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I have been born painter

5/30/01 Interview with Parvaneh Etemadi

By Roya Monajem

Parvaneh Etemadi, one of the most remarkable contemporary Iranian painters was born in Tehran in 1947, studied painting in the college of fine arts of Tehran and has had many individual and group exhibitions since 1968.

She left university as a protest against the current values of the time and joined the group called Talar Ghandriz and as she puts it, 'on those days the vocation of art was sought in abstraction and the presence of literature in painting seemed to them nauseating, at first I followed them step by step, but finally I got tired and left them and returned to figurative art.'

In her creative work, she has gone through several periods, but in her last individual exhibition in Farhangsaray Niyavaran with the poetical title, 'Dowry of the Princes of Fairies', we witnessed a new trend in her creative endeavor.

There was also an exhibition of her works in Green Art Gallery of Dubai that was well received by art-lovers and art critics.

She was selected as one of the designers of Expo 2000 held in Hamburg last summer, and her works for this great event were chosen as 'the most elegant.'


Q: As the first question would you tell us about the reason or reasons of your appeal to the art of painting and how did this inclination develop in you?

A: The best thing I can say in this regard is that I have been born painter. To me no matter what one does, one is born as such. A creative child usually shows her creativity in her childish plays. We should see whether that child plays with her own subjective mind or with the conventional cliché instruments and from this it will be known whether in this course of entertaining herself, she will reach her own personal means or not and whether she can create a change in her inner world through the means accessible to her or not. If she succeeds in producing such change then we would know that she is individually a capable person. In other words, this is an inherent ability and she is that ability.

If she were not given a painting brush at this time, she would use something else to express her creativity, for example, by making a house with clay in a corner of the backyard. In fact we can consider the clay house as her first tableau. Mothers usually neglect such acts and behaviors or they might regard the child uneducable. The child is considered ill-mannered and uneducable because she does not do what other children do and do not participate in collective plays; because she is living in her own world, a world that she tries to discover and accomplish. Not only mothers are indifferent toward this point, but also they constantly interrupt the trend of thoughts of such children. When we tidy up their rooms we, in fact we disturb the orderliness of their mind. We force them to interrupt their ordered system of thoughts in order to keep order in their rooms. Therefore, we in fact act against ourselves. We force many creative children to become uncreative in this way. First at home, then at school, university and...


Q: How do you evaluat contemporary Iranian art as an artist?

A: Contemporary Iranian art is like the contemporary painting of other parts of the world. That means it is preoccupied with Modernism! And it is forty years that Modernism has become Classical.


Q: What do you mean by that?

A: What I mean is that modern man should have a good understanding of his time.  The first thing we expect from a modern human being is to be able to grasp the current conditions. But such understanding does not exist, and people are still sitting in front of their canvases and try to repeat the experiences now belong to the past, such as those of Impressionists or Bauhaus Modernists or Constructivists or any other 'isms' and to endow them with a higher level of sensitivity and richness...For how long more? All these 'isms' have already had their resonance in the society. Today a modern human being should sit and think whether he/she has a good understanding of the present conditions or is he/she still attached to the same old mental habits. Such mental habits are in reality the subjects taught and believed forty years ago, but people think 'that's it' and there is nothing else and it is as though they have inserted their heads beneath the snow and refuse to look around and see that the contemporary world is the world of communication and the language of communication is an international language. We are so indulged in the so-called game of 'expertise and dealerships and masterships' that such communication is no longer taking place. This is what artists should note, instead they just grumble for not being perceived?

Well the contemporary art is the art of communication. This is the kind of art that should be taught. We should learn to communicate through art. Why? Because artists feed on a root, a root that is called collective memory and includes all the nations of the world. Today, all 'isms', all walls and all 'musts' have already collapsed. It is indeed the era of freedom of expression and thought. One can use the whole humanity with whom one communicates to select and judge the most general and the most universal, the most collective trend that wishes to carry the whole world on its shoulder to take it into the next century. While we are still attached to styles, to academic principles and to Biennials! These are the sorts of things we want to feed on and have forgotten what technology can offer us in order to enter new dimensions of arts.


Q: What is your suggestion and solution for the young generation?

A: They should think for themselves...What we lack is an essentially individualized thinker. Novel ideas of various nations of the world created technology that has now progressed to such an extent that people think collectively today, as it is believed that 'collective' has higher efficiency. When one has a collective mind, one's behavior would be like that of honeybees: mechanical and with the same orderliness and organization observed in the life of these social creatures.

As you see, humanity has been transformed into an instrument, but now collective thoughts are losing their efficiency. Today, only individuals who think with their own brains can be creative and it is up to such creative individuals to say what we can do with all these instruments produced with the intention to make us happier. All systems reveal only the conflicts and wars and differences; it is only art that says: you that live in another part of the world, you too can enjoy the music of other parts of the world even though your country might be at war with them! For we are all of the same people and suffer from the same pains and enjoy the same delights.

We have all lived in the same earth. We have familiarized ourselves with each other for years. Today, human beings should pay more attention to similarities rather than differences in order to be able to organize the collective intelligence. Well who can organize this collective intelligence? Nobody except the artist...

I paint with other artists to attain new experiences in the artistic field with another artist. No matter whether it is a mixture of music and painting or paintings of two different artists, all these individualities and individuals can come into contact with each other; it is like consultation, or piling up of a series of information. This is the solution that I have personally arrived at that has been successful and effective to some extent.


Q: In your opinion, what other instruments or means can be used instead of painting brush and canvas?

A: I cannot find a solution for other painters. Any means of painting may appear appealing to the mind of a painter for a period of time. I can only refer to my own personal solutions and say that the time of art presentation through such means seems to be over, because their application naturally prolongs the time to reach the final results and any thing that takes a long time to be performed should be supervised otherwise it will be treated superficially.

In my last exhibition 'Paper Dancers', I suggested that one should not pause more than one second in front of each work as they are not independent individual works, but one whole work. None follows the classical principles of making a tableau; they have all been carried out fast and so they should be seen fast and collectively in order to feel what they are. In fact it can be said that they are something like a movie that when you go home and close your eyes and wish to remember them, they all come to your mind collectively and not one by one, as individually they are too fast, too cheap and accomplished fast.

What is important is the image that has been produced and it has a visual and not a technical value. Techniques are not carried out by the Xerox machine and computer photography. They are no longer the work of contemporary human being. They are hand industry with the same values as hand industry, something that I no longer would buy its ideas and thoughts, as the most modern ideas and thoughts belong to forty years ago. And in relation to hand industry, there is no need for any clamor. How is it that carpet weavers do not claim so much - nor do Gelim (rough small carpets) weavers and other artisans in general. They are all a kind of hand industry and that means that they perform a pattern beautifully, but the idea has not been and is not theirs.


Q: Among the tribal people, girls express their own ideas and aspirations by weaving Gabeh (a kind of carpet with rough knots and patterns) even though the weaving instruments belong to thousands years ago.

A: Yes, that is very good! That is why we worship and appreciate their works, but in any case these works are still classified as hand industry and are among our tourist attractions and we cannot count on them as a modern human being.


Q: But the idea is very Modern!

A: No it is not modern, what is modern anyway?


Q: To be contemporary.

A: What does this mean?


Q: It means being familiar with one's own space-time.

A: Yes, it means that it is no longer the time to sit and weave carpets, it is the time to sit down and think what sort of design and pattern they should give to the corresponding machines, as it is the machine that has to make it. Machine should be able to weave a carpet, it should be able to weave carpets for the whole world, otherwise why did we invent this machine?


Q: There are two different discussions here...

A: Yes, as a middle eastern painter who should be given at least $20000 for a graphic design, but even when I want to sell it for $1000 there is still no customer for it! Tomorrow when I don't have the money to buy my daily bread and meat, I have to sell it for $100, that is the price of a small carpet (ghalicheh), but in my work there is thought as well, but it has been reduced to the level of a ghalicheh and this is painful.


Q: How do you define art?

A: I don't define art, I perform art. Presenting definition is the task of other people.


Q: As an artist, you define...

A: I don't define, if I didn't create art, then I would have sat down and defined it for you, for the task of an artist is to create art and it is the task of the philosopher to rationalize it. Why should you ask an artist to be a philosopher too? If I define art, I either define my own philosophy... that I prefer not to as I perform it, or I borrow another person's ideas and define it from his point of view, such as Picasso's, that I will not do. The academic teachers carry out such task for you, they present you with so many artistic theories that you forget to perform art! You would change into an artistic theoretician, while your hand would no longer be able to draw one sensitive line as you would be afraid to be judged.


Q: You mentioned Picasso as an example. Picasso, while being an innovator in his own time, has expressed his own theory about art too.

A: Yes, I do express my views too, but it depends on where I am. Now I will not do that because I believe that nothing should be said about visual arts and we should not talk about it at all as it would produce misunderstanding. The script of primitive man was a visual one. One learns through seeing and hearing much faster and more directly, one absorbs faster and understands faster. We created words to communicate with each other; the act of putting words next to each other is the product of reason. Such act pass through the intellectual filters and may be changed into and interpreted in many different forms and it is possible to interpret them in thousand different ways, as they change into thousand individual images and forms. But an image has one common effect, everybody sees the same image and the same image is recorded to be perceived. So why should we render it into a language that is comparably quite inefficient. Generally, I believe that we should ask questions that are within the boundaries of one's work, why should everybody theorize about everything?!


Q: To me it is the right of an artist to theorize and talk about art.

A: Here everybody is talking about art, so let somebody perform it and goes away... and let her say 'be quiet and only look and enjoy and feel your own imagination about this work.' They should not let me talk about this subject and limit your mind in this way and do not allow your imagination to work. Don't ask me such things at all!!... I have deliberately left these works unfinished to be completed by your imagination.


Q: Thus you have left them unfinished with full knowledge of what you are doing?

A: No, after I finished them, I discovered why. In other words I pondered about it and then I realized why I have done it; not that I thought about it beforehand and then I performed a pre-thought idea. It is now thirty years that I am doing that. It is only when I look at the works created twenty years ago, i.e. through a distant perspective that I realize what I had done at that time. Such realization could not happen then and that is why I believe that only artists are aware of their unconscious and it is their unconscious that they perform, then after thirty years when they look at their works, they realizes a lot of things that they could not be aware of at the time of performing them.


Q: Do you think that the artist and his/her work should fulfill any political -social or moral commitment? Or the aesthetic of the work is sufficient to justify it?

A: An artist has only one commitment. Artists are individuals born in their own personal world and their sole mission in life is to accomplish this personal world and leave. The same is true about sportsmen and in fact everybody has the same mission. The ideal world is the world in which one is so individualized and tries to accomplish one's own world that one would no longer suffer from pluralism.

How is it possible to be an artist, that is an individualized person and present a collective subjectivity? It is here that an inner conflict arises, because an artist is an individual, because he/she obsessively completes a task and dies. No doubt that he/she possesses an aesthetic pattern and exercises only in the framework of this pattern and refine it. He/she would color it and see into it to make it attain utmost beauty before he/she leaves this world. That is why you would not need his/her signature, you would recognize and identify his/her work wherever you see or hear it and you would say this is by Mozart or it belongs to Picasso or Degas. It is because it possesses an identity that becomes so powerful and effective that it would attain a personal individuality and ultimately it would be unique. It is only then that it would be an exceptional work and would enter the history of art and art colleges would repeat it over and over again and expect to turn into it, but alas they cannot, because they have not been taught how to think properly while one's duty in an art college is to learn how to perform thought with utmost sensitivity and attain the result. This is the true duty of an artist.


Q: You entered the college of fine arts in 1968, why did you quit it? Was it because the atmosphere did not fulfill you needs?

A: I gave it up because it wasted my time and because my outlook and mind was much more advanced than what we were supposed to perform in the college; because we had to work for grades and thank god I had the wit to realize that I was doing better than those teaching me! That is why I say that when you are artist you follow your own obsessions and my reason can not read their minds and the things that go on there? One should express oneself purely in ones privacy and draw what one feels one should draw. One should not mind what for example Mr. Javadipour might say. It is possible to be disproved by some. If one pays attention to what others might say then one's imagination would operate at the level dictated by the average taste of one's teachers and would work accordingly and gradually this changes into a habit, a secondary habit that would simply make you work badly.

That is why you and similar people graduate from art colleges, although you have a degree, but you don't know what you should draw! and the problem starts exactly from here. You should not draw anything except your pure self, but how can you do that when you can't find yourself in the college. Instead they do something to make you forget your true self. They cover you under thousand different layers of history of art to make you become oblivious of your transparent self. Whenever a graduate person comes here the first question that I would ask her is 'can you take yourself back to when you were fourteen years old?' Then I would tell her quite discreetly that you should go and see how you drew a duck at that age. This poor person should go and forget all the things she has learnt. First she is quite invalid, but I would constantly remind her that you didn't draw like that at that time; at that age, that is when they had not still ruined your mind. It is from there that I pull out a painter.


Q: Don't you find the contemporary social atmosphere more progressive than before?

A: This has never been my problem, let alone to see whether it is more progressive or not. My main preoccupation is that I am born with an obsession, that my task is to beautify; no matter where you put me, I start to cultivate and transform and beautify.


Q: I mean the social approach to arts?

A: No, no it is much worse! For there is less encouragement, though artists don't need social encouragement. Now is the best time for reflection and meditation, as you can freely hang to any part of the history of art that you wish. You can take whatever you want and mix it with something else, you can stick eighteenth century to twentieth century. Put something of the primitive man in your work only if the society absorbs that synthesis.


Q: So finally the history of art has become useful?

A: No! The history of art that I have in mind is 'the soul of the society.'


Q: Would you elaborate what you mean by this 'soul of the society' please?

A: It means the collective spirit and intellect that each time that it is truly performed it appears as a new aesthetic standard and transforms into a cult. In other words, it is first established as a cult and once its skeleton becomes firm, it transforms into an aesthetic structure that is re-absorbed by the society and it is in this way that it endures and lasts.

We live in this geographical place and climate and if we let ourselves to be free we would realize that we have tastes shared by thousands other people of the society, for we all come from the same place and have the same roots. Why is it that you suddenly encounter somebody who has almost the same tastes that you possess? You feel it is as though you have intimately known this person for years. Well as an artist, if you perform yourself totally and believe that millions other people share the same sensitivities then when you express their sensitivities so beautifully they would encourage and applaud you. That is how the society absorbs you.

In essence, one of the effects of art is to produce mystery in the society. That is bestowing values to those values that have lost their worth. Like any of our old carpet designs that have been ruined due to exaggerated use and have changed into quite ugly configurations. It is enough to look at the original to realize how beautiful and exact they once were. One of the things that artist do is to attract the attention of the society to those values that it once possessed, but has now forgotten them and this is only possible through the effect that the art work produces and when the society absorbs it to a considerable degree, it would mean that it must have had deep roots in the society that is now remembered again. It is like the stories with the same theme that are recounted thousands times in different forms until they exhaust their value, but then they are once again re-evaluated and revived.


Q: In your last exhibition 'Paper Dancers', the spectators were confronted with a new style. How did you reach it?

A: As I mentioned before and if we decide to look at them individually, we would see that none of them expresses what has been so far performed in paintings. First, they happened very quickly and with such a medium that repels speed, a medium (color pencils) suitable for meticulous detailed works. However, it took me twenty years to accomplish that detailed part, but with that slow painstaking work I performed very quickly accomplished pieces.

When you perform a work quickly, you have, or I better say it compels you to simplify it to a great extent, to omit all the ornaments, because it does not agree with all that detailed work. However if I wanted to produce a quick effect that would still carry as much details, can you imagine how much work that would have demanded!? I should have spent a tremendous amount of time. I had done it; it took me twenty years; but the time for this type of work is over. In addition, as a painter, any theme that I like to deal with produces at least ten to fifteen images in my mind that I study and draw all of them to choose one to perform and with that the work is accomplished, while the other ideas or images can be as powerful and can communicate with the spectator as good as the one chosen. Why should the spectator be deprived of the chance to see all of them! In this way, I can perform all of them. In other words, I can make an image of whatever that comes to my mind.

You may very well say that they could happen quite simply and there was no need for so much ornament and details; I would say no...for me it was necessary. Perhaps what seems appealing to you are those very details and it demanded those details. While observation of details demands long period of time, but they should be seen quickly, for the number of images is so high that you are forced to get around them rapidly.

They are not attached to anywhere, they don't make one to remember any specific time or place, therefore, you can put each of them in your own illusory places. You can make each to do something, for each has an attraction or pull from all sides of the frame. However, usually spectators do not go to art exhibitions to confront something new, as they are used to confront things that they have seen thousand times! Consequently, in an art exhibition in which all the figures tend to come out of the wall and none can be considered as a single independent tableau, they stand in front of each tableau and look at it for half an hour and they expect it to be a tableau. But this is not my problem, it is that of the spectator that has forgotten that he/she goes to an exhibition to experience a new phenomenon and determine his/her conditions anew.

Where does the spectator stand, does he overcome something or is overcome by it? What is the goal of such performance? This is not really my question, it is the problem of academies and the habit of seeing in a particular way.


Q: How can one oppose this habit?
A: The first point that an artist should oppose is not to let his/her eyes to get used to seeing things in a particular way, for as soon as the eyes develop such habit, they can no longer hunt the image. In hunting as soon as you see the prey you should shoot, if you hesitate, the bullet will definitely not hit the target. There are cases that are seen only in one moment and then it hangs to things and it will lose its freshness and its elaboration is constantly cut down by reason.


Q: If there is anything else that you like to talk about, please do so.

A: If I had something to say, I would have not appealed to painting, and would become a radio broadcaster or would write articles.


Q: And you do indeed write beautifully.

A: Well it depends what I want to do and with what sort of view I like to approach life and interfere with its processes, otherwise there is only one art and that is poetry. The rest are 'media', one composes poems with color pencils, one with oil painting, one with words and another with cinema... The important point is to be Poet; the media of your work makes no difference.

I believe such poet should be inherently artist no matter with what instrument he/she works, whether word or image. In fact he/she should be able to work with whatever instrument he/she is given.

Parvaneh Etemadi is one of the Iranian artists whose work is being shown in the A Breeze from the Gardens of Persia: New Art from Iran exhibition (currently in Washington, DC).

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