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Celebrated Sculptor Parviz Tanavoli: They Can’t Stop Me

July 26, 2018
Shima Shahrabi
7 min read
“Oh, Persepolis,” a sculpture by Parviz Tanavoli, sold for $2.8m at Christie’s New York in 2008
“Oh, Persepolis,” a sculpture by Parviz Tanavoli, sold for $2.8m at Christie’s New York in 2008
A new “nothing” by Parviz Tanavoli at Tehran’s Art Space Exhibition
A new “nothing” by Parviz Tanavoli at Tehran’s Art Space Exhibition
Parviz Tanavoli’s newest sculptures, along with works by 40 of his students, are on exhibit in Tehran until August 3
Parviz Tanavoli’s newest sculptures, along with works by 40 of his students, are on exhibit in Tehran until August 3

The Guardian once called him the “Iranian artist who made something out of nothing.” For years, Parviz Tanavoli — one of Iran’s most prominent artists — has been creating tall metal sculptures that spell the word “heech,” or “nothing” in Persian. Now his newest “heeches,” along with sculptures by 40 of his students, are on display at the “All and Nothing” exhibition at Tehran’s Art Space Gallery. The exhibition runs until August 3.

“The exhibition displays works by 40 of my students for the 40 years that I have been teaching,” Tanavoli told IranWire. “Among the works displayed, there are sculptures by a few of my oldest students, whom I taught at the university. But most of the works are by my students in the last 10 or 15 years who were either [studying] at my own workshop or participated in classes that I taught at Mehr Gallery.”

According to him, the exhibition’s main theme is modern sculpture.  “What I want to say is that modern Iranian sculpture is here, it is alive and it exists,” he says. “There was a time when we did not have modern sculpture — or, if we had, it was limited to a couple of people.” Now he says it’s a recognized genre in Iran. 

Tanavoli, a painter as well as a sculptor, has enjoyed international fame. His work commands high prices at international art shows and auction houses. For instance, in 2008, Christie’s New York sold his work “Oh Persepolis” for $2.8 million.

Masters such as Tanavoli are not usually in the habit of displaying their work in group exhibits with their pupils, but Tanavoli is proud of this. “I always follow the works of my students and their fate is important to me,” he says. “I want them to get energy and soar. They would have a difficult time if their teacher abandoned them. For example, good galleries would refuse to give them space. So sometimes when my students want to put on an exhibition, I also contribute a couple of works, like this exhibit — which is really is not mine and where I have a minimal presence. But the gallery owner wanted my name there as well so I offered two or three ‘heeches.’”

Tanavoli’s “heeches” are among his most recognized works, and art collectors regularly compete for them at international auctions. For the Tehran’s Art Space Gallery exhibition, he is presenting his newest ‘heech.’ “I made it in 2018,” he told IranWire. “It’s a big one that I made outside Iran. And that is where the name of the exhibition comes from: I participated with my ‘nothing’ and the others are ‘everything’.”

“Existences” and “Non-Existences”

So why is he interested in making ‘nothings,’ I asked him? “Making ‘heeches’ is part of my life,” he answered without hesitation. “My dream is to fill the world with ‘nothings’ — but my dream is yet to be realized. I believe if I let go of ‘nothing,’ ‘nothing’ will not let go of me. The world is full of ‘existences’ and I want to fill the world with ‘non-existences’ next to ‘existences.’ They complement each other and must go forward side by side. Nobody in the world pays attention to ‘non-existences’ but if they did, they would find it more tangible than any ‘existence’... People connect with my ‘heeches’ more than any other of my works ... You would be surprised, but even Europeans and Americans show a lot of interest, and the moment they learn its meaning their interest is doubled.”

Born in 1937, Parviz Tanavoli is now 81. He has spent all his life learning or teaching art. His was 10 when he was sent to learn how to play violin under the supervision of the Iranian master musician and composer Abolhasan Saba. When he was older he studied at Kamal-ol-Molk Painting Academy and then enrolled at Tehran University’s College of Fine Arts. In 1956, after finishing a three-year program in sculpture, he left Iran for Italy to study at Carrara’s Fine Arts Academy. After two years he ran out of money and returned to Iran to try for a scholarship.

“In the few months that I spent in Tehran I created many works and had two exhibitions,” Tanavoli told me in a previous interview. “The first exhibition consisted of engravings and drawings that I had done mostly in Italy. Most of the drawings were from models but I also included drawings from [religious self-flagellation] processions. The engravings were mostly of public bathhouses and itinerant musicians.”

Scrap Metal into Art

It was in early 1958 that Tanavoli exhibited his statues made of clay or scrap metal. It was the first time in Iran that an exhibition featured a sculptor’s work. After the exhibition, Tanavoli became acquainted with the culture minister, Mehrdad Pahlbod, who went on to grant him a scholarship so he could return to Italy to continue his studies. This time he went to Milan and studied at Milan’s Brera Academy under the distinguished Italian sculptor Marino Marini for almost two years. 

Prior to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, Tanavoli had given 52 of his statues to the city of Tehran for a nominal fee, and some of them were erected around the city. But soon, Tanavoli entered into a dispute with the city’s officials. Before Ahmadinejad became the mayor of Tehran in 2003, Tanavoli and city officials entered into an agreement that would turn Tanavoli’s home into a museum. But when Ahmadinejad took over as mayor, this process slowed down. And when Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf replaced Ahmadinejad as mayor in 2005, it ground to a halt. In 2014, Tanavoli returned his statues to his studio, insisting that city officials had not looked after them adequately. The municipality then filed a complaint against the sculptor and repossessed the statues and took them to an unknown location.

“They are still keeping 57 of my works and the court hearings are still ongoing,” Tanavoli says.

In 2016, Tanavoli was at the airport getting ready to fly to London to deliver a speech at the British Museum and launch his new book, European Women in Persian Houses [video], when he was prevented from boarding the plane and authorities confiscated his passport. At the time he was quoted as speculating that he had been charged with “spreading lies” and “disturbing the public mind” because of his statues, but then photographs of the indictment against him and the warrant for preventing him from leaving Iran emerged. If these photos are genuine, the ban was the result of an injunction issued by the court after a complaint by a collector named Maryam Goodarzi, who demanded payment for six of his statues she had purchased but could not resell. It is unclear whether this story is accurate.

“He is not just an artist, he is a real historian of Iran and has systematically over the years published books about Persian carpets, amulets and other objects,” said Venetia Porter, curator of modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art at the British Museum, after Tanavoli was prevented from flying to London. “This is what’s extraordinary about him: his deep love of Iranian culture, everything he does, all his art stems out of that.”

My Home is Here

Tanavoli’s own words confirm this assessment. In the West, he has met with critical acclaim and has been very successful financially, but he has never entertained the idea of immigrating. “My home is here,” Tanavoli says. “My life and my workshop are here. I cannot forget my birthplace.”

So Tanavoli has pushed ahead with his work despite obstacles and constraints imposed by the Islamic Republic. “The people who put obstacles in the way of artists are little creatures and they must be disregarded,” he says. “One must go on. I want to continue on my way to the end. I know they cannot stop me.”


More on arts and culture in Iran:

The Banned Ballerina, July 19, 2018

Banned but Never Forgotten: The Passing of the Great Looti, May 29, 2018

“I Was Waiting for a Miracle,” May 18, 2018

Tehran, Washington, Cannes: Two Irans and a Very Strange Hour, May 10, 2018

New Iranian Movies Portray a Society on the Brink, March 26, 2018

Tehran Welcomes Major Sadeghi Exhibition, February 8, 2018

Ronaldo and Me: The Disabled Iranian Painter Who Shot to Fame, August 7, 2017

Iranian Cartoonist "Tired of Living a Criminal Life," May 25, 2017

Kiarostami is Gone — But what about the Artists Still Here?, July 13, 2016

The War on “Sinful” Music Concerts in Iran, May 26, 2016

“Music Belongs to the People,” March 18, 2015

Female Musician Banned from Performing, January 16, 2015

Ministry Says No to Rap, December 10, 2014



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