Parviz Tanavoli: An Artist Speaks to All People

'Poet-sculptor' reveals his sources of inspiration

Excerpt: Parviz Tanavoli speaks about the origins of the saqqakhaneh school, the sources of inspiration for his work, and the younger generation of Iranian sculptors. (8 min., 24 sec.)

NEW YORK, February 27, 2012 — "When I first applied to art school in Iran back in the early 1950s, there were neither sculpture studios nor a sculpture instructor," said Parviz Tanavoli, one of the first modern Iranian sculptors. His metal sculptures, combining formal experimentation and poetic symbolism, are admired internationally, and the evening's talk — between this eloquent, soft-spoken artist and Melissa Chiu, Director of the Asia Society Museum — proved that for an artist, following one’s passion is the surest way to a universal language of art.

To call Tanavoli one of the first modern Iranian sculptors is no exaggeration. Tanavoli opened up the field of modern sculpture in Iran after the predominantly painting-focused history of Persian art. In 1953 he enrolled in one of the first art schools in Iran, the Tehran School of Arts, which had just opened a year earlier. The school had no sculpture studio and told him if there were more students entering with the focus on that medium, they would create an appropriate space. Tanavoli convinced his brother to join his pursuit ("Two is more than one, you see"), the school created sculpture studios, and his life as an artist began with this level of determination.

After graduation, Tanavoli studied abroad in Carrera and Milan, Italy. Several years later when he returned to Iran, he was painfully aware that Iranian sculptures were still predominantly statues of the Shah and monuments in public parks. Partly in rebellion against this mostly outdated figurative mode and partly due to necessity for materials, he started to work with found objects, junk metals, and affordable coppers that he sourced from a copper bazaar. This was a radical and controversial move beyond the expectations of fine art at the time, but it was a challenge that Tanavoli and many new generations of artists were ready to face.

In 1960, Abby Grey, an American philanthropist and art collector, happened to have been in Tehran and, without knowing the artist, walked into an opening of Tanavoli's exhibition. What began as a chance encounter at that opening continued a few days later with another chance meeting on an airplane bound for Shiraz, where the now-legendary Shiraz Festival of performance art was taking place. Tanavoli and Grey sat next to each other, started chatting and Grey invited him to Minneapolis. A year later, Tanavoli was a visiting artist at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. The city offered him the time, space and resources that enabled what he now considers the most productive years in his life as an artist. Their meeting not only changed the artist's life but also shaped Grey's commitment to support modern art of Iran.

It was clear that as early as the 1950s, Tanavoli found his source of inspiration in his own culture. For centuries Persian culture has been enriched by beautiful poetry that tells the universal story of human emotions. He is often called one of the main artists of the revivalist trend in art called the saqqakhaneh movement, and he clarified for the audience what this term really means to him; it goes back to the original meaning of that word, that is, a place where people came to have a drink of water. In a desert country, water assumes a special importance, and this place where people would stop to drink came to mean a communal spot where people often opened up their hearts and talked to each other. Those places gradually became holy sites where people prayed to have their problems solved. The symbolic act of these prayers or wishes was to attach a lock or tie a knot to a grill window around the site to unlock your problem. For Tanavoli, this also means opening one's heart, which is at the center of his creativity.

Asked by a member of the audience during the Q & A session whether he would describe himself as a sculptor or as an Iranian sculptor, Tanavoli's answer was firmly the former.

But, he added: "Actually, I don't really care what people call me. But poetry is international, and my sculpture is based on poetry. All artists, through their different mediums, styles, and concepts, express poetry. And what is most important is whether or not this poetry communicates with people."

Reported by Miwako Tezuka, Associate Curator, Asia Society Museum