Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian is a pioneer of contemporary Iranian art. The internationally known artist, who turned 89 this year, has been experimenting with mirror mosaics, reverse glass painting and Islamic geometrical patterns for more than six decades. Her ability to keep pushing the boundaries of the traditional Persian craft of “aineh kari” and to present modern interpretations of the medium and content is being celebrated in an exhibition featuring a retrospective of her work during the past decade.
The show, titled “Monir Farmanfarmaian: 2004 – 2013”, traces the evolution of her signature style and her deep exploration of divine cosmology. It features small two-dimensional wall pieces in simple geometric shapes; multilayered free-standing pieces; her “Convertible” series of wall pieces that can be arranged in many different patterns; and her recent large three-dimensional works, some of which are being displayed in public for the first time. A new series of ink and felt marker drawings are also part of the exhibition. These line drawings trace the structures of nomadic tents, minarets and models of architectural sculptures, and are embellished with her trademark mirrors.
The show represents an important phase in Farmanfarmaian’s remarkable artistic journey, but rather than talking about the past or resting on her laurels, she prefers to look ahead. “I have been working with this medium for so long, but my love affair with it continues. I constantly try to push the envelope of what is possible and to say something new,” she says.
The artist’s latest work, titled “Moghana”, is a series of stunning large three-dimensional sculptures. While one piece seems to open from the centre like a pair of wings, its triangles and pyramids radiating like mechanical feathers, others flatten the space, using corners and sharp angles to bend the surface by restructuring the reflections of light. “As always my work deals with Islamic geometry, divine cosmos and traditional Iranian architecture. These pieces are inspired by the decorative ‘muqarnas’ — the cascading tiers of arches and niches that have been used in Islamic monuments since the 12th century to mark zones of transition, such as the areas where the wall meets the ceiling or the dome. My aim was not to replicate the ‘muqarnas’, but to create a modern interpretation of the design and form, in free-standing works that are not restricted by the conceptual limitations or technical requirements of a building,” the artist says.
This balance between traditional Persian decorative art and architecture and contemporary abstraction is a quintessential feature of all of Farmanfarmaian’s works. And it reflects her unusual journey as an artist. In the 1940s, she was one of the first Iranians to travel to the United States, where she trained at Parson’s School of Design in New York. She came of age in the heyday of the New York art scene and of abstract expressionism, and her circle of friends included Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock and Frank Stella. Her art was definitely influenced by what was happening around her, but it remained deeply rooted in her Iranian heritage.
Farmanfarmaian was among the first to recognise the importance of preserving Iranian folk arts that were threatened by modernisation. And she travelled to remote corners of her country to collect decorative panels, doors and window frames from traditional houses marked for demolition; primitive reverse glass paintings used to decorate nomadic tents; and hand-carved silver jewellery and horse trappings of the Turkoman tribes. Elements from these collections filtered into her work and led her to experiment with reverse glass painting. The inspiration for her mirror-and-glass mosaics also came from the decorations used in Iranian architecture since the 18th century, when mirrors imported from Europe arrived broken and were salvaged by craftsmen to create mosaics similar to traditional Iranian tile mosaics.
The kaleidoscopic pieces she creates are visually stunning and deeply spiritual. The thousands of tiny pieces of mirrors, cut by hand and painstakingly glued onto a plastered wooden base, twinkle as they catch the light and the bits of reverse painted glass in bright reds, blues and greens add vitality and emotion to the arrangements. The repetitive geometric patterns, steeped in tradition and Sufi symbolism, draw viewers in to explore a complex, layered world within. The artworks change continuously as they reflect the changing light and movement around them as well as the fragmented images of the viewers, making every viewing a different and ephemeral experience. They represent a deconstruction of worldly illusions and mirror the fragility and transience of life itself.
Farmanfarmaian has spent many years living abroad as an exile, and during the Iranian revolution, she lost most of her collection of craft items, which were a source of inspiration for her. In that context, this show is especially meaningful because the artworks on display have all been created after she returned to Iran in 2004 at the age of 80 and opened her studio and workshop in Tehran. She works here with skilled craftsmen, including the man who worked on her earliest mirror mosaics. “I could be based anywhere, but I choose to live in Iran so that I can be close to my craftsmen and be deeply involved in working with them on every piece. And so the journey continues,” she says.
Jyoti Kalsi is an arts enthusiast based in Dubai.
“Monir Farmanfarmaian: 2004-2013” will run at The Third Line until April 19.