Parviz Tanavoli – a retrospective

Heritage and progress: national artistic identity or heavily influenced by Westernization. Parviz Tanavoli, recognized as the only Iranian artist to fully capture the duality and interplay of Iran’s pre-Islam and Islamic cultural identities, showcases his six decade-long career at The Vancouver Art Gallery, July 1–Nov 19.

Parviz Tanavoli: Poets, Locks, Cages is the first major Canadian exhibition of works by the Iranian-born, Vancouver-based artist Tanavoli.

The exhibition, with over 100 major works, examines the layering of both sacred and secular histories – an integration crucial to the comprehension in the evolution of modern sculpture in Iran. Showcasing the full breadth of his practice, from sculpture and painting to printmaking and mixed-media assemblages, Tanavoli is among the foremost contemporary Iranian artists and it is the visual symbology through his sculptural work that has a lasting impact on modernism in Iran.

Artistic trajectory

Parviz Tanavoli in his Niavaran studio, Tehran, 1988. | Photo courtesy of Parviz Tanavoli

In the mid-twentieth century Iranian cultural practices went through a transformative period which divided the art community.

Artists began to reconceptualize folk culture, Persian traditional motifs and Islamic iconography at a time of growing global consciousness and technological development.

Tanavoli is a sculptor, painter, educator, and art historian. He is a pioneer within the Saqqakhaneh school, a neo-traditionalist art movement.

The Saqqakhaneh School, which emerged in the early 1960s in Iran, and has been influenced heavily by his country’s history, culture and traditions.

The Persian word saqqakhaneh refers to a public water fountain that commemorates the Shi’i martyrs who had been deprived of water during the battle of Karbala (680 A.D.). It was at Karbala that Imam Husain was slain by the hand of Yazid, the Sunni ruler.

The saqqakhaneh often included a grill-like exterior upon which votive items such as flags or locks could be left by visitors or passersby. Inside, there was a fountain for drinking, and the structure was often decorated with religious objects such as candles, beads, ribbons, pages from prayer books, and even illustrated scenes from the battle.

After graduating from the Brera Academy of Milan in 1959, Tanavoli taught sculpting at the Tehran College of Decorative Arts, and from 1961-63 he taught at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He then returned to Iran, becoming the head of the sculpting department at the University of Tehran, a position he held for 18 years until 1979 when he retired from his teaching duties.

Since 1989 he has lived and worked both in Tehran and Vancouver. His 2019 solo exhibition entitled Oh Nightingale was presented by the West Vancouver Art Museum. Prior to that, he had another solo exhibition in 2017 at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art based on his Lions works and Lion collection.

In 2003 he had a major retrospective at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art; in 2009 at the Meem gallery, in Dubai; and in 2011 at Austin Desmond Gallery, London.

Prior to that he had held acclaimed solo exhibitions in Austria, Italy, Germany, the United States, Britain and numerous other countries.

Similarly, his group exhibitions have been held on three continents. Tanavoli’s series of sculpture works called Heech (nothing in Farsi) are displayed in prestigious museums and public places, such as the British Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Hamline University, Aga Khan Museum, and as public art in the city of Vancouver.

The internationally celebrated artist has also written extensively on the history of Persian art and Persian crafts. Since 1989, Tanavoli has held dual nationality and has lived and worked both in Tehran, and in West Vancouver, British Columbia.