Clotheslines of Isolation

Roshanak Keyghobadi | October 2014

 

و این منم
زنی تنها
در آستانه فصلی سرد
…در ابتدای درک هستی آلوده ی زمین
فروغ فرخزاد

And here I am
a lonely woman
at the beginning  of a cold season
coming to comprehend the earth’s contaminated existence … [i]
Forough Farrokhzad

A woman is photographed inside an enclosed space of a courtyard at night and the other is painted on a rooftop in the daytime. One is standing in front of a clothesline that is covered with necessary items such as a bedsheet, a pillow case, pajamas, socks and underwear which appears that were urgently washed and hung to dry. The other is standing next to a clothesline that is covered with not necessarily essential items such as a shirt, a skirt, a pair of pants and a sundress, which seems that have been leisurely washed and hung to dry with seven matching clothespins.

Both women’s heads and bodies are covered with chador, one with a formal black chador, which is usually worn outside the house and in public spaces, and the other with an informal patterned chador that is typically used inside the house and in private spaces. The woman with black chador is looking straight at the viewer and wearing her covering in a relaxed way. The woman in patterned chador with her back to the viewer seems to be looking at the view in front of her. She is also wearing her chador casually and is barefoot.

In his essay Painting and Time (1985)[ii] John Berger explains that paintings are “prophecies received from the past” whereas photographs are “records of the past.” He also believes that a painting “stops time” and a photograph “preserves a moment.”

Tahmineh Monzavi[iii] has been recording and preserving moments as a documentary photographer and this particular image is part of her Women Addicts (2010) series that she shot at women’s shelters in Darvazeh Ghar and Maydoun-e Shoush neighborhoods in Tehran. Monzavi explains: “I took these pictures at shelters for homeless women who could stay for the night and avoid sleeping in the parks and streets. I tried to take photos of the regular moments of their lives not the times of violence and injections. Their faces were attractive and had so much to say. Their gaze could get you deep inside their lives and they would transfer joy and sorrow to you…I worked on this project for three years. Every two weeks or once or twice a month I would go and visit and take pictures. During this time people would come and go and change…The Women Addicts series was the most interesting project for me despite all of its difficulties. I was interested in taking photos of the women and being with them in their environment, to see their interactions, their different types of problems, their hygiene and their treatment, the type of care they received, their condition and struggles, and how others thought about them and the ways they coped with their situation.” (Monzavi, 2011)[iv]

Monzavi met the woman in this photograph at one of the women’s shelters. She recalls: “Her name was Javaher (Jewel) and she used to be an addict. She was in love with an offender and when I took this photo she was 27 years old and pregnant. Javaher was very beautiful and neat. She always wore makeup and made her eyes so black that it seemed black juice will drip from her eyes. She was kind and sensitive and helped and cooked for other women who lived with her…I wanted to take a photo of Javaher in front of the clothesline in the courtyard at night. She had just washed the clothes, which belonged to her and her friends. She was very scrupulous and reminded me of my grandmother who also washed clothes in her courtyard’s basin with a hose and spread them on the clothesline.” (Monzavi, 2014) [v]

In her paintings Zeynab Movahed[vi] captures the mundane and still moments of lives of the women with their faces not revealed to the viewer. She states: “The female element in my paintings is definitely related to me as a woman and the multiple, contradictory and yet sensitive positions that a woman has in our society. Not showing the women’s faces in my works is a gentle protest against the over emphasis on her body and where a woman’s domestic labor and duties as well as her sexual activities are more important than her intellect. A woman’s beauty and sexual attractiveness limits her and also marriage confines her. The women in my paintings are educated and aware of the discriminations against them and are silently in defiance… “ (Movahed, 2014)[vii]

This image is part of Movahed’s series of paintings titled Clothes Rope (2011). She explains: “For me the rooftop is a small and isolated space away from others and an extension of a woman’s loneliness and seclusion. This seclusion for me and others like me was once imposed but now is voluntary as the result of the unpleasant contemporary social and cultural climate… The clothesline confines the woman and is wrapped around all the layers of her life and she can not get rid of it…” (Movahed, 2014)[viii]

The two artists have been engaged in critical visual investigations that invite the viewers to look deeper and see beyond the surface of things. Monzavi’s photograph and Movahed’s painting not only depict personal/public and mental/physical spaces of these women but also relate their marginalized condition to their class. According to statistics, six million Iranians have addiction to drugs and at least 700,000 of addicts in Iran are women.[ix] On the other hand the number of female to male students entering universities in Iran is two to one, yet upon graduation one-third or less are likely to work as men do, and this number drops after women get married and have children.[x] 79% of all Iranian women are literate but only 21% of them are [officially] employed.[xi] Monzavi’s Javaher as a homeless addict and Movahed’s solitary woman at home belong to the exploited and subordinated class in Iranian society which their intellect, labor, voice and personhood has no value. They are neither considered good daughters, wives and mothers nor “useful” and “productive” citizens. These women are socially distanced and frequently ignored.

Tahmineh Monzavi has documented personal moments of women that the society prefers to forget and Zeynab Movahed has narrated private moments of women that prefer to forget the society.

[i] Forough Farrokhzad poem. Translation from Persian to English by Roshanak Keyghobadi.
[ii] John Berger (1985). The Sense of Sight. Vintage International.
[iii] http://tahminehmonzavi.com
[iv] http://vimeo.com/83477362 (Translated by Roshanak Keyghobadi from the Interview in Persian with Tahmineh Monzavi, SHEED Award 2011 Winner which was produced by : MAAD STUDIO)
[v] From Roshanak Keyghobadi’s e-mail correspondence with Tahmineh Monzavi, 2014.
[vi] http://www.zeynabmovahed.com
[vii] From Roshanak Keyghobadi’s e-mail correspondence with Zeynab Movahed, 2014.
[viii] From Roshanak Keyghobadi’s e-mail correspondence with Zeynab Movahed, 2014.
[ix] http://www.theguardian.com
[x] http://www.brookings.edu
[xi] http://iranlaborreport.com

© 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.

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

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

 

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.

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