All things considered: Golnaz Fathi on art in troubled times

BEIRUT: Golnaz Fathi is picking small bits of shattered glass from the top of her head. It is late in the afternoon on Feb. 14. A few hours earlier, a massive explosion ripped through former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's motorcade. Fathi, an artist who is in town for an exhibition of her paintings at Espace SD, is understandably shaken. Her enormous brown eyes - so vivacious a few days before, when the only thing dampening her visit was torrential rain - have taken on a gloss of reservation. Like many Beirutis, Fathi felt the shock of the bomb blast itself and then an involuntary spasm of memory. In her case, she was crudely reminded not of the civil war in Lebanon but of the violence she knew growing up in Tehran.

Though she travels for exhibitions and speaks English and French with fluid grace, Fathi has always lived in Iran. She is proud of that fact. She is firm in her belief that conditions in her country have improved, especially for artists, over the past five years of President Mohammad Khatemi's rule. She thinks the art scene is growing, that cultural expression is spreading, and that the country's young people will push things further. "But I'm scared of these things happening," she says quietly. "They could happen in my country."

"These things" do have a tendency to dash hope. What makes outrages like Hariri's assassination so tragically depressing is how they affect a full generation of young people who believe in their country's potential, who believe that things can be built (be they tangible things like schools, galleries, small companies, or social services, or intangible things like pride, critical debate, political reform, or cultural exchange), and who believe the future is theirs. It is not just the loss of a man but the resurgence of dirty politics that shatters such confidence and quells the exuberance of youth. Speaking broadly of Lebanon and Iran, Fathi says: "I hope things will go positively. There's a lot of talent and a lot of energy and I hope that won't stop."

It seems difficult, if not useless, to talk about art on a day like this. But at the same time - and in the same way that reciting verses from the Koran during a period of mourning brings home the importance of reflection and introspection - it is strangely cathartic. Art cannot be totally isolated from the context in which it is made or seen. In its attempt to make sense of the world, art is inevitably informed, even sharpened, by politics. And in its ability to give pause, art is arguably, even crucially, a restorative engagement.

At 32, Fathi is one of the few women in her country to rise to prominence in the ancient, typically male-dominated tradition of calligraphy. She is formally trained in three of the seven official forms. Yet her paintings break all the rules. One recognizes that there are scripts in her work, but there are no words to be read. Fathi has stripped the letters down to bare gestures. Her paintings carry traces of meaning that have no known or coded alphabet. Their strength stems from the drive to express emotions that cannot be pinned down into words. Fathi's work succeeds where language fails. All things considered, there is solace to be found in that.

"Calligraphy used to be the kind of art that only men would do," she explains. "Because it was so difficult, it needed a lifetime. Now it's different." Fathi studied for six years at Iran's Calligraphy Association. By the time she was 26, she was certified in nastaliq, one of the strongest of the ancient scripts, and two other styles, one of which was mandatory while the other was elective. Eight years ago, she was named the top female calligrapher in Iran.

But for all her success, Fathi found the discipline of calligraphy stifling. "In the world of calligraphy it's the tradition that speaks," she says. "You don't have the freedom of your mind. I have always loved calligraphy. But for me it's not important what's written there. I look at it with pictorial eyes."

The New York Times correspondent Elaine Sciolino describes the young artist as a friend. In her book "Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran," Sciolino writes that in the mid-1990s, Fathi "began to improvise with a radical type of calligraphy called siah mashgh, 'exercises in black.' Her calligrapher's pen began to move in radically different directions on the page. The letters grew and stretched until the words no longer came together to form lines from poets like Hafiz or Saadi. In fact, the words meant nothing. The result was a storm of calligraphic curves."

At first, Fathi admits that it was difficult for her to strike a balance between calligraphic etchings and painterly brushstrokes. The fact that she has been painting since she was nine helped, as did her studies in graphic design at Tehran's Azad Art University. Still, she says: "I know the structure of calligraphy very well. A few years ago it was still readable in my paintings. It took time to get to a point where you recognize that there is calligraphy but there is no word written."

For sure, letters are legible in Fathi's current body of work. But any attempts to read them, link them, or sound them out into words will inevitably fall short. They sprawl across the picture plane like a restless mind throwing out seemingly random thoughts. In a sense, these paintings are preverbal, capturing a moment before an articulation of meaning takes hold. That they are so densely textured suggests that a full mental landscape is forming through the very process of painting.

When Fathi is working, she says she doesn't have any idea how her paintings will turn out. She sketches the rough elements of a composition beforehand, but as she explains: "I don't know how it's going to end. When the feeling starts coming I paint, even if it's three in the morning." The more pressing question, she suggests, is this: "At what stage do you think it's over? That's why I say [the way I work] is similar to improvisation in jazz music."

Fathi has exhibited her work extensively since the mid-1990s. She has participated in group shows in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Paris, Madrid, Brussels, Dubai, and numerous times over in Tehran. She has staged nine solo shows in the past seven years alone. While she enjoys the exposure, she is circumspect about how much contemporary art can do. "Some people pass through and they don't even look," she says. "But you never know. Maybe one glimpse can create something that lasts."

What one sees in Fathi's work now is a heavy surface built-up thick with ink and acrylic paint. Sometimes she uses pigments and wood glue, other times she pastes pages from old illuminated manuscripts directly onto the canvas. Her color palette is almost always spare, with large pools of black and occasional splashes of blue, yellow, or red.

"I follow my emotions," she explains. "In the beginning, the blues in my paintings came from Isfahan ... The blues were quite irresistible. After that, the colors disappeared and became this black, that brown."

In the exhibition at Espace SD, there is a clear repetition of circular forms in Fathi's work. In most cases, Fathi says, the shapes, like the colors, emerge from somewhere deep in her subconscious. In the same way her letters resist forming words, she avoids delving too far into expository explanations of her work. Not coincidentally, none of the 20 canvases here are titled. "Even for me it's hard to put one word to the painting," she says. "I want to give freedom to the viewer. Somehow I ask them to take part. I have said what I want to say. Now I want them to tell me what they see."

Only for one painting does Fathi break down all the graphic elements at play. "These three circles," she says, pointing to a large canvas at the back of the gallery, "are me between two people in my life. And the red means that I'm hurt. Red in my paintings is never blood. It's energy. It's the push to go on."

Golnaz Fathi's paintings will be on view at Espace SD in Gemmayzeh through March 5. For more information, call +961 1 563114.





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