Dr Shiva Balaghi on Parviz Tanavoli ahead of the show opening at The Davis Museum

Ahead of his first museum retrospective at the Davis Museum, Wellesley College, Boston, Parviz Tanavoli is featured with Heech Lovers. Photo by John Gordon. Courtesy of Parviz Tanavoli
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This week, Parviz Tanavoli, one of the Middle East’s greatest artists and the artist who holds the current record at Christie’s Dubai for the highest priced work ever sold at auction, opened a major retrospective at the Davis Museum, Wellesley College in Boston.

The Iranian, who is considered a true master of his craft, is one of the most popular artists from the region. The show, his first museum retrospective in the US, was curated by Dr Shiva Balaghi, a Visiting Scholar of Art History at Brown University and LisaFischman, the director of the Davis and the pair have worked really hard to source material from across the many mediums Tanavoli has worked with since the 1950s.

The full story is in The National’s Arts & Life section but here is my interview with Dr Shiva Balaghi.

AS: Parviz Tanavoli is considered to be one of the best living sculptors in the world and he is certainly one of Iran’s greatest treasures. Why do you think he has had so few solo shows not just in the US but around the world?

SB: Actually, Parviz has been widely exhibited around the world for decades, most often in group exhibitions. He’s by far one of the most popular artists of the Middle East. In 2003, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art had a retrospective of his art. And in 2006, the British Museum’s curator Venetia Porter exhibited some of Tanavoli’s fiberglass Heech sculptures in their Great Court which looked absolutely stunning.

The show at the Davis is the first US retrospective of Parviz Tanavoli’s work. It’s obviously more challenging to exhibit Iranian art in the US. The two countries haven’t had diplomatic relations since 1979. Currently, there’s the sanctions regime. There has been a reticence to get engage with Iranian culture to some degree. But there was a real openness to Iranian cinema in the 1990s which created a growing awareness of Iranian visual culture. In 2002, I helped curate an exhibit of modern and contemporary Iranian art at NYU’s Grey Gallery -- the first such exhibition since the 1979 revolution. That show naturally included several gorgeous works by Tanavoli. And since then you’re seeing more and more Iranian art in US museums.

This spring, there’ll be a fabulous flow of Iranian art in US museums. It begins with our opening of Tanavoli’s exhibit at the Davis in February. Then the Guggenheim NY will have their opening of Monir Farmanfarmaian’s gorgeous works. That show curated by Suzanne Cotter features Monir’s drawings and mirror work. I saw the exhibit in Serralves last fall. It is absolutely stunning. Then in June, the Hirshhorn’s Melissa Chiu is having an exhibit of Shirin Neshat’s work. This is a historic moment for Iranian art in the US. Three major solo museum exhibitions of some of Iran’s most important artists.

AS: The Wellesley Davis Museum show will be his first museum retrospective in the US. How important is it for viewers of his work to witness pieces from his entire oeuvre rather than just single works in institutions? Will the show focus mostly on sculptures or will you also include paintings and other media?

SB: Most people know Parviz’s sculpture, in particular his Heech series. That’s natural. He is Iran’s most prominent, and his Heech works are very visually appealing. They are incredibly photogenic. Curators and museum goers gravitate towards Parviz’s sculptures.

Some years back, I spoke about Parviz’s art as part of some lectures I gave at the British Museum and at Abu Dhabi Art. In my talks, I focused on the figure of Farhad in Parviz’s art. Parviz saw Farhad, the mountain carver from Nezami’s epic poem, as his artistic ancestor. So I traced Farhad back to some drawings he made in the 1950s when he was still an art student in Italy. It became clear to me that Parviz’s drawings, linocuts, and paintings were central to his art practice.

When we began working on this show, Lisa Fischman and I felt strongly that the exhibit should cover the entirety of Parviz’s work, going back to the 1950s. And we knew that we wanted to represent his work across mediums. This was a huge challenge, and Lisa’s determination to source works was just remarkable. In the exhibit, you will see linocuts made in the 1950s and sculptures that are so new they are being delivered directly from the foundry! You will see prints, paintings, ceramics, jewelry, jewelry sculptures, and of course sculptures. Lots of sculptures! There are over 175 objects in the exhibit.

AS: In a recent interview with Harper’s Bazaar Art, you said that Tanavoli’s Heech was a symbol of the artist’s creative spirit and something that has now become an iconic symbol in Iranian art. Can you expand on Tanavoli’s influence on regional and global art?

SB: Well, as you know, Tanavoli is one of the top artists in the region. His art has fetched record prices at auction. And he is in numerous museum collections -- including the Tate, Mathaf, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the British Museum, the Met. Parviz remains very popular amongst collectors -- across the Middle East and beyond. To be honest, I think the main appeal of Parviz’s art to curators and collectors is simple. It’s beautiful, it’s original, and it’s meticulous. He pays such close attention to detail. A Parviz Tanavoli sculpture looks absolutely beautiful from every angle. In Iran he is called Ostad and he is truly a master.

AS: It is interesting too that his text-based work was a rebellion against traditional calligraphy. As an art historian, is it your opinion that this rebellion was fuelled by the fact Tanavoli moved outside of his home country to Canada and the US?

SB: Well, Parviz lived in the US for a few years in the early 1960s and he moved to Canada in 1989. But you see he never stays away from Iran for long. Even now, he returns to Iran every year for long periods of time to make work, to teach students, to soak up the place. In a catalogue for an exhibit of his in Iran in 1973, Parviz wrote of his love of Persian poetry: “My attachment to the poetry of the East is an old love which I have always cherished, for the East is everything.” Persian poetry is a huge influence on Parviz -- he is an incredibly textual man in that sense. The poet is a common theme in his work and Parviz even writes poetry himself.

But by the mid 1960s, he saw that there were so many Iranian artists making calligraphic paintings. On the other hand, he saw some artists following the latest trends. So he decided to limit himself to one word alone -- heech. It is the Persian word for nothingness. And since 1965, it is the only word that appears in Tanavoli’s work. Heech in its various manifestations has become an icon in the art world.

AS: As a more general point, how much impact does art from the wider Middle East region have on US audiences and in that light, how significant is this show?

SB: Well, as a historian, I became drawn to visual culture because I think it plays such a critical role in telling the story of a certain people. Visual culture offers a rich and diverse lens onto a certain time and place. I see our artists as critically important public intellectuals. In the medieval period, it was the poets who were the conscious of society; today it is the artists who play that role.

* Parviz Tanavoli at the Davis Museum runs from February 10 – June 7. For more information visit: www.wellesley.edu/davismuseum