Parviz Tanavoli

Poet of Persia

Or, Everything and Nothing: a Meeting with Parviz Tanavoli in Tehran

After taking a final swig of doogh, haphazardly gathering my sundry belongings into my weathered canvas satchel, and kissing my friend three times on the cheeks, I rush down a rickety flight of stairs to a picturesque summer scene in Deh-e Vanak, a sleepy hamlet but a short drive from the mania of Tehran’s Vanak Square. Brushing shoulders with a covey of weary-eyed mechanics, their gasoline-smeared faces wizened by the beating sun and heartache in equal amounts, and traversing the pothole-laden thoroughfare with a characteristically Western trepidation, I struggle to find my taxi driver amongst the scores of moribund Peykans and sooty Peugeot 206s. By a stroke of ill luck, the traffic today is unusually awful, and I’m already half-an-hour late for another get-together with an artist. This artist, however, is somewhat different from the others I know, whom I usually meet in the tawny-hued lobby of the Hotel Homa – the ‘Old Sheraton’, as those from the pre-Revolution days are wont to call it – or in the frieze of cozy coffee shops clustered together in the Sayeh Tower opposite the Mellat Park. He’s somewhat of a legend, venerated both abroad and at home: a reality that comes as a welcome surprise in a nation whose artists usually enjoy iconic status posthumously. I had spoken to him at length over the phone towards the end of his winter ‘migration’ in Vancouver a few months ago, and he’s certainly no stranger, although I’ve yet to meet him in person. The stifling heat is certainly not making the situation any more relaxing, and, as I finally manage to furl myself in the backseat of the tiny Peugeot, I feel a tepid patch of sweat underneath my arms. ‘Agha,’ I say with diffidence, ‘can you please turn on the cooler?’ He casts a sidelong glance in the rearview mirror, flicks a switch, and we head for the dusty foothills of the Alborz Mountains.

As soon as we find our way onto the highway, we hit a gridlock. While the synth-soaked sounds of a maudlin pop song set to the proverbial 6/8 rhythm continue to emanate from the car radio and we find ourselves in a midday jam, the driver decides to while away the time by striking up conversation. ‘What do you do?’ he asks. Not having the patience to get into any details, I provide a desultory response. ‘I’m in the arts’. ‘Ah, are you a singer? A wedding singer?’ comes the reply. For God’s sake, move! I shout in vain in the recesses of my mind, looking ahead worriedly at the swarm of white and grey cars embellished with religious slogans and Zoroastrian icons. To add to the drama, the artist in question isn’t picking up either of his telephones, and I wonder whether he’ll be in his studio at all by the time we finally reach it.

At long last, our uphill journey comes to a welcome end in Niavaran – almost. The driver can’t seem to find the artist’s studio, and, exasperated by his continual circulations, I decide to call it a day and find it myself. Pulling the crumpled piece of paper out of the pocket of my cigarette jeans, I take a gamble and head down an unassuming side street. I still can’t get a hold of the artist, and I doubt whether any passersby or street sweepers would be able to point me in the right direction. Just as I’m about to give up hope, I descry the tip of a metal statue jutting out above a battered metal door. This must be it, I think to myself. I hesitantly press the round, blackened buzzer, and in a few moments, it clicks open. Standing before me is a silver Heech sculpture of massive proportions, which a flock of metalworkers is hurriedly trying to cover from an impending downpour.

Parviz Tanavoli

A promotional poster for Parviz Tanavoli’s solo exhibition at Tehran’s Gallery Borghese between the 3rd and 18th of November, 1965. The text in the middle surrounded by birds reads, ‘Whoever Farhad was, he was a man’.

Amidst the clamour, a man of average height with a mane of wavy, white hair contrasting against his typically Persian olive-hued complexion, wearing a simple, chequered shirt rolled up to his elbows and a pair of loose-fitting trousers emerges from his studio. ‘Salam, Joobin’, he says, warmly extending a soft-yet-roughened hand, before giving instructions to his artisans. The monolith having been stowed away nicely, we all amble into his studio, where I’m greeted by two female apprentices and a host of assistants, one more welcoming than the next. After grabbing two wooden stools for himself and me, he calls upon one of those present for a box of Persian pastries and cups of steaming hot chai. For one with knowledge of Parviz Tanavoli’s status as one of the most important and highest-grossing contemporary Iranian artists, it is difficult, to say the least, to match the man in the flesh with his grandiose reputation. Unlike the hipster artists who frequent the cafés, baghs, and galleries in Tehran’s northern suburbs, many of whom are dead giveaways on account of their handlebar ‘Palletti’ moustaches, pomegranate-inspired jewellery, and calligraphy-adorned headscarves and shawls, among other things, Tanavoli is the sort of person one could easily overlook on their way to the local bakery or corner store. ‘Genuine’ is the sort of word that first comes to my mind as the humble, soft-spoken ostad and I begin chatting amiably about subjects ranging from the art ‘scene’ in Toronto and his current projects to my love affair with Iran and the influence of Persian culture on the Ottoman Turks.

Parviz Tanavoli

Parviz Tanavoli as a student at Tehran’s Honarestan-e Honar-haye Ziba in 1953, and at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Carrerra, Italy, in 1957 (courtesy Maryam Eisler and Shiva Balaghi respectively)

As an artist, Tanavoli has often been compared to the mythical mason Farhad, whose labours on Mount Behistun and unrequited love for the Armenian princess Shirin were famously celebrated in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, and later, Nezami’s Khosrow and Shirin. The association couldn’t be more appropriate. Their shared professions aside, the oeuvre of Tanavoli – an artist, scholar, collector, writer, and all-around Iranophile – has, particularly in the past decade, taken on a sort of mythical quality, and the mark he has made on Iranian art and culture throughout his illustrious and prolific career is sure to well outlive him in the annals of Iranian history and lore. Best known, perhaps, for his iconic Heech (‘nothing’ in Persian) series of sculptures, which have found their way into renowned museums, art galleries, and collections the world over, much of Tanavoli’s art brings to the fore a dynamic interplay between traditional Iranian visual culture and modernist sensibilities.

Nomad, poet, Farhad of the age, preserver of tales fantastic and fabulous: these are only a few epithets that can attempt to translate the artist’s legacy into words

Along with artists such as Hossein Zenderoudi, Marcos Grigorian, Faramarz Pilaram, and Sadegh Tabrizi, among others, Tanavoli was one of the founders of the Saqqa-Khaneh (lit. ‘Waterhouse’) movement of contemporary Iranian art that flourished in the early sixties in Tehran. Taking its name from the public drinking fountains found throughout Iran serving as a memory of the martyred Imam Hossein – whose army was deprived of water by the Caliph Yazid in the defining battle of Karbala – the Saqqa-Khaneh artists drew inspiration from the aesthetics and imagery featured in such sites, creating a form of ‘spiritual’ Iranian pop art in the process. In the case of Tanavoli, his childhood fascination with locks – prominent features in Iranian folk and Shi’a culture, often seen attached to the grilles of saqqa-khanehs and the tombs of saints – led him to pursue a career in sculpting, and become an artist many consider the father of modern Iranian sculpture.

Parviz Tanavoli

Poet and Nightingale (1975) and Innovation in Art (1964); courtesy the artist and Meem Gallery

The aforesaid is not, however, to imply that Tanavoli is only looked at as a sculptor. In addition to his intricate and iconic sculptures, mostly cast in bronze, Tanavoli has produced countless paintings and mixed media works, and is the author of numerous books pertaining to visual Iranian culture, revolving around subjects such as tribal rugs, nomadic Iranian peoples, and, of course, locks. As well, a love for all things Iranian is something that shines in the artist’s every endeavour, and if I’ve ever seen a patriot, it’s Tanavoli. Although usually reserved and collected whilst talking about his practice, he gets emotional speaking about Iran, and the fact that he has chosen to continue working there, despite his differences and incidents with the government, is indeed admirable. In talking with Tanavoli, I find him to be the personification of so many of the innumerable aspects of the complex Iranian spirit. Like the Bakthiaris, that ancient, noble Iranian tribe of old whose exploits were famously captured in the 1920s Hollywood film, Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life, Tanavoli travels to and from his summer and winter ‘pastures’ in Tehran and Vancouver almost religiously. In addition to his nomadism, he lives with Persian poetry, that of Rumi in particular, and has always approached his art with the eyes and soul of a poet – a character whose words and deeds have always held sway over the Iranian psyche since time immemorial. And, on a similar note, like medieval Persia’s grand man of letters, Ferdowsi, who laboriously amassed the myths and legends of the ancient Iranians in his magnum opus, Tanavoli has always been somewhat of a scavenger, eagerly striving to collect, preserve, and reinterpret relics and artefacts pertaining to Iran’s illustrious past. In a fairly recent publication of his, Wonders of the Universe, the artist describes how he stumbled upon the yellowed, inky Qajar-era lithographs of scenes from Sa’di’s Golestan (Rose Garden) and Ghazvini’s Ajayeb ol Makhlughat va Gharayeb ol Mowjudat (The Wonders of Creation and the Oddities of Existence) – which he later adorned with swathes of pastel-hued gouache – whilst foraging through a heap of odds and sods in Tehran’s weekly Friday Bazaar. Nomad, poet, Farhad of the age, preserver of tales fantastic and fabulous: these are only a few epithets that can attempt to translate the artist’s legacy into words.

Parviz Tanavoli

Parviz Tanavoli (second from right) with members of Iran’s Qashqai tribe in 1995 (courtesy the artist and Meem Gallery)

Of course, no discourse about the oeuvre of Parviz Tanavoli would be complete without mention of his Heech series of sculptures, which have become inextricably linked to the artist’s name. To those unfamiliar with medieval Persian philosophy, the concept of heech may simply appear as a paradox, an oxymoron, or an irony; sculptures so grand, enveloping, and towering are presented as manifestations of nothingness. True, Tanavoli’s concept of heech is certainly about nothingness, although this is nothingness in the grandest, most encompassing sense of the word. For the fatalist Omar Khayyam, this world was but a fleeting vision, a caravanserai on the path to oblivion – naught that would fade into further nothingness. Since save wind in our grasp, of what was remains naught, he wrote, since all that remains of what is, is brokenness and loss; it’s as if all that isn’t in this world is here – imagine that all that is in this world exists not. For the likes of Rumi and the Sufi poets, however, nothingness was more of a mystical concept; to them, like the authors of the Upanishads, the Self (Nafs) and the ego were mere illusions, drops of water in an ocean of truth – isolable to the eye of the uninitiated, yet indistinguishable to that of the mystic: to become nothing was to become everything, and vice-versa. It is, perhaps, more the latter Sufi interpretation that Tanavoli tries to capture in his sculptures than the philosophy of Khayyam, especially given his penchant for Rumi, although I can’t help but notice traces of the old tent-maker’s influence in them as well. As hopeful and vivacious Tanavoli is as a person as well as an artist, I have sensed, at times, a sort of melancholy within him. His daunting, throne-like monolith, Oh Persepolis, is perhaps a prime example of this. Wrought of solid brass and hacked in a script bearing a resemblance to Old Persian cuneiform, it stands as a sombre, evocative reminder of the lost glories of the Persian Empire, which at its peak stretched from the sunny shores of Greece to India. Alas, for in vain did we waste away … With our desires unfulfilled, to oblivion we fell prey, Khayyam might probably say with remorse, were he to behold Tanavoli’s piece today. And Ferdowsi? I spit on you, O wheel of the firmament! I spit on you! 

Parviz Tanavoli

Heech and Cube and Heech (courtesy the artist and Meem Gallery)

As Tanavoli jubilantly talks to me about the book he and his apprentices are working on – a three-dimensional Book of Heech – and takes me on a tour of his workshop, with its bits of scrap metal scattered about here and there, I begin likening the affable septuagenarian (who I reckon bears an uncanny resemblance to the late Shah) to a naqqal, a traditional Persian storyteller. Like the gosans of the Parthian era, the bards of today impassionedly recite epic tales and parables from the vast repository of Iranian lore, roving from stage to stage, coffeehouse to coffeehouse, as conduits of myth and magic. While he may not be a man of many words, he, like the fabled Farhad, is a poet and storyteller of form and beauty. Concealed within the artist’s resplendent, undulating figures and images can be found not only pearls of Persian wisdom and universal truths, but also pages from tales of world-conquering kings, soul-conquering poets, rambling tribesmen, and tragic heroes; verily do they tell, with eloquence and artistry, the story of the land of Iran.

Outside, in breezy Niavaran, the swarthy sky is pregnant with foreboding, and as I bid the ostad farewell, nurturing hope within my breast that we will meet again soon, my phone begins buzzing in my pocket. ‘So, how was your meeting? What did you talk about for so long?’ asks my friend. ‘Nothing. And everything. And nothing’, I say, as I try to find a ride back to the winding alleys of Zafar.

Parviz Tanavoli’s first US museum retrospective will run from February 10 through June 7, 2015, at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

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About the Author

Joobin Bekhrad
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An award-winning writer, Joobin Bekhrad (BBA, MSc.) is the founder and Editor of REORIENT. He has contributed to such publications as The Guardian, The Economist, Forbes, i-D/Vice, The Columbia Journal, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, Encyclopaedia Iranica, Aesthetica, Artsy, and Harper’s Bazaar Art Arabia, been interviewed by news outlets including Newsweek and the CBC, and seen his writings republished and translated into a variety of languages. He is the author of a translation of Omar Khayyam’s Robaiyat, the foreword to Mahdi Ehsaei's Afro-Iran, Coming Down Again, and With My Head in the Clouds and Stars in My Eyes (forthcoming).