With an arts tradition that goes back more than 5,000 years, and a modern art scene that embraces everything from graffiti to avant-garde film, Iran is one of the world's greatest countries to experience the visual arts. It's a travesty that Iran has been off-limits to most Americans since 1979, when a revolution turned it into a pariah state. But the détente that has emerged on the political front with the election of a new Iranian president (who, by the way, is on Twitter) parallels the opening of three new exhibits that are giving Americans a first-hand look at the intricacies of Iranian art and sculpture.
The largest show, "Iran Modern," is at New York's Asia Society, but San Francisco has two sterling exhibits: "The First Family" at Haines Gallery, which features the work of longtime Iranian artist Monir Farmanfarmaian, and "Twisted Sisters: Reimagining Urban Portraiture" at San Francisco City Hall, which features the work of Sanaz Mazinani, who spent her early life in Tehran and now lives in Bernal Heights.
Mazinani's montages take traditional Persian motifs and infuse them with modern touches — and a San Francisco aesthetic. Golden Gate Bridge, for example, has red sections of the span's towers floating in a blue sky, where they connect with cloud puffs and geometric shapes to form an otherworldly kaleidoscope. Influenced by patterns found in traditional Persian carpets, and utilizing Persian blues that adorn some of Iran's most dazzling structures, Mazinani made Golden Gate Bridge for a series she calls "Forever in the Sky." In 16th and Mission, also on display at City Hall, Mazinani has tall, thin palm trees floating in the air next to an assemblage of alluring shapes. In Sutro Tower, it's the top of San Francisco's tallest transmission structure that hovers high in the sky, Persian-style. The patterns — like the patterns of floral shapes, calligraphy, and architectural swoops that cover Iranian mosques — are designed to both focus the mind and free it.
"I was doing research, and I found that the reason Iranian mosques are covered in this pattern is to allow your eyes to fall into it and to go elsewhere intellectually," says Mazinani. "It's a spiritual thing."
"Twisted Sisters," which celebrates San Francisco's Sister City relationship with Zurich, Switzerland, showcases the work of five Bay Area artists who tear down touristic stereotypes of San Francisco. Mazinani, who's 35, was an ideal choice for the exhibit — someone who's lived in four countries (Iran, Turkey, Canada, the United States) and knows how easy it is for reductive impressions to become the normative view. Her family left Iran in 1989, after the Iran-Iraq war that killed more than a million people. Mazinani, who moved to the Bay Area in 2009 to get an MFA from Stanford, frequently addresses issues of war and conflict in her work, as with her photographic series of the Occupy movement and her art series examining media representations of war. Mazinani's "Sky" series combines painterly touches with photography. Mazinani has been taking images of clouds for a decade.
"I was always really interested in borders and issues around land and landlessness, and being an immigrant, and I found it really rewarding to look up at the sky and see these beautiful clouds moving — without any limitations, without checkpoints, without passports," she says. "I was making works about war and conflicts and activism and all this stuff and this is a way for me to also make it beautiful. It creates an accessible way for people to enter my work. They can see what they want in it. I really like having work that's open to interpretation."
Monir Farmanfarmaian's art at Haines Gallery also has an interpretive quality, and adopts patterns that are completely transfixing. Farmanfarmaian, who's almost 90, used thousands of mirror pieces to create shimmering triangles, squares, hexagons, decagons, and other shapes. Mirrors are overlaid on mirrors. Angles jut into other angles. Approaching one of Farmanfarmaian's creations is like approaching a hall of cascading mirrors, except that Farmanfarmaian's works are small — anywhere from 2 to 4 feet across.
In Persian culture, the mirror is used frequently in art, architecture, and religious settings to signify a connection to the divine. So Farmanfarmaian's art at Haines Gallery — besides being intensely beautiful — has an underlying spiritual element. It's there if you want it, just as it is in Mazinani's art. Like Mazinani, Farmanfarmaian has lived in both Iran and the United States — Farmanfarmaian's initial tenure was in the 1940s and 1950s, in New York, and put her in touch with some of America's most formidable artists of the time, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Andy Warhol. Warhol was a fan. Farmanfarmaian's early years in the U.S., where she studied at Parsons School of Design and at Cornell, changed her life and her art. So did returning to Iran in the late '50s, where she gave Iranians a new way to experience the art form of mirrors.
"I did art because I loved to express myself, but didn't expect that I'm doing something unusual. Now, I realize that I have done something unusual that brought the medium of mirror work and geometric design for the public," Farmanfarmaian told an interviewer last year. "It was always in the ceiling or the wall or the palaces, but it never was in people's houses."
Iran's 1979 revolution was devastating to Farmanfarmaian. The country's religious authorities confiscated her early works, and she fled to New York — though she returned to Iran in 2004. She says Iran makes the only type of thin glass that's ideal for her work. Farmanfarmaian laughs a lot in interviews. She's happy to still be an active artist using a medium she loves. Mirrors, she says, give everyone "a reflection of your soul." That type of Sufi thought is embedded in Iran's culture, and is carried — not surprisingly — in the art of both Farmanfarmaian and Mazinani, wherever they choose to live or exhibit.