The Calligraphy of Mostafa Nourbakhsh
This April, the Contemporary and Modern Art Gallery (CAMA Gallery) will be opening their new premises in London. A welcome addition to London’s renowned international art scene, the new site in St James’ will showcase an array of the finest talent from the Middle East. Already an established presence in Tehran, the CAMA Gallery aims to revolutionise the Iranian art world and open up the market for collectors. With a long roster of talented artists, London based art lovers will finally have the opportunity to view works that have yet to be seen in Britain.
Some of the most anticipated arrivals are the calligraphic works of Mostafa Nourbakhsh. Born in the Iranian city of Shahr-e Kord, he began producing art in the late eighties. Despite success in various exhibitions, Nourbakhsh chose to distance himself from the burgeoning modern art movements in Iran. As a result of his isolation, the art he produces is truly unique. Far removed from the pressures of the commercial art world, he was free to pursue his bold exploration of calligraphy. Unrestrained by traditional media, he pushes the boundaries of the art form in his attempt to capture ‘the soul of art’.
Understandably, a London based audience unversed in the Persian language may be hesitant in approaching calligraphy. Even to fluent Farsi speakers, there is a level of ambiguity in Nourbakhsh’s work. In Fishes (2004), the script itself is enlarged and cropped to the point of near illegibility. The letter sin (س) is visible at the bottom of the image, created in the negative space that doubles as a grasping shape reaching upwards. Yet, the letter’s relation to the other elements of the composition is unclear. It has been speculated that when combined with the other vertically tilted letter forms (حر) – the thick framing line on the right – it could be read as sahar (سحر), which means dawn in Farsi.
The four abstracted fish are perhaps the more easily distinguishable forms. All near identical, the shapes are made readable by the elegant tails. Tapering to a delicate point, the tails serve a dual function of demonstrating both Nourbakhsh’s mastery of his medium, as well as imbuing the fish with directionality. This gives the impression that the fish are swimming away from the grasping form of the letter sin. Barred from the right edge of the work by the encircling letter shapes, they swim towards the empty ground of the paper. Interestingly, goldfish are often brought into homes during Iranian New Year. Occurring in March, the celebration is called Nowruz, which means new day or daylight. During this time fish are frequently placed on a table alongside the traditional Haft Sin (The Seven Ss) before being released into the wild on the thirteenth day of celebrations. The inclusion of the word sahar then, with its connotations of new beginnings would be a fitting accompaniment to the painted fish’s bid for freedom.
The CAMA Gallery opening in London proves a fantastic opportunity for works like this to introduce Iranian cultural traditions to a London audience. However, even without the surrounding context or knowledge of Farsi, those uninitiated in Iranian culture are able to enjoy contemplating the piece. In the 21st century we are more globally connected than ever, and ideas are rarely confined to a specific locality. It’s not surprising then that many of the artistic debates pertinent to Fishes will be familiar to British art enthusiasts. As a work of calligraphy, Fishes is notable for the lack of distinction between word and image. Pictorial forms and words are both incorporated naturally into the composition, and neither is given precedence over the other. Instead, the fish are handled in much the same way as the letters and utilise the same techniques. To a western viewer, this could be seen to challenge inherent assumptions about the differing treatment of words and images. After all, there is no material difference between a drawn letter and a meaningful scribble.
Of course, Fishes does not come from a British context, and placing it within the discourses of western art history has its issues. Yet, in some ways, it is unavoidable. When a viewer is less familiar with the culture of the artwork they are likely to make links of their own. It is impossible to entirely discard our own cultural understanding while viewing a painting. However, I firmly believe that in showing artworks outside of their country of origin, galleries can help overcome inherited misconceptions about non-European cultures. Here the artwork illustrates the fact that similar intellectual debates have always happened elsewhere, whether in writing or developed through artistic practices. And, in this case, there is much to appreciate within the work without placing an emphasis on the written word.
In fact, occasionally Nourbakhsh’s moves away from easily legible symbols entirely and his oeuvre contains some completely abstract works. Examples such as the untitled work below, celebrate the mark making potential of calligraphic implements and focus on their expressive quality. The quick and confident movements are repeated recalling the endless repetition of calligraphic practice. Yet here, the repetition is exaggerated to the extent that the work’s surface is damaged, becoming textural. It is enjoyable at a tactile level and demands no understanding of language, only requiring the viewer to be willing to engage with the abstract.
As well as experimenting with the content of his work, Nourbakhsh also expands the traditional boundaries of calligraphy through his adoption of new media. In the CAMA Gallery’s Tehran space, he recently held a solo show. Titled ‘From Toner to Miracle’ it is an apt description alluding to his unconventional materials. In works such as Smoke (2008), Nourbakhsh uses printer toner, a quotidian material that his work elevates to an object of contemplation. He manages this, not by changing the function of the toner, but presenting it in a new form. Both in its everyday use and in the hands of the artist, the toner is used to depict the written word. Yet here, Nourbakhsh has found an innovative way to use the medium that allows for greater flexibility in his working practice. By using the toner powder, Nourbakhsh is able to continually adjust his work, erasing and reworking the piece right until it is heated and left to set. Where the toner is most thinly applied the white of the paper shines through, while the thicker sections are pitch black and are texturally built up in a way that is not possible with traditional inks. Smoke is a fantastic example of this process. Here the legibility of the calligraphy gives way to the atmospheric quality of the piece. The sensuous lines imitate the work’s namesake, with a gradation of greys capturing the transparency and ephemeral nature of smoke. As the piece was developed, each mark in the powdered toner effaced older strokes, creating a palimpsest.
The fluidity of the toner as a medium appears to be a stark contrast to Nourbakhsh’s work on copper. The painstaking process of both chasing and repoussé are time consuming and remove the spontaneity evident in his toner works. Yet, much like Fishes, these large pieces in copper can be understood both within an Iranian context as well as independently. The method is reminiscent of traditional Iranian crafts such as Ghalam Zani (literally translating as pen beating, it is engraving and embossing), though Nourbakhsh himself has never professed an interested in the decorative arts.
Instead, by removing himself from commercial pressures, his work illustrates a freedom to experiment and extend the boundaries of calligraphy. Unrestricted by the traditional reed pen and ink, Nourbakhsh is best able to explore the expressive quality of calligraphy. It is this focus on the tactile and abstract, that lends his work a universal character. In his attempts to explore ‘the soul of art’ there is much that will undoubtedly resonate with British audiences at the CAMA Gallery’s opening.