Mona Farmanfarmaian

87-year-old Iranian artist talks about her challenges and inspirations

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Born in 1924, Monir Farmanfarmaian is one of the most interesting artistic figures in Iran today. With a profound love for Iran’s traditions, she can be seen as a key holder of the nation’s heritage, ensuring that the traditions of Iranian craftwork will be passed down to future generations.

For the past five decades, Monir has been creating mesmerising geometrical mirror patterns, and is now focusing on moveable, tessellating patterns. Sharing her time between New York and Iran, her life is filled with interesting anecdotes and, like many of her generation, she has witnessed many changes. It’s impossible to isolate her life path and her artworks – traits of her life are reflected in her work. We spoke to her about both.

Your work uses antique Iranian glass craft, but have new technologies evolved your techniques over the years?
Thank God that now I don’t have to do each and every drawing. I now do sketching and work with an architect who can express my designs on the computer. This way I develop the work much faster, seeing which points connect. But it still can’t all be done by technology, and of course the glass needs to be done by hand.

You’ve had many important international commissions, in New York, Tehran and, most recently, at Queensland Gallery in Australia. Which was your most challenging?

The most challenging was the one in Australia. It was 36 sq m of glass: 12m x 3m. It was so large and unique – it took so much out of me to design it. The other challenge was when I worked in stained glass on a 21m x 8m piece for the 35th floor of a building in New York. I had to go to the factory to sandblast some of the glass: there was red hand-painted glass from France, and when the sandblasting was done I was able to make the glass this beautiful orange and yellow. I got chest pain even though I was using two masks: the dust of the sandblasting had a very strong effect on my lungs. But the piece was so breathtaking.

You’ve witnessed many art movements and artists during your career. Which did you find most exciting?
When I was working in Tehran, I was awarded the gold medal at the Venice Biennale; while there I saw American artist Robert Rauschenberg’s works for the first time in person. They moved me so, so much. I saw them again in Stockholm. I also remember seeing Rauschenberg on TV creating a painting on glass. I was so moved I cried. I said, ‘I’m painting behind glass and Rauschenberg has painted behind glass in this new way. I’m stuck in Tehran and I have nothing, no access to new work, but look at what he’s doing with glass – look at how much possibility there is in his environment!’ I later discovered that Rauschenberg had visited Iran and that he had liked my painting.

Someone was talking to me recently about one of my works from the ’70s, a very optical work using mirrors and stainless steel based on a hexagon. They said, ‘Did you follow Sol LeWitt when you did this?’ I didn’t even know who Sol LeWitt was – I only saw him later on when I was in New York. I also remember US painter Jasper Johns’ ‘Flag’, from the ’50s, which I loved. I suppose some might call these artists ‘neo dadaist’: artists from the ’50s transition from abstract expressionism to pop art. But it’s more about the artist, not the title or movement.

With the recognition Iranian art is receiving at the moment, are there any young Iranian artists that you’d suggest keeping an eye on for the future?
Golnaz Fathi: I really love her work. I admire that she is recreating traditions using calligraphy with such a strong, modern voice. Sometimes her work looks very minimal, but it has strength behind it. I also love Bita Fayyazi – she created an installation with baby dolls that was very moving. I like to see originality in artists – one has to say something new. I’ve created work that refers to geometric lines and mirrors for so long, but am always doing it in a new way.

You’ve worked with glass for most of you career. How many times have you cut yourself?

Every day! Every day something sharp is in my finger, but it’s not important. I’m not delicate!

Mona Farmanfarmaian’s exhibition, ‘Kaleidoscope’, continues at The Third Line until February 24.

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