Few of Parviz Tanavoli’s West Vancouver neighbours know that he is one of Iran’s most acclaimed modern artists. When he is not creating monumental bronze sculptures in his Tehran studio or attending exhibition openings in London, Zurich, and Dubai, Tanavoli lives very quietly on a cul-de-sac overlooking Howe Sound. Here, he paints, writes, reads, and works on small-scale sculptures. Perhaps his understated local status will change, however, when Safar/Voyage opens at the UBC Museum of Anthropology this Saturday (April 20).
A survey of contemporary works by 16 Arab, Iranian, and Turkish artists, the exhibition promises to introduce Vancouverites to a range of ideas and practices from a region of the world that is little understood in the West. Among the video, installation, performance, and photographic works on view is Tanavoli’s striking Oh Persepolis II. Nearly two metres high, it is executed in bronze so highly polished that it gleams like gold.
“Parviz invented modern sculpture in Iran,” says Fereshteh Daftari, Safar’s guest curator. Speaking with the Straight as the exhibition is being installed at MOA, the Iranian-born, New York–based scholar describes the exhibition’s overarching theme: the idea of voyage (safar in Persian), whether geographical, cultural, or spiritual. Like Tanavoli, most of the artists in the show are based in two or more places: the cities in which they grew up, such as Beirut, Cairo, Baghdad, or Istanbul, and the cities in which they have established their careers, such as London, Berlin, Helsinki, or Melbourne. “It’s part of globalization—the new world we’re living in,” she observes. “Many of us are nomads.” Voyage, for these artists, is a lived experience as well as a poetic construct; their work, not surprisingly, examines issues of identity, migration, war, exile, and geopolitics.
Daftari also notes that prior to Tanavoli’s groundbreaking art practice in the 1960s, sculpture in Iran consisted of public statues executed in a style of didactic realism. Tanavoli created a distinctive form by marrying the precepts of 20th-century modernism to elements of ancient Persian bas-reliefs, Islamic architecture, and Iranian folk culture. Pre-Islamic art, as found at the ancient site of Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire from about 550 BC to 330 BC, was a “major source of aesthetic influence” for Tanavoli, Daftari says.
The initial impression of Oh Persepolis II, a recent reconsideration of a work originally produced in 1975, is massive and architectonic. The surface, however, is enlivened by rows and rows of pictographic elements executed in sculptural relief, as if carved into a stone wall, tablet, or stele. The hieroglyphlike elements suggest a narrative in need of translation, but in fact they are “pure inventions”, Daftari says.
During a separate interview with the Straight, in his light-filled home and crowded studio, Tanavoli recounts his early years of study, first at the newly established Tehran School of Fine Arts, then at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Carrera, Italy, and later with the renowned Italian sculptor Marino Marini at the Brera Academy in Milan. “That’s where I learned about the art of bronze casting,” he says. “I didn’t have the money to cast my own sculpture until I went to the U.S.” In 1961, he travelled to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design as a visiting artist, and he then taught there for a couple of years before being invited to establish the sculpture department at the University of Tehran, in 1964. “I set up a studio and built a kiln and foundry and began teaching there,” he says simply. Tanavoli worked at the university for 15 years before the program and the studio were closed following the Islamic Revolution. A decade later, in 1989, he and his family immigrated to Canada.
“Persepolis to me was like a temple to worship sculpture, a place where the whole site is sculpted out of marble and granite,” Tanavoli remarks. His art honours the neglected and sometimes threatened site while also attempting to reignite public interest in it. Among Tanavoli’s themes, which include the life of the poet and heech, the Persian concept and calligraphic representation of “nothingness”, Persepolis remains a deep source. And in Safar, Oh Persepolis II indeed marks a voyage—across time, place, personal expression, and cultural understanding.