Persian looks

Sign from Iran is a feast for the eyes, the mind and the heart.

Mehdi Saeedi subtly infuses a succulent pomegranate with biting socio-political comment (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mehdi Saeedi subtly infuses a succulent pomegranate with biting socio-political comment
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It is strange and indeed regrettable how our view of a country or a community or even an individual can be colored by agenda-oriented media coverage.
Mention the name Iran to most Israelis and the kneejerk association would probably have something to do with the threat of nuclear attack or the suppression of democracy-related civil rights.
In fact, the latter does come into play in what can only be described as a fabulous array of graphic aesthetics.
The visual feast in question is the “Sign from Iran” poster exhibition which opened Thursday at the Museum of Islamic Art, and will run for six months.
The exhibits were sourced from the Moravian Gallery in Brno, in the Czech Republic, and from the Trnava Poster Triennial in Slovakia.
All told, the show, which is curated by Yossi Lemel, incorporates 60 items created by 27 leading Iranian designers and artists over the last four decades. The stretch of aesthetic ethos is almost mind-boggling. The earliest items date from the 1970s and were made by Morteza Momayez, who went to Paris to study and returned home to pre-Ayatollah Iran with a breath or two of Western air. The poster he devised for the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in 1977 gives pride of place to the complex’s architectural layout in an enticing combo of architectonic elements augmented by psychedelic-looking rainbows, which appear to be romping around with gay abandon. The latter provide the perfect complementary counterpoint to the understated gray construction pieces.
“This is where the revolution in Iranian poster art started. Momayez was the father of that movement,” Lemel notes. “He went to Paris, to study, in 1968 and went back to Iran and initiated the synthesis between East and West. He was a leader and a revolutionary. He broke new ground in Iran without considering where it might all lead.”
Lemel goes along with the ’60s frame of mind when we view a poster that is likely to resonate powerfully with anyone old enough to recall the “flower power” era, a particular landmark work of commercial art.
“That’s pure Milton Glaser,” says the curator, referencing a poster the now 86-year-old New Yorker designer put together to promote Bob Dylan’s then-forthcoming greatest hits compilation. The Glaser work comprised a blacked-out profile of the iconic troubadour’s head topped by a multicolored mane of hair.
The Glaser groundbreaker mind-set was clearly alive and kicking when now-75-year-old Iranian artist Ghobad Shiva got down to creating his 1977 contribution to the new exhibition, which was originally made to advertise that year’s international Shiraz/Persepolis Festival of Arts. The bygone event was based on exploratory multidisciplinary artistic forays and dialogue between Iran and the outside world. The Shiva creation features the imposing head of a mythological Assyrian figure, called a lamasu or Shedu, with Glaseresque shapes scudding around the rear.
It makes for powerful viewing, and the same can be said for most of the other exhibits. Naturally, the mood and visual semantics shift significantly in post-revolution Iran. Artists looking to express their opinion of the totalitarian regime had to walk on egg shells and convey their thoughts and feelings to the world in as subtle a manner as possible.
That certainly comes through in Mehdi Saeedi’s 2008 poster for the Congress of Social Pathology in Iran. The central figure is a succulent-looking pomegranate, the symbol of fertility in ancient Persia. Closer examination, however, reveals that Saeedi surreptitiously introduced some worms into the flesh of the fruit. You don’t have to have a PhD in social sciences to understand the subtext here.
“The pomegranate originates from Iran,” states Lemel. “It symbolizes so many things, and it is such a beautiful thing. But just look at what Saeedi did here. You need to have vision and courage to do that sort of thing. The authorities didn’t catch that.”
Lucky for the artist.
One of the most prominent design themes that runs through the entire Sign from Iran display is the deft inclusion of typography and calligraphy elements in the pictorial end product. It is a constant ingredient of the Iranian design approach, with Shiva providing the earliest specimen – Skiing on the Fire, from 1977. It is one of Shiva’s best-known works, which features a couple of voluptuously lipped mouths, each with a jumble of lettering inside. It is a clear nod to the pop art movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
“That’s pure Andy Warhol,” says Lemel. “Look at the typography. Look at the mass of calligraphy in there and the chapped lips. That’s as blunt as you can be.”
Lettering is a basic building block of the work of 48-year-old Reza Abedini, one of the main contributors to the exhibition, with seven pieces. Abedini fed off the literary topic of the project in hand when he devised Look Book for a 2005 book design show. The artist himself provides the visual anchor, as a dark silhouette holding a book. The title of the exhibition appears at the top of the head, and the body is covered with calligraphic writing.
Inspired by old Islamic and Persian manuscripts, Abedini uses the so-called Siyah Mashgh style (black practice), in which a calligrapher repeats words and sentences several times, with different shapes and sizes. The delicately crafted result combines handwritten letters floating in space that imbue the human figure backdrop with textural plasticity.
Abedini was one of the founders of the Dabireh group, which is a collective of graphic designers who share a love of calligraphy and typography, as well as an interest in the evolution of the Persian language and alphabet. Another member of the group, 36-year-old Farhad Fozouni, has a couple of creations in Sign from Iran. As a poet himself, Fozouni is passionate about words per se, and also infuses his posters with a sense of humor and street-level dynamics.
Lemel is particularly taken with Fozouni’s ability to generate fetching embroidered script. “He has these really complex typographies which create a sort of arabesque effect, of different languages, including German, English and Arabic. That is a fascinating attribute, and Fozouni expertly employs the aesthetic possibilities of the different characters and their inherent cultural and visual baggage.
Politics, naturally, also insinuates itself on the aesthetic proceedings, although, given the nature of the regime in Iran, this generally takes an understated route. That filters through in the delightful Test of Democracy poster from 2005, created by Behrad Javanbakhts. The work advertised a one-day conceptual art exhibition of works by Homayoun Askari Sirizi, prompted by the Iranian presidential elections, and employs a gentle symbol of a hairpin.
Sign from Iran is a feast for the eyes, the mind and the heart.
The exhibition will run through November 19. For more information on the Museum of Islamic Art: