The blend of traditional calligraphy with contemporary painting

Expanding the traditional form of calligraphy and blending it with contemporary painting, Golnaz Fathi’s renowned style has led to international acclaim. Fathi returned to the UK in 2008 with her exhibition, My Freedom at Xerxes Fine Arts.

The profile of Iranian art has been rising throughout the UK. This year there have been an array of exhibitions by Iranian artists at galleries and art fairs including 30 Years of Solitude — a selection of photography and film by some of Iran’s foremost female artists at Asia House in London. Xerxes Fine Arts is another London-based gallery, which is dedicated to showcasing Iranian and Middle Eastern art. Established in 2008, it is the only gallery outside of the Persian Gulf to act as a primary dealer for artists from Iran and the Middle East. The gallery focuses on nurturing and promoting young artists from the region, including Golnaz Fathi, whose mounting acclaim has led her to become one of the most sought after artists from the region.

Golnaz Fathi was born in Tehran, Iran in 1972. Fathi completed a Bachelors of Art in Graphics at Azad Art University in Tehran in 1995 and then gained a Diploma of Iranian Calligraphy from the Iranian Society of Calligraphy in Tehran. Fathi’s practice has extended far beyond the traditional approach to calligraphy to develop an abstract style, which is based on the warm-up exercises practiced by professional calligraphers before they begin their work. Fathi is a self-taught painter. She says, “The only period in my life that I had a teacher for painting was when I was nine, and at that time I fell in love with the form, and I had a dream that one day I would become a painter. For calligraphy, I am thankful to my father. He introduced it to me, as he believed that everyone should have good penmanship. His aim was to familiarise me with beautiful handwriting; he never knew it would lead me to practicing seven hours a day and becoming a professional calligrapher.”

Fathi’s works focus on visual expression; her words are indistinct, so there is no literal meaning to the calligraphic text. Instead these abstractions serve as visual stimuli for the observer, which she masterfully combines with painting. “I combined the disciplines, and transferred them onto my canvas, with my own taste and interpretation, without obeying the laws of traditional calligraphy. So, although I have had the traditional training, I allow myself complete creative freedom.”

Fathi’s intricate brushstrokes add new dimensions to the traditional notion of calligraphy, rather than focusing on the literal meaning of any words, she opens up a new world of symbols, which the viewer can openly interpret. “I am a trained calligrapher and my brush strokes know the structure of each letter. When it comes to my painting, it’s the brush that speaks, it’s like the improvisation — I let it go and it leads me wherever it needs to.”

Fathi has exhibited internationally since 1993 from Turkey, to Belgium and Jamaica. She has taken up a number of artist residency placements in Paris, Rome and most recently London, through Xerxes Fine Arts. In 1995, Fathi was awarded Best Woman Calligraphist by the Iranian Society of Calligraphy in Tehran. Fathi’s striking and engaging style has its foundations in the traditional style of Iranian calligraphy, but is not indebted to tradition. Instead Fathi strives to deviate from convention. “My artistic aim has been to transform calligraphy from words into forms. For me, it’s not the literal part that is important, but the form. I treat the letters as a form, I make them float or dance on my canvas. Being restricted by so many rules in traditional calligraphy made me break all the rules and treat the letters just the way I want to. The inspiration comes from my own culture. I am proud of my country’s very rich cultural heritage, which in turn has greatly inspired me.”

Fathi engages with her physical environment and also with Iran’s vibrant historical archives to compliment and fuel her own practice. “Looking at the old lithography or handwritten books, gives me enough energy and inspiration to paint throughout the night. Every page of these books is a piece of art. I think that every aspect of life becomes the best teacher in itself and the best inspiration on its own. We are surrounded by so many stimuli that if we just used our eyes to see them, it could infuse us with limitless ideas. For me, every up and down in my life affects my work.”

Fathi’s success is a pleasant departure from the many stereotypes circulated about Iran and the population in the UK and international media. Her wonderful work embodies what Iranian women have always had to offer and helps to challenge some of these stereotypes. “Art always speaks for peace. I would be more than happy to have any part, no matter how small, in challenging the stereotypes about the region.”

My Freedom showcases a selection of Fathi’s works from the 2007-2008 and features her trademark works with Arabic calligraphy and strong brushstrokes and vibrant colour. “I have done my work, and I have said the things that I wanted to say, albeit all in an abstract fashion. For me, it is interesting to see people and to hear people as they interpret my work. The writings are in exact language, so not even Iranians can necessarily read the works, let alone Arabs, other Middle Easterners, Asians, Europeans or Americans. I want people to be inspired in the same way that my Iranian culture and artistic heritage have inspired me.”

Fathi’s exploration of calligraphy and the development of the abstract style emphasises the non-verbal aspects of the form, allowing the viewer the space to engage their imaginations, bringing their own interpretation to her work. “I want the audience to see the writings with pictorial eyes. I want my audience to see the dance of the letters and to allow their minds to take them as far as they can go.”

My Freedom was exhibiting at Xerxes Fine Arts from 10 October – 8 November 2008.

Shona Fairweather