hand coordination. A calligrapher is considers to be a mere instrument that is transferring the beauty of the divine into the paper and a perfect calligraphic piece is supposed to be produced painstakingly and with utter control. Persian calligraphy is not much of a kinesthetic art (as Barirani also hints) like Chinese calligraphy is. Dawn Delbanco[5] (2008) explains that in Chinese calligraphy: 

The brush becomes an extension of the writer’s arm, indeed, his entire body. But the physical gestures produced by the wielding of the brush reveal much more than physical motion; they reveal much of the writer himself-his impulsiveness, restraint, elegance, rebelliousness. Abstract as it appears, calligraphy more readily conveys emotion and something of the individual artist…

Barirani has been exploring traditional Iranian calligraphy as a medium and been inspired by two scripts of Nastaliq[6] and Shekateh-ye Nasataliq[7] that he uses in his Siyah Mashq (Black Exercise) and Siyah Neveshtan (Writing in Black). In Barirani’s writings/paintings one can easily notice his individual style, passion and spirituality. Like a Zen calligrapher Barirani creates swift marks that capture a moment in time which hold great power. This is the power of living at present and listening to the inner self which results in evolving at every moment. Barirani’s brush strokes possess such energy and sophistication that force the viewer pay attention to their movements, details, tonalities, variety and authority. This is an authority that is embedded in Barirani’s mind, body and brush.

© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2013

Image: Poster by Sadegh Barirani, Graphic Art-The Movement toward Modernism, Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, October 22, 1977.

To see more of Sadegh Barirani’s art go to: http://www.qoqnoos.com/body/graphic/sadegh%20barirani/master.htm

[1] Translated by Roshanak Keyghobadi.

[2] Rumi was a 13th century Iranian poet and Sufi mystic. Shams Tabrizi was a devotee and close friend of Rumi.

[3] Sohrab Sepehri (poet and painter, b. 1928-1980) and Manouchehr Sheibani (poet and painter, b.1924-1991) were among Barirani’s classmates at Tehran University.

[4] In 1950 Barirani joined the Khorous Janghi (Fighting Rooster) an Iranian Avant-garde art group that was trying to break away from the conservative traditional art.

[5] Delbanco, Dawn. “Chinese Calligraphy”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/chcl/hd_chcl.htm (originally published April 2008, last revised November 2008)

[6] Nastaliq script is the principal style in Persian calligraphy.

[7] Shekateh-ye Nasataliq script is broken version of Nastaliq.

 

Mohammad Ehsaei and Hafez: Painting and poetry in dialogue

By Roshanak Keyghobadi | May 7, 2013

حریم عشق را درگه بسی بالاتر از عقلست
کسی ان استان بوسد که جان در آستین دارد
حافظ

The realm of love is in higher state than reason
The one who kisses the threshold of it is holding life in sleeve [1]

Hafez

Above are the third and fourth lines of a poem by Hafez[2], which is frequently numbered 121 in his anthology. According to Mohammad Estelami (2009)[3], the poem in its entirety discusses the value of love (in this case not mystical love) and its importance over materialistic wealth. The person who is not preoccupied with earthly possessions has a peace of mind, and indeed the one who has true love in his heart is the wealthiest. This is a state which neither logic nor reason can explain. In these particular two lines Hafez states that the realm of love stands higher than the realm of reason. One who becomes intimate with the realm of love (to the point of kissing it) has no fear of death. Mohammad Ehsaei[4]  has chosen these lines in particular to create his 1993 naqqashi khatt (painting calligraphy) titled Harim-e Eshq (Realm of Love).

The words of the poem are arranged in black and gold script resting on a red and gold background. Three Alefs and most Noqtehs (dots) are rendered in gold as is the center of the composition, where letters and words have created an enclosed golden space (realm). Just as the poem deals with the notions of happiness, wealth, reason, love, and death, and how concrete or relative their meanings are the connotation and symbolism of the colors fluctuate according to different interpretations. Red can be a symbol for love as well as death; black for mourning or reason; gold for wealth and earthly possessions or heavenly assets. Like most of Ehsaei’s naqqashi khatt works, it is difficult to read the poem and what is written in its entirety, since not only are the words out of order but also they are separated from their formal and linear format and context and rearranged in various spaces and locations throughout the composition. For instance, words may gravitate toward the central golden realm or burst out of it, yet the only word which immediately stands out and is the easiest to read is eshq (love), written in black with golden dots. As masters of the art of layering, both Hafez (verbally) and Ehsaei (visually) not only are in dialogue with each other but also set up the reader/viewer for a highly complex and sophisticated aesthetic quest. This is a pursuit for deciphering language, poetry, colors, forms and signs.

© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2013


[1] Translated by Roshanak Keyghobadi.

[2] Khawajeh Shamsu Din Mohammad Hafez-e Shirazi was a 14th century Iranian poet.

[3] Estelami M. (Ed.) (2005). Dars-e Hafez: naghd va sharh-e ghazal ha-ye Hafez [Hafez lesson: Interpretation and description of ghazal’s of Hafez] In Persian. Tehran: Sokhan Publisher.

[4] Mohammad Ehasei is a contemporary Iranian master calligrapher and painter.

*Image by Mohammad Ehsaei, 1993, Harim-e Eshq (Realm of Love), Oil on canvas, 122×90 cm

 

Facing the present: Two Iranian artists interpret the postmodern age

By Roshanak Keyghobadi | October 5, 2001

Farah Ossouli is a painter and Hadi Farahani is a caricaturist. Although their style, technique and medium of their choice are different from one another, they are tied together by their use of traditional miniature painting iconography and introduction of the contemporary issues and spaces in their frame of work.

Ossouli studied traditional miniature painting under Mahmoud Farshchian and her knowledge and mastery of traditional miniature painting techniques and color combinations are obvious in her paintings. What makes her work differ from traditional miniature paintings is how she creates and divides the format and visual spaces in a modernist style. Her style of positioning the elements and figures in relationship to created spaces, and the contrast between shapes, colors and textures produces the feeling of simultaneous presence of past and present, old and new in her work. She creates constant interaction between sharp and soft forms, dark and bright colors, textured and flat surfaces, decorative and minimalist compositions in her paintings.

Ossouli selects formats that mostly consist of stripes of rectangular spaces crowded with female or male figures, trees, birds and flowers that are in contrast to stripes or planes of empty spaces next to them. In this style, Ossouli puts congested against void and enclosed against open. She invites you inside and yet shows you the outside. The dark and muddy colors are sitting beside brilliant and radiant colors in her paintings as if she is drawing the attention of the viewer to life’s dual concepts.

Titles such as, Nest and Flight, Meeting Night, Beginning and End, Khosrow and Shirin, Yousef and Zolaykha indicates that Ossouli’s subject matters are mostly poetic or based on famous stories like Shahnameh-ye Ferdowsi, Divan-e Hafiz, and other classic writings . Her compositions and choice of colors create calm and quite. It is as if Ossouli’s miniature beings had accepted their place in this contrasting environment and are in harmony with their painted faith, although their stripes of rectangular lives are getting narrower and tighter and Ossouli is covering their surrounding with more void and dark planes.

Are Ossouli’s miniature people representing the past or the present? Why Ossouli selects this kind of format for her paintings? Are her contrasting spaces squeezing the colorful miniature beings and narrowing their windows of existence or broadening their landscape of vision? Are these people peeking through Ossuli’s windows to see and explore environment of present or are they inviting us into their world of past?

The visual binary codes of representation are working full force in Farahani’s pen and ink caricatures drawings where ornamental miniature men and women are in contrast with their erased traditional ornamental environment, space and existence. Farahani’s characters are not situated in traditional miniature scenes, participating in majestic garden parties or hunting scene or looking from balconies in to their lover’s eyes. The past lovers are involved in present daily chores of the real life and present time.

Outside the story books, the princess/lover/wife is washing her royal wash and hanging it from the cloth line or knitting clothes for her unborn child while the prince/lover/husband figure is enjoying his nap or smoking his water pipe high up in the veranda. Aside from his male and female figures and their humorous relationships to a totally modern life, Farahani depicts his ornamental miniature man in contrast to the visually minimal contemporary man.

Unlike Ossouli’s isolated and contained person, Hadi Farahani’s miniature person is busy and involved in present and is trying to blend in, understand, imitate, fight, liberate, escape, survive or recover from this world and its minimal mostly dominant and cruel people. The title of Farahani’s book of caricatures is Zir-O-Zebar (bottom & top or high & low in Persian) and his caricatures clearly represent the icons of the past or symbols that are associated with traditional Eastern person, which is a delicate miniature drawing, situated lower than the solid and powerful icons and symbols of the modern, contemporary Western beings who are higher up in status and power structure.

Unlike Ossouli’s paintings that encourages calm and quite, Farahani’s dark humor is reflected in his powerful caricatures that are packed with social, political and artistic statements and questions. By creating opposing situations and conditions in his drawings, he asks: how do one deals with technology, colonialization, westernization, contemporary art issues, mental isolation and depression, pollution, poverty, alienation and annihilation? Is Farahani depicting defeat or triumph? How is his miniature person dealing with his/her present situation? Is modern life with its highs and lows offering any hope and encouragement?

Ossouli and Farahani’s works are similar in the way they are responding to the Postmodern era and interpreting the past in relationship to present and how they blend together the elements of old and new in their art. Both artists are facing the present and the contemporary time, and portraying how humankind deals with the Postmodern life, age of anxiety and illusion, fragmentation and alienation. But what makes their artwork different is that Ossouli is making peace with present where Farahani is questioning it.

© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2001.

*This review was first published on http://www.Iranian.com in 2001. Since then both artists have created remarkable works which you can view at http://www.farahossouli.com and http://www.hadifarahani.com.
Images: (Left) Painting by Farah Ossouli, (Right) Caricature by Hadi Farahani.

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″
http://www.newshatavakolian.com

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