When letters sing: the 'musicalligraphy' of Bahman Panahi

The Iranian artist’s most recent works, which include paintings and works on paper, build on the concept he developed 15 years ago

Sharjah, United Arab Emirates - November 04, 2019: Artist, Bahman Panahi. Sharjah Calligraphy Museum opens new exhibition ÔMusic of LettersÕ, artwork by Bahman Panahi. Monday the 4th of November 2019. Sharjah. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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Bahman Panahi doesn’t paint his canvasses. He composes them.

Defining his style as “musicalligraphy”, the Iranian artist explores how the visual and melodic characteristics of the two art forms can come together in painting. “It is the combination of musicality and calligraphy,” he explains. “The aim is to try and go deeper into bringing creative contemporary calligraphy to the musical aspect. It means, how can we hear the pieces? How can we compose each element of the piece as notes?”

'Vibration' by Bahman Panahi. Courtesy Sharjah Calligraphy Museum

Having studied visual arts, music and calligraphy in Tehran and Paris, Panahi developed the concept for his doctoral research, The Musicality of Lines and Points, at Sorbonne University. His recent exhibition, Music of Letters, is currently on view at the Sharjah Calligraphy Museum and features a number of paintings and works on paper developed over the last three years. When he speaks of musicality, the artist refers to a harmony between the shapes and colours on the canvas, the same way notes come together in a song or musical composition. It is the central aim of his practice, a way of painting that emphasises "the comprehensive link between the eye and the ear", as he writes in his artist statement.

In his works, letters are transformed into sweeping, sinuous curves. Other times, they are solid and sharp, as in his Love series. Panahi takes on various approaches to painting, sliding up and down the scale of abstraction. It all depends on how he sees the work in musical terms. "Sometimes it can be an orchestra. It can be a solo. It can be a duet. It is what I tried to develop in my research and studies, as well my artistic creations," he explains.

When developing ideas, he sketches first, but learns to let go of his intended outcomes when he begins to paint. “I sketch a lot,” he says. “I exercise the same concept many times and then I bring my canvas and improvise based on my sketch.”

His process can shift from structured or extemporaneous. "It's exactly like music. We have two main concepts of performance. We have one part, which is very classic and the musician plays the pieces that are already fixed and composed. The second concept is improvised. There is spontaneity … In calligraphy, sometimes we just compose spontaneously and then correct it, like a piece of music in composition," adds Panahi. Ink-based works such as Symphony of Alif Ba and Bismillah II possess these traces of spontaneity, with Panahi's loose strokes appearing more fluid as the ink runs thin on paper.

In Lines and Points, these strokes become bold and dense. Panahi also plays with scale, isolating forms, such as the dot, and filling the canvas with them. He also dissects or zooms in on specific features of a letter, as in Lines and Waves, where its curves – and subsequently the artist's strokes – stand out against a bare background.

His more complex compositions, Carpet of Letters and Carpet of Letters II, are perhaps the best example of his concept of musicalligraphy. Inspired by the Persian carpets, these vibrant canvasses are filled with intricate details, shapes and strokes in multiple colours and directions, dismembered letters emerging out of negative space. With all these elements, they should look chaotic. But they don't. Each unit works together to highlight the other, just as the artist intended.

Sharjah, United Arab Emirates - November 04, 2019: Carpet of Letters. Sharjah Calligraphy Museum opens new exhibition ÔMusic of LettersÕ, artwork by Bahman Panahi. Monday the 4th of November 2019. Sharjah. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“When I [see] the carpets, I see the combination of hundreds or thousands of colours coming together and creating a unique piece at the same time ... It is important in the end to bring everything in harmony. It is like a musical orchestra, if one note is out of tune, it damages everything … One small element, like a dot, can add to this,” Panahi says. They are worth experiencing both up close and from afar, and present something new with each look.

Colour is extremely important when it comes to Panahi's compositions. "All these colours should be in synchronisation," he says. This is most evident in his mixed media piece Bismillah IV, which shows the deconstructed holy phrase, which translates to "In the name of God", rendered in overlapping luminous dark pink and blue strokes, with a brilliant touch of gold leaf in the centre.

Sharjah, United Arab Emirates - November 04, 2019: Sharjah Calligraphy Museum opens new exhibition ÔMusic of LettersÕ, artwork by Bahman Panahi. Monday the 4th of November 2019. Sharjah. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Panahi has certainly forged his own style, adding a sense of sonority and colour to calligraphic works, though he acknowledges that his roots are with more traditional forms, being exposed to more classical forms in childhood and having studied under renowned calligraphy masters such as Gholamhosein Amirkhani, Abdollah Foradi and Yadollah Kaboli. He says, however, that people have the misconception of seeing calligraphy as something formal, rigid and unchanging through the years.  “It was always created in different ways, architecture, tapestry, poetry … It took on different forms and flexibility according to the function,” he says. His practice, then, is simply an extension of this flexibility. “It is a natural development, and we should respect the natural development of everything.”

Music of Letters is on view at Sharjah Calligraphy Museum until Sunday, March 8