The Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri captivates with his large-scale works in which monumental jars are depicted. These archaic-seeming, plastically painted, greatly varying jars remind one of antique clay pots and the old Persian tradition of ceramics manufacture. Lettering shines forth from a monochromatic base in Persian Nasta’liq style: single words, single sentences, coming from Moshiri’s childhood or encountered in daily life. What is special here is the combination. He is inspired by episodes from the old Persian and Oriental tradition in which he was raised but is simultaneously alert for input from his current surroundings. In this way Moshiri combines the visual past and present, transforming the traditional and banal into a contemporary message and aesthetic that allows new relationships and perspectives. Despite a high degree of pictorial elegance, at times the compositions become irritating, which can perhaps be read as an expression of the tension between tradition and modernity in the Iranian way of life today. The art of calligraphy interests Moshiri primarily for its beauty. In addition to the jars, in another series he shows works in which single letters and numbers appear as a repetitive, endless pattern on the canvas. In their ornamentation, they conjure up traditional Islamic art, but through transformation they achieve a new contemporary message and aesthetic.


As a museum curator, I generally follow an artist’s career for years before recommending a purchase. I tracked one artist since 1985 before recently selecting a painting for our collection. But I responded immediately to Moshiri’s work—not just the combination of monumental calligraphy, weathered surface, and colorful underpainting, but also the subtle melding of Eastern and Western concepts.

Moshiri was born and raised in Tehran where he lives and plays an active part in Iran’s contemporary art scene. Moshiri came to the United States in the 1980s to attend the California Institute of the Arts. After school and several more years in the U.S., he returned to Iran. Since then, he has exhibited internationally, including solo shows in Rome, London, and Berlin.

The painting I acquired, S4M53, derives its unusual title from a coded numeric writing system (like a religious shorthand) used in Islamic cultures to inscribe Koranic or other religious verse on a miniature scale. The painting reproduces a small section of coded text—just the five letters and number of the work’s title written in Farsi calligraphy—in greatly enlarged size and multiple orientations.

Part of a series of works begun in 2003, it is a deliberate hybrid: Moshiri transforms a script associated with Eastern religion into an aesthetic statement resembling Western abstraction, such as a 1940s de Kooning painting or a 1950s Franz Kline.

Moshiri built up the painting in many layers, finally folding and crushing the canvas after it was completed to form an overall crackling with severe paint loss (he seals the painting with transparent water-based glue to prevent future losses).

By heavily distressing the surface, the sublayers peek through, including surprising spots of bright color. The fragile network of crackled lines conveys the sense of time’s ravages on an ancient material. It evokes mosque tiles (an impression strengthened by the gridded creases) or old weathered shop signs.

An artist working in Iran today is not free to make direct political, social, or religious critiques without risking outright censorship. For this reason, Moshiri, like many of his peers, values allusion, ambiguity, and subtlety—an under-the-radar approach. Here he brings the past and the present together in an uneasy union, as if commenting obliquely on the tensions between tradition and modernity in post-revolutionary Iran.

One of my goals is to broaden VMFA’s contemporary holdings, making them more representative of the current global nature of the art world. Acquiring Moshiri’s painting brings more contemporary Islamic art to VMFA’s holdings, an effort recently begun with paintings by Shahzia Sikander and Gulammohammed Sheikh. These works create dialogue with our traditional Islamic art holdings.

In addition, Moshiri’s painting relates to traditional East Asian calligraphy. Most importantly, these kinds of global contemporary works give a more accurate picture of the nature of contemporary art, where important work is as likely made in Beijing, New Delhi, and Tehran as in New York, London, and Berlin.

Virginia Muesum of Fine Arts
Reprinted from
Blackbird, an online journal of literature and the arts, Fall 2006, Vol. 5, No. 2.