Father Of Modern Iranian Sculpture Gets First U.S. Show In Nearly 40 Years

Father Of Modern Iranian Sculpture Gets First U.S. Show In Nearly 40 Years

6:16pm May 08, 2015
Artist Parviz Tanavoli with his sculpture Big Heech Lovers.
Artist Parviz Tanavoli with his sculpture Big Heech Lovers.
John Gordon / Courtesy of Parviz Tanavoli
  • Artist Parviz Tanavoli with his sculpture Big Heech Lovers.

    Artist Parviz Tanavoli with his sculpture Big Heech Lovers.

    John Gordon / Courtesy of Parviz Tanavoli

  • Parviz Tanavoli, Neon Heech, 2012.

    Parviz Tanavoli, Neon Heech, 2012.

    John Gordon / Courtesy of Parviz Tanavoli

  • Fiberglass Heech sculptures by Parviz Tanavoli.

    Fiberglass Heech sculptures by Parviz Tanavoli.

    Charles Mayer / Courtesy of the Davis Museum

  • Parviz Tanavoli, Hands in Grill, 2005.

    Parviz Tanavoli, Hands in Grill, 2005.

    Charles Mayer / Courtesy of Parviz Tanavoli

With his head of silver hair and stylish black blazer, Iranian artist Parviz Tanavoli looks younger than his 77 years. He's been called the father of modern Iranian sculpture, but he hasn't had a major museum show in the U.S. in almost four decades. Now, Wellesley College's Davis Museum is giving viewers a chance to see 175 of Tanavoli's sculptures and drawings.

While leading a tour of the Massachusetts school's gallery, Tanavoli stops in front of his curvaceous sculptures known as "Heeches."

"Any Iranian could easily read this," he says, referring to the sculptures. "It's composed of three letters: H, the head is like H; then the center part is like I or double E; this curve is like CH at the end." On paper, the Heech is a slender piece of calligraphy that's popular in Persian poetry: It means "nothingness" in Farsi.

"The other advantage of this word is all the meanings behind it," Tanavoli says. "... All the great poets like Rumi, they deal with this word; they question about it. What is Heech? I mean, is there nothing?"

Tanavoli has crafted hundreds of Heeches over the past 50 years — in ceramic, bronze, fiberglass and even neon. They are graceful, almost human forms that connect with viewers and helped revive sculpture as an art form in Iran.

"He's definitely the pride of the Middle Eastern art scene," says Ali Khadra of the contemporary art magazine Canvas, based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Khadra flew to Boston for a 24-hour visit just to see Tanavoli's new exhibition. He calls the sculptor "a beacon of hope" for aspiring artists in his politically tense region and he hopes this show will help bring a little of the culture behind the headlines to Western audiences.

"It's like a chain reaction," Khadra says. "When a museum is interested, an education program takes place and the interest keeps growing. And this is how the West will know about Middle Eastern art."

The 'Good Days' In Iran

Sculpture died off as an art form in the region now known as Iran after the Arabs conquered Persia in the 7th century. At the time, visual depictions of the human body were at odds with the Muslim belief that art is a representation of the divine. But after studying sculpture in Italy in the 1950s, Tanavoli returned to Tehran and opened a studio that became a magnet for young artists.

"It was very exciting for [me]," the artist says. "I was young and I thought I was doing something and I worked very hard for it. And when I look at it today, I'm proud of it. They were good days."

But they were also challenging.

"There weren't that many people trained for art, and there weren't that many followers or fans and collectors," he says. "People weren't familiar with the modern art I was producing."

In 1965, authorities shut down Tanavoli's gallery show in Tehran because it merged materials and imagery from the East and West. Things got more complicated for the artist with the 1979 revolution and the taking of hostages at the American embassy in Tehran. He ultimately left his teaching job at Tehran University and moved his family to Toronto.

A Cultural History Lesson Through Art

Shiva Balaghi is a Middle Eastern culture historian at Brown University and co-curator of the Davis Museum's show. She says you could teach a seminar on modern Iranian history through Tanavoli's work. "You see the common art of the streets of Tehran represented in his work; you see Iranian folklore; you see ancient Persian myths. But you also see that within Iranian society and culture there is this poetic and lyrical spirit and this sense of humor that withstands regardless of the day-to-day political situation."

That situation is reflected in some of Tanavoli's mor e brutal, confining imagery of cages, locks and jail cells. Still, Balaghi thinks Americans will be surprised to see how optimistic this Iranian's work is.

"There is this sense of gratitude for the simple things in life — like the image of a bird flying, like the shape of a letter in the alphabet," she says.

Tanavoli keeps a foundry and studio in Iran and lives there part of the year, but he admits that politics have hindered his country's ability to share its culture. He says, "We used to be very well connected with Westerners ... but now it's unfortunate because so much has been happening in Iran in [the] last 35 years in culture — music, film and all of that — a lot of people are not even aware of it."

They'll get a chance to learn a little more through two other U.S. shows of contemporary Iranian art — one at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and another at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, Tanavoli says he's honored to have his work act, for now, as something of an ambassador.

"Iran has a long culture, millenniums of culture," he says, "but for today I think this represents Iran pretty good."

Copyright 2015 WBUR. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Next we're going to meet a man who's been called the father of modern Iranian sculpture, yet he hasn't had a major museum show in the U.S. in almost 40 years. A new show at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College is now giving viewers a chance to see 175 of his sculptures and drawings. Andrea Shea of member station WBUR has this profile of the artist.

ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: Parviz Tanavoli looks younger than his 77 years, with his head of silver hair and stylish black blazer as he leads a tour through 175 of his works.

PARVIZ TANAVOLI: I was inspired by our mosques and architecture.

SHEA: The artist stops in front of one of his curvaceous sculptures known as heeches.

TANAVOLI: Any Iranian could easily read this. It's composed of three letters, H - the head is like H - then the center part is like I or double E. This curve is like CH at the end.

SHEA: On paper, the heech is a slender piece of calligraphy that's popular in Persian poetry. Heech is the Farsi word for nothingness.

TANAVOLI: Iranians especially related with this - only great poets like Rumi. They dealt with this word. They questioned about what it - what is heech? I mean, is there nothing?

SHEA: Tanavoli has crafted hundreds of heeches over the past 50 years in ceramic, bronze, fiberglass, even neon - graceful, almost human forms that connected with viewers and helped revive sculpture as an art form in Iran.

ALI KHADRA: He's definitely the pride of the Middle Eastern art scene.

SHEA: That's Ali Khadra of the Dubai-based, Middle Eastern contemporary art magazine "Canvas." He flew to Boston for a 24-hour visit just to see Parviz Tanavoli's new exhibition. Khadra calls the sculptor a beacon of hope for aspiring artist in his politically tense region, and he hopes this show will help bring a little of the culture behind the headlines to Western audiences.

KHADRA: It's like a chain reaction. When a museum is interested, an education program takes place and the interest keeps growing. And this is how the West will know about Middle Eastern art.

SHEA: Sculpture died off as an art form in the region now called Iran after the Arabs conquered Persia in the 7th century. But after studying sculpture in Italy in the 1950s, Tanavoli returned to Turan and opened a studio that became a magnet for young artists.

TANAVOLI: It was very exciting for myself. I was young, and I thought I was doing something. And when I look at it today, I'm proud of it. They were good days.

SHEA: But he says they were also challenging.

TANAVOLI: Because there weren't that many people trained for art. And there weren't that many followers. People weren't familiar with the modern art I was producing.

SHEA: In 1965, authorities shut down his gallery show in Turan because it merged materials and imagery from the East and West. Things got more complicated for the artist with the revolution of 1979, followed by the taking of hostages at the American Embassy. He left his teaching job at Turan University and moved his family to Toronto.

SHIVA BALAGHI: You can really teach a seminar in modern Iranian history through his artwork.

SHEA: Shiva Balaghi is "The Retrospective's" co-curator and a Middle Eastern cultural historian at Brown University.

BALAGHI: You see the common art of the streets of Turan represented in his work. You see Iranian folklore, but you also see that within Iranian society and culture, there is this sense of humor that withstands regardless of the day-to-day political situation.

SHEA: That situation is reflected in some of Parvis Tanavoli's more brutal, confining imagery - cages, locks, jail cells. Still, Balaghi thinks Americans will be surprised to see how much optimism there is in this Iranian's work.

BALAGHI: There is this sense of gratitude for the simple things in life, like the image of a bird flying, like the shape of a letter in the alphabet.

SHEA: Parviz Tanavoli keeps a foundry and studio in Iran and lives there part of the year. But he admits politics have hindered his country's ability to share its culture.

TANAVOLI: You know, we used to be very well-connected with Western or with American, European. But now it's unfortunate because so much has been happening in Iran in the last 35 years in culture, music, film and all of that - a lot of people are not even aware of it.

SHEA: They'll get a chance to learn a little more when two other shows of contemporary Iranian art open in this country in the coming months. Meanwhile, Tanavoli says he's honored to have his work at, for now, as something of an ambassador.

TANAVOLI: Iran has a long culture - millenniums of culture but for today, I think this represents Iran pretty good.

SHEA: For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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