MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Next we're going to meet a man who's been called the father of modern Iranian sculpture, yet he hasn't had a major museum show in the U.S. in almost 40 years. A new show at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College is now giving viewers a chance to see 175 of his sculptures and drawings. Andrea Shea of member station WBUR has this profile of the artist.
ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: Parviz Tanavoli looks younger than his 77 years, with his head of silver hair and stylish black blazer as he leads a tour through 175 of his works.
PARVIZ TANAVOLI: I was inspired by our mosques and architecture.
SHEA: The artist stops in front of one of his curvaceous sculptures known as heeches.
TANAVOLI: Any Iranian could easily read this. It's composed of three letters, H - the head is like H - then the center part is like I or double E. This curve is like CH at the end.
SHEA: On paper, the heech is a slender piece of calligraphy that's popular in Persian poetry. Heech is the Farsi word for nothingness.
TANAVOLI: Iranians especially related with this - only great poets like Rumi. They dealt with this word. They questioned about what it - what is heech? I mean, is there nothing?
SHEA: Tanavoli has crafted hundreds of heeches over the past 50 years in ceramic, bronze, fiberglass, even neon - graceful, almost human forms that connected with viewers and helped revive sculpture as an art form in Iran.
ALI KHADRA: He's definitely the pride of the Middle Eastern art scene.
SHEA: That's Ali Khadra of the Dubai-based, Middle Eastern contemporary art magazine "Canvas." He flew to Boston for a 24-hour visit just to see Parviz Tanavoli's new exhibition. Khadra calls the sculptor a beacon of hope for aspiring artist in his politically tense region, and he hopes this show will help bring a little of the culture behind the headlines to Western audiences.
KHADRA: It's like a chain reaction. When a museum is interested, an education program takes place and the interest keeps growing. And this is how the West will know about Middle Eastern art.
SHEA: Sculpture died off as an art form in the region now called Iran after the Arabs conquered Persia in the 7th century. But after studying sculpture in Italy in the 1950s, Tanavoli returned to Turan and opened a studio that became a magnet for young artists.
TANAVOLI: It was very exciting for myself. I was young, and I thought I was doing something. And when I look at it today, I'm proud of it. They were good days.
SHEA: But he says they were also challenging.
TANAVOLI: Because there weren't that many people trained for art. And there weren't that many followers. People weren't familiar with the modern art I was producing.
SHEA: In 1965, authorities shut down his gallery show in Turan because it merged materials and imagery from the East and West. Things got more complicated for the artist with the revolution of 1979, followed by the taking of hostages at the American Embassy. He left his teaching job at Turan University and moved his family to Toronto.
SHIVA BALAGHI: You can really teach a seminar in modern Iranian history through his artwork.
SHEA: Shiva Balaghi is "The Retrospective's" co-curator and a Middle Eastern cultural historian at Brown University.
BALAGHI: You see the common art of the streets of Turan represented in his work. You see Iranian folklore, but you also see that within Iranian society and culture, there is this sense of humor that withstands regardless of the day-to-day political situation.
SHEA: That situation is reflected in some of Parvis Tanavoli's more brutal, confining imagery - cages, locks, jail cells. Still, Balaghi thinks Americans will be surprised to see how much optimism there is in this Iranian's work.
BALAGHI: There is this sense of gratitude for the simple things in life, like the image of a bird flying, like the shape of a letter in the alphabet.
SHEA: Parviz Tanavoli keeps a foundry and studio in Iran and lives there part of the year. But he admits politics have hindered his country's ability to share its culture.
TANAVOLI: You know, we used to be very well-connected with Western or with American, European. But now it's unfortunate because so much has been happening in Iran in the last 35 years in culture, music, film and all of that - a lot of people are not even aware of it.
SHEA: They'll get a chance to learn a little more when two other shows of contemporary Iranian art open in this country in the coming months. Meanwhile, Tanavoli says he's honored to have his work at, for now, as something of an ambassador.
TANAVOLI: Iran has a long culture - millenniums of culture but for today, I think this represents Iran pretty good.
SHEA: For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea in Boston.
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