From Tehran with love

November 22, 2009 § Leave a comment

Published: The Age, A2, November 21, 2009.

With design embedded in the Persian psyche, a vibrant visual culture thrives amid political upheaval and dogged censorship. Dan Rule meets some of those putting Iran in the picture.

A cloud of crudely printed, long-blade knives hangs ominously atop the cover of new monograph Morteza Momayez: Graphic Design, Photography, Painting, 1957–2005. They are poised to rain down, tips first.

The source of the image is a 1976 installation by the late Iranian artist – known in his homeland as “the father of Iranian graphic design” – in which a cluster of knives hangs, suspended, above an arrangement of pots, themselves sprouting steel blades. The implied violence of the cloud above, it seems, cultivates more of the same from below.

Over a career that stretched almost half a century before his death as a 70-year-old in 2005, Momayez created an often highly-political body of work either side of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Practicing across illustration, etching, painting and photography, his work was indicative of a visual culture in flux, channelling both the West and more traditional Persian aesthetic values.

“Iranian graphic design could be divided in two periods: before and after Morteza Momayez,” says Mahmoud Bahmanpour, founder of Nazar Art Publications, the small Tehran publishing house responsible for the Momayez and countless other Iranian monographs.

Such was Momayez’s influence that both pre and post 1979 governments commissioned his designs and expressed admiration for his contribution to culture. “He added new characters to Iranian visual elements and decreased the existing gap between the superior group of society and the common people,” Bahmanpour continues, speaking via his assistant and translator Fatemeh Kavandi. “He went his own way and he never gave any special endorsement to anybody.”

Nazar’s volumes on Momayez and his contemporaries offer a very different perspective to a country rarely considered for its visual communication.  While mainstream Western discourses on Iran seldom shift beyond speculation surrounding the Ahmadinejad administration’s international policy objectives, the Tehran publisher has effectively forged an entrance to a side of Iran barely seen by those outside the country.

“We are the only publisher with a contemporary art tendency in Iran that has predestined and clear plan.” says the 44-year-old Bahmanpour. “We hope that we can introduce our artists and graphic designers to the world and that their efforts can be seen.”

Indeed. Founded in 1996, Nazar has issued upward of 150 titles covering design, contemporary art, photography and architecture, and become one of the defining international voices for the country’s rich visual culture. Recent titles to have been released in Australia via Amsterdam-based distributor IDEA Books include the aforementioned Momayez collection; a selection of posters by veteran graphic designer and art director Ghobad Shiva, titled From Years Ago up to the Present Time; a monograph on cutting edge designer, artist and filmmaker Ali Vazirian, which goes by the somewhat dry title of A Selection of Graphic Design by Ali Vazirian; and an extensive volume on Iranian type, Iranian Typography: 50 Years of Calligraphy and Typography in Iranian Graphic Design.

“I believe that every professional publisher that pursues art or literature has to be aggressively up-to-date,” offers Bahmanpour.

It’s a fair assertion. Perhaps the most immediately apparent quality that emerges from Nazar’s various collections is the multiplicity of aesthetic orientations. Indeed, those looking for a singular, staid Iranian vision will instead discover a palette characterised by cultural and stylistic slippage.

While the bold, flat colours and strong textual motifs of much of Momayez’s work displays a strong Western influence – his paintings and illustrations seem to reference elements of both Cubism and Abstract Expressionism – many of Ghobad Shiva’s designs invoke the fine detail and elaborate, flourishing colouration that Western eyes might attribute to the Persian Miniature.

Shiva, 68, describes a design culture that finds its roots “deep in the Persian psyche” and draws on anything from the Miniature to Persian carpet design and architecture. “Contemporary editorial illustration is a creation of the Western world that arrived in Iran with printing press technology,” he says.

“Naturally, I was influenced by this during the earlier stages of my development, but in time I recognised the vast reservoir of our tradition in visual arts, which allowed me to create works that reflected this.”

The veteran designer, who has garnered particular acclaim for his music posters, points to the revolution and the resurgence of national identity as a catalyst for a more Iranian-minded interpretation of the graphic. “Following the revolution of 1979, the general populace became more aware of the art of graphic design, with the nation’s young generation showing a stronger desire to learn and study graphic design,” he posits.

“With the weakening of Western cultures’ influence on Persian graphic design, the artistic circles gravitated to the Persian influence.”

Vazirian (pictured), 48, is one of the key protagonists of a younger generation Iranian designers who have only worked in the post 1979 environment. His work resonates with fine, hand-painted detail and texture and strong contemporary typefaces and colour configurations.

“Graphic works are not created to be confined to stay in geographical boundaries or a single room,” he says. “The artist’s job is his awareness of his native culture and protection of it. We must not ignore the fact that the global movement, in the meantime, is irresistible and indivisible.”

While Vazirian’s work shows a strong national slant – his publisher Bahmanpour prefaces our conversation by describing Vazirian as a “radical revolutionary” who couldn’t bear the presence of Momayez and his like in tertiary institutions because of their more Western artistic tendencies – he understands his work as transcending political orientation.

“Political personalities can keep their thoughts hidden from people – say something and do something else – but the artist cannot act this way.”

That said, keeping oneself removed from the political sphere isn’t always subject for discussion. As Bahmanpour suggests, graphic design is hardly immune from the country’s stringent censorship laws.

“Difficulties exist in every kind of work and every country, but here, the biggest problem is censures,” he says. “Not only in text but also in images! We cannot publish most of the paintings and photographs in our books because of the rules that say they are unlawful.”

Nonetheless, Iranian graphic design is at a healthy stage of development. Five tertiary institutions – including Tehran University’s Faculty of Fine Arts – and six art schools offer courses in graphic design, while the influential Iranian Graphic Designers Society boasts a membership in the thousands.

“The graphic art belongs to the public,” offers Vazirian. “Not to elites.”

Adds Shiva: “From my youth I loved painting and art,” he says. “But in Iran, as in many other countries, art has usually been monopolised by a select minority.”

“When I realised that through graphic design I could communicate more directly with people, I was strongly drawn to it.”

For Bahmanpour, the challenges of publishing in Iran remain great, though that hardly acts as a disincentive. “Activity in publication ground in Iran is the same as walking in darkness!” he jokes. “But I love working in this ground. There is always the possibility of having new and interesting discoveries and experiences.”

Nazar publications are available in select bookstores via IDEA Books.


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