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Contemporary Iranian Art Mixes Persian Symbols, Modern Approach


"Wishes and Dreams" exhibit scheduled to tour nine U.S. cities

Washington – Young Iranian artists incorporate traditional Persian symbols in many of the abstract, minimalist or even digital and video works of art currently on exhibit at the Meridian International Center in Washington.

The symbols help Iranian viewers connect to the artwork in “Wishes and Dreams: Iran’s New Generation Emerges” and to their heritage.  But even for American viewers, the symbols add depth, contrast and interest. The collection of modern works – approachable and aesthetically pleasing – introduces Americans to contemporary Iran.

Exhibit co-curator Nancy Matthews of the Meridian Center said she and co-curator A. R. Sami Azar, former director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, set out to gather a sampling of the artwork being done by emerging artists in Iran's capital, Tehran.

“The majority of the population in Iran today is under the age of 40; this timely exhibition focuses on them,” Matthews said. The artists exhibiting their works are between the ages of 22 and 44.

“The art scene is very active in Tehran, and we wanted to include in the exhibition examples of the most common trends,” Matthews told USINFO. All the works fall into modern categories Americans will find familiar, including portraiture, minimalism, abstraction, expressionism, digital imaging and video projection.

The exhibition, co-sponsored by the Meridian Center and the Tehran University Art Gallery, runs in Washington until July 29 and then will travel to eight other American cities through 2008. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised the artwork of the Iranian artists for creating a bridge between Iranian and American culture. (See related article.)

Golnaz Fathi, Rhythm 1, acrylic on canvas, 2006. Among sweeping white
brushstrokes on Rhythm 1, a black-painted diptych, are calligraphic forms,
a traditional Iranian art form.
(Image courtesy of Golnaz Fathi)

Among sweeping white brushstrokes on Rhythm 1, a black-painted diptych, are calligraphic forms. Artist Golnaz Fathi told USINFO that she enjoys the “tension” created by the calligraphy – a traditional Iranian art form – that “dances along the canvas without speaking.” Fathi uses music to inspire her; then she paints calligraphic shapes without concern for any particular letters or words.

Fathi said when she observes Iranians looking at her paintings they are trying to “read” them or find the “secret messages” in them.

“There is a secret in my paintings, but not in the ‘words,’” she said, smiling.


Fathi is one of 14 of the exhibition’s artists who traveled to Washington in May as part of a cultural exchange sponsored by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). The Iranian artists toured Washington museums and galleries and met with local artists before traveling to New York and Kansas City.

At the end of their three-week trip, the Iranian artists will travel to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they will be introduced to that city’s artistic community.  Matthews said the bright turquoise and deep sand colors of Alireza Masoumi’s Friday will strike American viewers as reminiscent of New Mexico landscapes. But Masoumi’s painting, with “hills [that] resemble human figures under a turquoise sky” and several traditional Persian symbols, the artist writes, was inspired by Masoumi’s frequent travels to southern Iran.

Minimalist artist Vahid Hakim, who said he too is inspired by the desert, re-creates the weaving of ancient Persian saddlebags in his ink works on paper.  Hakim uses intertwining forms to recall the texture of small mounds of desert soil that are at once hard and soft.

Two Parrots Picking on a Bowl of Cherries by Rokneddin Haerizadeh “is full of Persian symbols,” Matthews said. From the wall fabric to the parrots to the cherries, the artist uses an impressionist technique to tell a story. “Persian painting has always been narrative,” Haerizadeh writes in the exhibition notes, “and I am searching for a modern narrative.” Iranians will understand the meaning of the symbols, Matthews said, and Americans will enjoy the painting because of its intimate perspective and use of everyday objects.

Bird in Flight, by expressionist Nargess Hashemi, was inspired by a poem, but
the artist wants the viewer to use emotions rather than literary knowledge to
connect with the painting.
(Image courtesy of Nargess Hashemi)

Bird in Flight is inspired by Forough Farokhzad’s poem “The Bird Was Only a Bird,” but the expressionist painting is about “feeling,” artist Nargess Hashemi told USINFO. Hashemi said she does not use traditional symbols in her canvas, which requires viewers’ “emotions, not brains” to connect with the work.

Matthews said many of the artists have been inspired by the 13th-century Iranian poet Jelaluddin Rumi, including Dream of a Woman by Afshin Pirhashemi. “I love Rumi’s poetry and make extensive use of its enigmatic meanings in my work,” Pirhashemi said.

Installation artist Shahnaz Zehtab, whose Mystery of Creation is based on the theme of an allegorical garden, connoting Heaven, uses geometric patterns and intervening gaps to refer to the divine presence in Islamic art. “The azure gaps indicate limitations imposed upon human beings,” Zehtab writes in her exhibition notes.

Video artists Amirali Ghasemi and Ahmed Nadalian use projection imagery to approach contemporary life in Iran. Ghasemi’s light-hearted Coffee House Ladies uses a video recorder to capture conversations. “Coffee shops in Iran are symbols, to some degree, of social freedom,” Ghasemi writes in his exhibition notes. To protect the women’s identities, the artist “blanks” out their faces as they talk about jewelry and friends.

“They talk about what women talk about everywhere,” Matthews said. Their small talk does not “say anything significant.”

Nadalian’s Does the River Still Have Fish? is the artist’s important commentary on environmental destruction. Nadalian carves simple fish and other forms on stones and river rocks and places them in rivers. His video shows close ups of the carved rocks “swimming” in rivers threatened by bulldozers; some of the “fish” become broken along the way.

Matthews said that while Nadalian was in Washington during the ECA cultural exchange, he took his tools to Rock Creek in northwest Washington to remove stones and make his carvings there. When he finished, he returned the Washington “fish” to the creek.

The full text of a press release on the exhibit is available on the Meridian International Center Web site.

(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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