WASHINGTON, DC — In Iran, it’s difficult to know where the artistic and the political are separated, if they can be separated at all. With the Islamic Revolution of 1979 came a wave of censorship and crackdowns that drove many artists into exile, while those who remained have had to weather the shifting sands of the permitted and the banned. But for those who have left, what does it mean to return? It’s a journey artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian made in 2004, when she moved back to Tehran and set up a studio in the city she and her family had fled 25 years prior. In his new documentary Monir — which screened here recently during the Iranian Film Festival — Bahman Kiarostami looks back at the artist’s incredible life and forward to what lies ahead in her newly reinvigorated career.
Affectionately called Monir by her friends, collaborators, and admirers throughout the film, Farmanfarmaian is a force of nature from the very opening scenes. The 54-minute film is built on interviews with those who have been closest to her work, archival interview footage, and conversations with Monir as she works on her latest projects. The result is a freewheeling, non-chronological exploration of her life and career. “I’m just a person with a good eye who happens to work with mirrors,” she says early on, setting an unstuffy tone for a film that’s often laugh-out-loud funny. But if Monir is taken at her word, it would be easy to overlook the incredible intricacy and interplay between traditional materials and unexpected shapes that makes her work so striking. She was inspired by the geometric, mirrored patterns in mosques, specifically citing a trip to Shah Cheragh in Shiraz as an early influence. Her best known work features mirrored mosaics built around geometric patterns, blending Sufism and Islamic art into three-dimensional glass works that recreate the movement and fluidity she saw in the mosque.
In 1957 she married fellow artist Abolbashar Farmanfarmaian, and the couple were soon part of the glamorous, cosmopolitan world that seemed to have Tehran at its center. They owned a sprawling, modern home in the north of the city, where they hosted the Kennedys, entertained Parisian curators, and enjoyed Iranian art’s glittering moment of international attention. They also spent a great deal of time in New York City, partying with Andy Warhol, among others.
In 1979, while the Farmanfarmaians were in New York, the Islamic Revolution happened, which made going home impossible. They were decried as friends of the Shah, and their home was confiscated. The remarkable collection of traditional folk art the couple owned and all of Farmanfarmaian’s work was destroyed. Stranded in New York as a member of the new Iranian diaspora, it was only through a few commissions that she was able to slowly begin rebuilding her career.
In the 35 years since, as seen in the film, Farmanfarmaian has established herself as one of the most innovative artists working in mosaics and geometric patterns. The documentary goes far in explaining her presence, from the interest in her style of work in the 1970s, when Iranian art was both familiar to and exotic in a Western context, to the constantly evolving sense of exploration that drives her work — such as the absurdly striking paintings she made in 1978 by dipping bees in ink and letting them walk across paper.
But the living heart of the film is Farmanfarmaian herself, as she butts heads with her team and refuses to accept any pretenses put on her work. She corrects curators who try to become too philosophical about the influence of Sufism on her work, and says that early on “I wasn’t even aware I was working with geometric forms.” Now in her early 90s, she is on fire, unafraid, and defiant in the face of everyone including Kiarostami — whom she reprimands repeatedly — and the Iranian police, who show up after she breaks into her old backyard.
Farmanfarmaian doesn’t explicitly identify her art as political, but as with many artists active in Iran during and after the revolution, politics are inextricably linked to her career. Her return to Tehran in 2004 came at the tail end of President Mohammad Khatami’s second term, a period marked by a more open culture and relaxed censorship. She says in the film that she plans to stay in Iran for the rest of her life.
As she sits at the edge of the pool where she and her husband once enjoyed lavish parties, where she began her career celebrating the artistic tradition of her country, the time that has passed and the many changes that have taken place loom large. The garden is overgrown; the painting of nude women on the bottom of the pool that Farmanfarmaian had painted is gone; the house itself appears neglected, with a stamp on the window claiming it for the state social security fund. But her presence alone suggests that things are once again shifting — art and artists still have a place in today’s Iran, now that the dust of revolution is settling.
Check Monir‘s Facebook page for news of upcoming screenings.