What is Contemporary Art?

Roshanak Keyghobadi | March 2015

Is the nature of artistic and aesthetic realization and interpretation of art by the artist and the viewer connected to the time of the artwork’s creation? Is the only criterion for art to be contemporary is being produced at the present time or is contemporaneity a more complex aesthetic state?

Art historian, Terry Smith (2006) in his essay “Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity”[i] explains that, “the term contemporary calibrates a number of distinct but related ways of being in or with time, even of being in and out of time at the same time.” The temporal and spatial duality of state and location of contemporaneity testifies to its fluid nature. The common definition of contemporary is, “happening, existing, living, or coming into being during the same period of time and marked by characteristics of the present period.” And contemporaneity is “the quality or state of being contemporaneous or contemporary.”[ii] This definition suggests a lively, dynamic and vibrant state of becoming and happening.

Smith (2006) also adds, “Contemporaneity consists precisely in the constant experience of radical disjunctures of perception, mismatching ways of seeing and valuing the same world, in the actual coincidence of asynchronous temporalities, in the jostling contingency of various cultural and social multiplicities, all thrown together in ways that highlight the fast-growing inequalities within and between them. He explains that the “acts of artists and the organizations that sustain them” produce the answer to what constitutes contemporary art.”

Another definition suggests that “Contemporary art is the art of today, produced by artists who are living in the twenty-first century. Contemporary art provides an opportunity to reflect on contemporary society and the issues relevant to ourselves, and the world around us. Contemporary artists work in a globally influenced, culturally diverse, and technologically advancing world. Their art is a dynamic combination of materials, methods, concepts, and subjects that challenge traditional boundaries and defy easy definition. Diverse and eclectic, contemporary art as a whole is distinguished by the very lack of a uniform, organizing principle, ideology, or ‘ism.’ Contemporary art is part of a cultural dialogue that concerns larger contextual frameworks such as personal and cultural identity, family, community, and nationality.“[iii]

In regard to contemporary Iranian art, art historian Hamid Keshmirshekan (2011) in his essay “Contemporary or Specific: The Dichotomous Desires in the Art of Early Twenty-First Century Iran” explains, “contemporary Iranian art, which on the one hand draws heavily on the Euro- American paradigm and, on the other, has selectively adapted existing art forms, is structurally heterogeneous. In the process of this adaptation, like Iranian culture as a whole, it has incorporated elements of Euro-American contemporary art while seeking to create the phenomenon of a localized contemporaneity. This alternative context of contemporaneity is obviously a response to canonical discourses and ideally, in turn, inscribes new discursive formations in the contemporary era. It was most probably by the 1990s that Iranian art witnessed a gradual change, departing from the frame of the newly emerging, post- revolutionary artistic Modernism, and incorporating new viewpoints of existing actualities. As with contemporaneity, the impetus for this came, in part, from the international arena and also from circumstances within, where the need to register reality in a transitional era in all its shifting forms became compelling.” [iv]

[i] Smith, T. (2006) Contemporary art and contemporaneity. Critical Inquiry, 32. Retrieved from: http://arts.rpi.edu/century/eao11/contemporary-terrysmith.pdf

[ii] Merriam-Webster.com

[iii] New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.

[iv] Keshmirshekan, H. (2011). Contemporary or specific: the dichotomous desires in the art of early twenty-first century Iran. Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication, 4, (1), pp. 44-71.

Artwork by Nazgol Ansarnia

© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2015. This essay cannot be reproduced, quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole in any format without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.

What is Typography?

Roshanak Keyghobadi | January 2015

Typography has been identified in a number of ways and its definition has gone through changes throughout the history of design based on aesthetic, cultural, social and technological ideas and transformations.

Friedrich Friedl, Nicolaus Ott and Bernard Stein (1998) in their book Typography: An Encyclopedia of Type Design and Techniques Throughout History state: “the 20th century brought change to all areas of art and culture. The legacy of past centuries was consciously forgotten to make way for the new. Art saw the transformation from representational to abstract painting. Unfamiliar images were greeted with vehement enthusiasm and rejection alike before they were accepted as an expression of a society under radical change. This in turn changed ideas of harmony, form and proportion. Typography, which had changed little since Gutenberg and then only in conformity with a rigid pattern of rules, was also embraced by these new concepts. In the past it had been a steady medium which served reading and writing; now suddenly began to move.”(p. 8)

Rob Carter, Ben Day and Philip Meggs (2002) in Typographic Design: Form and Communication also highlight the changes in the function and definition of typography since the early twentieth century. They explain: “the typographic message is verbal, visual, and vocal. While typography is read and interpreted verbally, it may also be viewed and interpreted visually, heard and interpreted audibly. It is a dynamic communication medium. In this sense, early twentieth- century typography becomes a revolutionary form of communication, bringing new expressive power to written word.” (p. 74)

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1923) in his essay titled “The New Typography” explains: “epigraphy is a tool of communication. It must be communication in its most intense form. The emphasis must be on absolute clarity since this distinguishes the character of our own writing from that of ancient pictographic forms” . In 1971 designer Herbert Bayer describes typography as “a service art, not a fine art, however pure and elemental the discipline may be.”

Later Philip Meggs (1992) clarifies that, traditionally, the word typography meant the technical process of printing writing through the use of metal types with raised letterforms that could be linked and printed in a process not unlike a rubber stamp. In our electronic age, typography encompasses the transmission and communications of alphabetical and numerical information through a variety of means, including printing, video transmission, computer display, and electric signs.  What Meggs is describing is the evolving nature of typography and its essence and meaning. In a sense typography is no longer about the metal type or typeset matter but it is as James Craig and William Bevington (1999) explain, “the art of designing with type.”

Also, Kees Broos (1982) in the essay “From De Stijl to New Typography” proposes: “let us define the word “typography” here as the deliberate use of letters, in the broadest sense of the word. The user can be printer, typographer, architect, poet or painter. The materials are not restricted to those of the type case or typesetting machine, but encompass every suitable medium from linoleum to electronic news marquees and from a tile tableau to television. It is important that the user be aware of the shape and function of each letter and consequently of the expressive potential in the design and arrangement of letters and text opened up to the reader and the viewer.”

The definition of typography and the space that it creates for layers of meaning and interpretations are continually expanding and shifting. As Rick Poynor (1991) in his essay “Type and Deconstruction in the Digital Era” explains: “contemporary typographic works embody multiple readings, encourage readers’ participation and are becoming complex.” Poynor states: “type design in the digital era is quirky, personal and unreservedly subjective. The authoritarian voices of Modernist typography, which seem to permit only a single authorized reading, are rejected as too corporate, inflexible and limiting, as though – it may be forlorn hope – typographic diversity itself might somehow re-enfranchise its readers…The aim is to promote multiple rather than fixed readings, to provoke the reader into becoming an active participant in the construction of message. Later Modernist typography sought to reduce complexity and to clarify content, but the new typographers relish ambiguity, preferring the provisional utterance, alternative take, and delayed punchline to finely honed phrase.”

Jessica Helfand (1995) in her essay “Electronic Typography” draws the attention to the performative and dramatic nature of contemporary typography and asks: “What happens when written words can speak? When they can move? When they can be imbued with sound and tone and nuance and decibel and harmony and voice? As designers probing the creative parameters of this new technology, our goal may be less to digitize than dramatize.”

Another factor that influences the evolving definition of typography is who is defining it and in what cultural context it is defined. For example the complexity and openness of the definition of typography sometimes creates anxiety and unease among artists and designers.

Currently in the Iranian design scene one of the heated topics of conversation and criticism is typography and its definition. Although typographic activities such as siyah mashq (even if they are not recognized as typography) have long been practiced in Iran, yet typography is confronted as a new phenomenon that is overpowering every aspect of the graphic design. In 2006 Ebrahim Haghighi (2006) in his essay titled “Poster Mania” puts forward several questions about “the emergence of a new form of art called typography.” He states: “it is not clear whether it is painting or sculpture, graphic design or photography, cinema or video art. It may encompass all or may be independent and self sufficient with its own set of principles and techniques. Does every work produced by calligraphy, penmanship or fonts classify as typography? How can we distinguish that it is not a work of graphic design or painting? By which rule or principle has this new labeling been defined? ”

Other Iranian designers have expressed their understanding and definition of typography as well. Morteza Momayez (2004) explained: “typography is not merely the design of the letters. In today’s world there are a number of different definitions for typography. We cannot even say that typography is design with script or letters, because in some instances in the hands of a typographer or type designer or a layout artist, it creates an atmosphere that visualizes the written concepts.”

Mohammad Ehsaei (2010) separates writing and calligraphy from typography and explains: “when we say typography, at once typing letters come to mind. You are typing the letters that have been pre-designed for specific needs and goals. Delicate letters are designs for delicate concepts and rough letters for bolder purposes…Therefore we have typography, calligraphy and writing. Each has a different function, form and aesthetics. Nowadays all of these are presented in form of what is called a font and the common mistake is to call all of them typography. Calligraphy can never become a font. A calligrapher sits down and creates a calligraphic work and if a nastaliq font is designed it is not calligraphy anymore. When a letter or a word is designed for a logo and is not going to be used for other typesetting purposes, it is not called typography. For example when you look at Herb Lubalin’s Mother and Child logo it is not typography it is graphic design…Calligraphy is the mastery and skill that is embedded in calligrapher’s hands and anything that the calligrapher creates on the paper is personal and would be for the first and last time; just like writing.”

In his essay titled “What is typography?” Saed Meshki (2004) states: “the most important, and at the same time, the most challenging function of typography is to create by letters and words an ambiance capable of conveying to the viewer something of the essential character of the subject, and also something of the graphic designer’s feelings about the subject and his or her grasp of it. Letters and characters are a set of signs that by virtue of their familiarity impart to the viewer something more than just an exercise in pure form even if they are not legible in a typographic composition. Because of their characteristic shapes, Persian letters and words are imbued with energy of their own. It is by the correct exploitation of this latent energy of Persian letters and by discovering the aesthetic criterions that apply to them that Persian typography is distinguished from Western typography.”

Reza Abedini (2010) defines typography as: “any activity by a graphic designer to give letters and writing a visual meaning beyond information…There is a major problem with trying to define typography. When you ask what is the definition of typography it is like asking what is the definition of computer, and in addition you want to know what is Iranian typography? There is no such thing. If we want to talk about computers, Iranians have no role in its creation. They may like to translate its name to Persian and call it Pardazeshgar to feel better but this does not change anything about the nature and function of the computer. Well, it is the same story with typography. Basically typographic activities are meaningful in Western visual art specifically in Western graphic design…What I mean is if I want to be seriously working on Persian calligraphy and Persian letters it is not necessarily called typography anymore. Using computer as an example again, I should create a device, which can solve my [an Iranian person] problem, because computer has solved the problem of a Western person.”

Masoud Nejabati (2004) stated: “in my view typography is giving sensitivity to letters. If we agree that every graphic design work is made of two basic elements of type and image, the quality and validity of what is written is based on typography. Which means that type has been changed from its usual form. If letters are endowed with sensitivity then a typographic work is created either in concrete form or abstract form.”

Homa Delvaray (2010) states that: “typography has a wide definition and I can not fit it in one sentence, but what comes to my mind is when we consider specific qualities of letters in a work and emphasize that aspect it becomes typography. It is in reality a graphic design style, which people choose to use and it can be objective or subjective. If they look at typography objectively, they transfer the meaning by objective means and if they chose to use is subjectively and in abstract context, they use letters as codes. It all depends on the designer’s taste…When we concentrate on each letter and position them in a space in order to create a composition, it becomes a typographic work.”

In conclusion, I believe that the most contemporary and relevant description of typography is what design critic and educator Ellen Lupton has put forward which is “the art of designing letterforms and arranging them in space and time.” Lupton (2000) explains: ” Typography is going under water as designers submerge themselves in the textures and transitions that bond letter, word, and surface. As rigid formats become open and pliant, the architectural hardware of typographic systems is melting down.”

Artworks by: Shahrzad Changalvaee, Reza Abedini, Farhad Fozouni, Homa Delvaray, Iman Raad and Mohammad Ehsaei.

© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2015. This essay cannot be reproduced, quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole in any format without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.

 

 

 

 

 

Human

Roshanak Keyghobadi | August 2014

I am tired of monstrosities and seeking humanity…
Mawlānā Jalāl-ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī

Artists:
Omid Shayan
Hani Najm
Morvarid Ghasemi
Maryam Rahmani
Pariya Karami

What does it mean to be a human?  What is the situation of humans in the contemporary world? Through close observation and reflection the five artists in this group have been seeking to discover their answers to these questions and also suggest new spaces for contemplation on these topics.

The floating world of Shayan is a parallel universe where people seek to break away from their ordinary lives and playfully float in self-made imaginary spaces. In contrast in Najm’s visual world people are situated in real spaces and every person is an isolated individual among the crowd who is trapped in a routine behavior and in limbo.

Ghasemi’s mission is to be fully visible and conquer the world by multiplying images of herself and also overcome her sense of loneliness in this world. Whereas Rahmani’s women seem to be going through a metamorphosis and transformation from fully aware and dynamic beings to confused and fading figures whose intelligence and spirit has been stolen from them.  Karami’s visual world is a world of symbolic environments and objects that heavily hint to the existence of the humans who once occupied them.

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

انسان

 ‫کز دیو و دد ملولم و انسانم ارزوست‬…‫
مولانا جلال الدین محمد رومی‬

:هنرمندان
‬‫امید شایان
‬‫هانی نجم
‬‫مروارید قاسمی
‬‫مریم رحمانی
‬‫پریا کرمی

‬ ‫انسان بودن به چه معنیست؟ وضعیت انسانها در جهان معاصر چیست؟ پنج هنرمند این گروه از طریق مشاهده دقیق وبازنگهی در صددجستجو و یافتن جواب خود به این پرسشها هستند و همینطورفضاهای جدیدی برای تعمق بر این مقوله پیشنهاد میکنند.‬

 ‫دنیای شناور شایان یک جهان موازیست که در ان انسانها خود را از زندگی معمولی رها کرده وبازیگوشانه در فضاهای خیالی ساخته خود غوطه ورند. بر عکس دردنیای تصویری نجم انسانها در فضاهای واقعی قرار گرفته اند و هر کس فردی مجزا در میان جمع است که اسیر رفتارهای روزمره و دربرزخ است.‬

 ‫ماموریت قاسمی این است که با تکثیرتصویر خود کاملا دیده شود ودنیا را فتح کند و همینطور بر تنهایی خود غلبه کند. درحالی که به نظر میرسد زنان رحمانی دچار دگردیسی و دگرگونی هستد و از موجوداتی هوشیار و پویا به فیگورهای محو شده وسرگردانی تغییر یافته اند که ذکاوت و سرزندگی شان از انهاربوده شده. دنیای تصویری کرمی دنیای فضاهاواشیای نمادی است که شدیدا اشاره به وجود انسانهایی دارد که زمانی انها رااشغال کرده بوده اند.‬

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Root

By: Roshanak Keyghobadi | August, 2014

 “Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.”
Joseph Campbell

Artists:
Parichehr Tayebi
Nikzad Arabshahi
Hamed Behroozkar
5Baz  (Open Five)
Touraj Saberivand

The creation myths are imaginative answers to basic question of human existence. These are stories which explain and explore roots and sources of life on earth. The five selected artworks portray this quest and not only seek answers but also pose more questions through visual dialogue with the viewers.

Patterns of life in form of line, texture, rhythm, and movement are primary elements in works of Tayebi, Arabshahi, and  Behroozkar.  Tayebi and Arabshahi have been seeking ways to invite the viewer to participate in their visual quest by careful observation and silent awareness. They provide visual spaces for the imagination to take roots, meditate and roam around in the splendid world of textures and forms.  Behroozkar’s quest is to get to the core and pulse of the narrative and truth. His image moves and pulsates with colors and patterns which radiate from the center and root of its being.

5Baz (Open Five) group and Touraj Saberivand each are engaged with contemporary political and social questions. As environmental artists 5 Baz group use principal natural elements and materials such as water, earth and rock to confront the viewers with critical present-day issues in their performance and photographs. Saberivand’s generic symbols critique the root of gender biases and discriminations and challenge the notions of womanhood and manhood and social myths.

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

ریشه

.اسطوره ها رویاهای عمومی هستند و رویاها اسطوره های خصوصی
جوزف کمپ بل

:هنرمندان
پریچهر طیبی
نیکزاد عربشاهی
حامد بهروزکار
تورج صابری وند
گروه پنج باز

اسطوره های خلقت پاسخ های مبتکرانه به سوال در مورد هستی انسان هستند . این ها داستان هایی هستند که ریشه و منشا  زندگی به روی زمین را توضیح میدهند . پنج اثر انتخاب شده  تصویرگراین جستجو هستند و نه تنها به دنبال جواب هستند بلکه سوال های دیگری هم ازطریق یک گفتگو بصری برای بیننده  مطرح میکنند

 نقوش زندگی به صورت خط, بافت, ریتم و حرکت عناصر اولیه اثار طیبی , عربشاهی و بهروزکار هستند . طیبی و عربشاهی به دنبال راه هایی هستند که تماشاگر را به مشارک
در جستجوی  بصری خود از طریق مشاهده دقیق و آگاهی بی صدا دعوت کنند.  آنها  برای تخیل فضاهایی عینی ایجاد میکنند که ریشه بدواند, تمرکزکند و پرسه بزند. بهروزکار رسیدن به هسته و نبض حکایت و حقیقت را جستجومیکند .  تصویر اوبا رنگها و نقوشی که از مرکز و ریشه ان  متشعشع میشود حرکت میکند و به تپش می افتد

 گروه پنج باز و صابری وند هر کدام درگیر سوالهای اجتماعی و سیاسی در جهان معاصر هستند . به عنوان هنرمندان محیطی گروه پنج باز دراجراها وعکس هایشان ازعناصرومواد اصلی طبیعی مثل آب ,خاک وسنگ استفاده میکنند تا بیننده رابا موضوعات و درگیری های عصرحا ضرمواجه کنند. نشانه های صابری وند ریشه تعصب و تبعیض جنسیتی را مورد انتقاد قرار می دهند ومفاهیم زنانگی , مردانگی و اسطوره های اجتماعی را به مبارزه می طلبند

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White or Black?

By: Roshanak Keyghobadi | August, 2014
 

“Good and evil are in the human nature
Happiness and sorrow are destiny …”
Omar Khayyam

Artists:
Jalal Sepehr
Shahrnaz Zarkesh
Rasool Kamali
Sanaz Dezfoulian
Farshid Larimian (Farshido)
Mahmoud Kashfipour

 

One of the topics of study in philosophy and religion is focused on good and evil and whether they coexist in contrast or harmony? Are dualities such as white or black, light or dark, day or night, life or death and female or male in opposition or are they complimentary? The selected artworks in this collection unpack the inner thoughts and visual reactions of the artists who have created them in relationship to contemporary dichotomies.

 
In his series of photographs Sepehr has investigated the idea of displacement by positioning an icon (carpet) outside of its assigned location and has created contradictory and surprising instances. Zarkesh has also used an icon (spider web) yet her artwork explores the relationship between natural and artificial and on a philosophical level she has questioned the idea of entrapment and freedom.
 
Dezfoulian has tried to turn usual to unusual. Ordinary commodities such as clothes, shoes, furniture and household items take the center stage and become the main characters of her paintings. Similarly by mixing and matching old and new Larimian has brought unrelated images together and produced a cohesive whole which takes on a hybrid identity.
 
In the enigmatic pictorial world of Kamali it seems that white and black, concealed and revealed, refined and crude coexist in peace yet in an uncertain state of being. In his video Kashfipour challenges perception and not only questions reality but also searches for the truth.Written for the Persbook 2014.
Written for Persbook 2014.
 
© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2014. This essay cannot be reproduced, quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole in any format without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.

سپید یا سیاه؟ 

نیکی و بدی که در نهاد بشر است
…شادی و غمی که در قضا وقدر است
عمرخیام

 

:هنرمندان
جلال سپهر
شهرناز زرکش
رسول کمالی
ساناز دزفولیان
فرشید لریمان – فرشیدو
محمود کشفی پور

,یکی ازمباحث مطالعه درفلسفه ودین به روی نیکی وبدی تمرکز دارد واینکه آیا این دودرکنارهم درتضاد هستند یا هماهنگی؟ آیا دوگونه هایی ازقبیل سپید وسیاه ,روشنی وتاریکی روزوشب ,زندگی ومرگ وزن ومرد مخالف یکدیگرند یا مکمل؟ اثار انتخاب شده برای این مجموعه افکار درونی و واکنشهای تصویری هنرمندانی که آنها را دررابطه با تضادهای معاصر خلق کرده اند می شکافند

سپهردرمجموعه عکس های خود به بررسی ایده جابجا شدن پرداخته ویک نماد (قالی) را درخارج از  موقعیت معین ان قرار داده  ومواردی متناقض وغیرمنتظره به وجود آورده است. زرکش نیز با استفاده از یک نماد (تارعنکبوت) رابطه طبیعتی وساختگی را کشف واز لحاظ فلسفی اسارت و آزادی را تحت سوال قرارمیدهد

دزفولیان کوشیده است که معمولی را به غیرمعمولی تبدیل کند واجناس عادی مثل لباس, کفش, اسباب ووسایل خانه به میان گود میایند و نقش اصلی را در نقاشی های او بازی میکنند. به همین سان لریمان تصاویربدون رابطه را با یکدیگر تطبیق میدهد وادغام میکند ویک مجموعه منسجم با هویتی پیوندی پدید می آورد

در دنیای تصویری مرموز کمالی به نظر میرسد که سپید و سیاه , پوشیده و آشکار ,ظریف وزمخت درحالتی نا معلوم ولی در آرامش همزیستی میکنند . کشفی پورادراک را به مبارزه می طلبد ونه تنها واقعیت را زیر سوال میبرد بلکه به دنبال حقیقت نیز میباشد

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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.

 

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.

http://cmes.hmdc.harvard.edu/files/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.