Distinctive within Iranian artist Golnaz Fathi’s second solo UK exhibition, entitled Liminal Subliminal, are three red, black and white painted manuscripts draped from ceiling to floor. To the casual eye there appears to be calligraphy emblazoned across them. On closer inspection, the writings become an amalgamation. Several lines are of Arabic poetry by the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, and a few are Persian script-others are Fathi’s own abstract scribbles or “unwrittens.” It is puzzling, but as the artist explains, the words are not meant to be understood. The intention is that the whole piece affects the viewer on a personal, subconscious level.
Golnaz Fathi’s work is characterized by the combination of energetic smatterings of colored paint with brushstrokes of obscure script. She has been exhibited internationally and to wide acclaim. Indeed, Fathi’s output could be described as embodying contemporary Iranian art-an energetic expressive movement shrouded in ambiguity.
Fathi was born in 1972 in Tehran. As a result she witnessed first-hand the Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war and a flourishing Iranian art market. After graduating in Graphic Design from Tehran’s Azad University, Fathi embarked on an intensive six-year-study of calligraphy, where she was immersed in the highly venerated Islamic discipline-as well as a largely conservative, male environment. Later she began to branch out by investigating the potential in using more abstract forms.
Despite many developments within the art world in Iran, an overbearing scrutiny of art still exists in the country. While mid 1990s Iran experienced a cultural re-birth and the re-opening of art galleries, the demonstrations of last June led to renewed government crackdowns and “interest” in the artistic scene. But where restrictions are imposed, creativity thrives. Fathi is an influential member of that currently thriving generation in the Iranian art world.
Although Iranian contemporary artwork tends to run the risk of being politicized, in an interview with The Majalla, Fathi emphasizes a determination to break free from overtly political readings of her work. As her pieces are left untitled and therefore stripped of a predetermined interpretation, the autobiographical imprint in her paintings is also indistinct. Fathi invites her viewers to take their own experiences from her pure “visual language,” leaving them to interpret each piece for themselves.
The Majalla: How does this exhibition differ from your first solo exhibition?
My first solo exhibition was in 1998, a long time ago. It is amazing because at that time we had only two main galleries in Tehran, can you imagine? It was years after the war so the country was starting to rebuild itself. I remember, two years before the exhibition I always used to go to these openings and in my heart I was asking, “can I have an exhibition here one day?” In 1998 I had that show, and today we have more than 160 galleries in Tehran.
Q: Growing up in Tehran, at what stage did you first become aware of art or artists, and did any of them have a particular influence on you?
I was always influenced by abstract expressionists. I still am because I love to stand in front of a painting that drives me crazy with energy. There are so many great artists producing completely different work, but when you see a good artwork it gives you the energy to go and work yourself. It makes life beautiful. I have a great day when I view the works of Anish Kapoor. When I see a good exhibition I would rather go to my atelier and immediately start working with that energy instead of having dinner with friends. Alternatively, when I see bad exhibitions I lose my energy-I can’t work that day.
When I was nine years old my mum took me to these painting classes and I went there for two or three years. If I were to say I had any teaching it was during those years. At that time I knew I wanted to become a painter. It is amazing; I was really determined and thought, “I love this. I want to become a painter.” At that age people usually say they want to be a doctor, especially in my country, everybody says either engineer or doctor. Now that I have become a painter I have the courage to say that even at that time I knew, but that was only inside my heart.
I studied Graphic Design because I did not believe in academic studies for art. University cannot make you a painter, a degree cannot make you a musician-it should be in your blood. I cannot call myself an artist either. My belief is that “artist” is a great compliment. If somebody asks me what I do, I do not say I am an artist. How can I say I give this title to myself? The fact is that I do a painting then leave it to other people to judge if I am an artist.
Q: You studied calligraphy for six years in what has been described as a privileged world. As your art is a marriage of this old discipline and new media, is this a form of rebellion against prescriptive rules?
I am thankful for those years. Traditional calligraphy is a lifetime’s work. Even if you become a master, you must practice it every day until the end of your life-that is the thing that you learn the first day. Every day you write the alphabet for hours and hours because your hands, like a pianist’s, have to practice so that the fingers get warmed. I did that, working, for six years, every day, eight hours, I loved it-I still love calligraphy. But then I was thinking, “where am I going with the traditional and all this effort?” I mean all day you are doing this and the aim is to be as good as the old masters. In my view, it is not creation it is repetition.
I think it needed courage really, because traditional calligraphy is some kind of a fact-you entered in this world, you are there. The mind is so closed over there and they see the whole world in that square. When you break those boundaries you see there is no end to anything. I do not know if traditional calligraphy is art or not. Do you have the end or destination for art? No, it is like philosophy, does it end? Do you have any answer for it? No. So maybe it is a rebellion yes. Upon graduating I was sure that I could not do graphic design because you take orders and work from that. That also makes me crazy because it locks my brain-again I do not have the freedom of my mind. At that time my steps were truly confident to go the way of painting.
Q: So was it always your intention to transpose your skills into art?
Yes absolutely. I thought I should mix calligraphy with my painting because it is part of me, I have spent time on it and I love it-it takes me to another world. Not specifically Iranian calligraphy either. If I am standing in front of Japanese or Chinese, calligraphy I don’t care if I cannot understand what it says, because for me it is painting. That was the main reason that I mixed calligraphy with my paintings. Throughout the years I tried to take the meaning from it because the meaning of words are important-every human being is touched by meanings and if you use poetry that meaning is doubled-I did not want that to affect my work. When you stand in front of it, it is the painting that should talk to you, not the meaning of the words. What I want from my work is that the painting itself relates to you. It took me 10 years to develop this because in the beginning my scripts were readable.
Q: And then they became more abstract?
Yes and wherever I go with this calligraphy I always say I am grateful for those years because my hand is trained. I know the structure of the alphabet by heart-that is why I believe I can do something else with it. If a hand is not trained and tries to do calligraphy, somehow it cannot connect.
I like the struggle for people who come and stand in front of my painting. They do not know, especially Iranians, if it has kept its identity as Persian calligraphy. Obviously something is written so they stand from afar, they go near and I can see they are trying to read. Sometimes they ask, “excuse me, have you written something or is the problem with me? I can’t read it.” I say, “no I don’t know either, I can’t read it myself.” For the foreigners it is the same, they feel happy because when they ask and I say that I also cannot read it, they say, “good we both can’t read it.” I believe art should keep a mystery to itself, so that it demands questions in the mind of the viewer.
Q: What role do you believe calligraphy has in your work?
Can unwrittens be called calligraphy? I guess then, it is not calligraphy. Art should demand mystery and somehow there is mystery behind calligraphy. It is not okay just to make nice forms. I sometimes say if I was a good speaker I would have chosen to become a writer, instead I have said all the things that I wanted with my brush. And I think I’ve talked too much. I love participation so I always invite my spectators to take part in the works and translate what they see. The reason all of the works are untitled is because I want to give freedom of mind to you, so you dream, you let it go as far as you want to. Imagine if I called a piece “Flower,” immediately you would try to imagine a flower, I don’t like that. Many people come to my openings and give very different opinions and I love this. If you bring ten people of course they have ten different points of view and this shows that one word cannot define one painting, so just let it go.
Q: Do you ever have a certain message in mind when creating a piece?
No. I do not know. I know professionals meditate and when the moment is correct they take up the brush and go with one dash but that dash was six months of thinking. That is why sometimes people say “It is one line but it costs one million dollars.” The professional knows it took him a lifetime of work to be able to do this one line and do that perfectly.
So the thing is, if I am working on a piece, I have to do it right then. If it is after lunch the feeling disappears. It is somehow very unconscious. I am not in this world, I do it and it happens. I am not thinking and I like that. I don’t force myself; anything could happen during the work. I do not know where the red dot would be because I do it and then I see where it fits in the composition. I did not know that my hand would come down at that time. It is like an adventure. Sometimes I make very small sketches to know for example that the work should be vertical or horizontal, something simple like that. I am not afraid if my hand goes up and it changes the composition. I say, “okay, so now the plan has changed what shall we do now?”
Q: Your work has been characterized as autobiographical. You experienced the Iranian revolution at a young age, as well as the Iran Iraq war. Naturally people will focus on this when analyzing your work, to what extent do these events play a role?
I do not know, because of course as a human and a person that has lived there I have seen war, and I have seen hard times after the war. So of course they would have had an impact on me, my character and everything. But the works I do are not political at all. I am doing something personally, creating my inside world in an abstract language. It is not only the revolution, I could break up with my love and of course that might have an impact on my work as well. I am not the one who can answer this, it is up to the viewer to decide. Everything affects me; in London I like to walk, I like to go and sit in a cafeteria and look at people. Even in Iran daily life can give you inspiration, everything can.
Q: For women in Iran there seems to be a conflict behind the idea of veiling and self-expression. As a female artist do you feel this struggle?
Amazingly-even though we don’t have the same rights as men…we have been in parliament. The amazing thing is, even though my government is not good for a woman, after the revolution women have woken up to their own rights, they are so active. They take their own rights; they are not waiting for anybody to give them rights. I’m not the only woman painter; there are so many artists over there. Women are more active than men. Right now around 64 percent of university entrants are women. Women did this themselves, not the country, not the government. We should say bravo to women.
I see it in every field; most of the good lawyers are women. Shireen Abadi got a Nobel Prize a few years ago; she is so brave. Sometimes I am amazed because I see so many women doing things and think how brave they are. So this is something positive. They say that during hard times art happens or good things happen, so maybe it is because of the hard times that women are becoming this strong. They do what they want and they believe they can do it. If you have to go to the court you don’t have the same rights as men. That is still how it is, but in daily life women are very strong.
Q: The colors in your work are intriguing-does red represent trouble?
No, that is the cliché. It is a symbol of life for me; it is life going on. For me it is never blood, for me it is energy. If I look at red, blood is the last thing I think about, but anyway what is blood? If you do not have blood you are dead.
Usually people know me for my black and whites-and a spot of red, this is what they know from Golnaz Fathi. I’m always in the mood for black, white, red and this is because I am not a very colorful person-even dressing-it is my character. For me, black is not darkness; it is the most complete, powerful color. Sometimes I don’t even put a red spot so the work stays monochrome. Sometimes I wake up and say, “oh I need yellow.” It happens. I can’t tell beforehand, it depends on what I want on that day. It might be blue, it might be red, it might be yellow. I always use hot colors.
Q: What are your plans for the near future?
I am going to the Devi art foundation in India for a contemporary art exhibition. I am going to do a six and a half meter wall painting for the museum, for their permanent collection-so that’s some kind of a dream come true for me. There will also be a huge modern calligraphy exhibition in Europe in April next year, starting in Germany. They select two artists from each country and I am representing Iran.
The main thing is I am going to work, because I live for that. If I were to explain what I am going to do in terms of my art, I don’t know-it is like the color.
First published: Wednesday 08 December 2010