Parviz Tanavoli

Disciples of Sheikh San’an


Not on display

Parviz Tanavoli born 1937
Object: 2060 × 1550 × 12 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Middle East North Africa Acquisitions Committee 2012


Disciples of Sheikh San’an 1975 is a woven wall hanging by the Iranian artist Parviz Tanavoli. It depicts a stylised architectural scene, in which a number of tall, narrow towers in orange, white, green and red sit flush together on a neutral background. In Disciples of Sheikh San’an Tanavoli refers to the poems and stories of The Conference of Birds, written by Faridoddin Attar Neyshabouri (1119–1189). Much of Tanavoli’s work is based on Iranian culture, including mysticism and religious stories. In the story referred to here, the fictitious character Sheikh San’an falls in love with a Christian girl, neglecting his religious duties. Through the prayers of his disciples he returns to his initial beliefs. There are two dominant symbols in this work, which characterise Tanavoli’s practice: the yellow caged bird and the two lit candles, which allude to religious prayers.

Tanavoli produced a number of silkscreen prints which he then had woven as carpets or hangings using traditional methods. Tanavoli made the silkscreens first and later turned them into carpets by sending them to different weavers across the country. The transformation of the modernist prints into carpets can be seen as an ongoing investigation into the dichotomy between tradition and modernity. This can be observed in the compositions and colour schemes of the carpets, which vary slightly to the prints as the carpet weavers were given the liberty to change the designs according to their own artistic judgement. While the prints and carpets are all works in their own right, the artist’s preference is for them to be shown together in pairs.

The compositions of the prints comprise an array of shapes, forms, emblems and symbols that are reconfigured to depict abstracted imagery and fragmented figures. These mostly geometric forms are extracted from carpet designs, or from Shiite folk art. Tanavoli is said to have one of the largest collections of carpets and artefacts from his home country. He has studied the craft of carpet-making, its rich visuals and its literature, in depth, and his work as an artist is closely bound up with his work as a researcher. The motifs and iconography in his work often repeat themselves within his paintings, sculptures or prints. One such recurring motif, developed over a long period of time, is the lock or padlock, which he collects. He has said that the unique and finely crafted designs of Iranian locks have offered him great ‘sculptural’ lessons and they feature in many of his compositions (see Firouzeh Mirrazavi, ‘Parviz Tanavoli: Half a Century of Art in US Museum’, Iran View, 8 February 2015,, accessed 8 June 2016).

Tanavoli is a key member of the Saqqakhane movement, a term first used in 1962 by the Iranian art critic Karim Emami to describe a group of artists, also labelled ‘Spiritual Pop artists’ or ‘Neo-Traditionalist artists’, who integrated votive Shiite folk art into their practice. The movement began when a number of artists, including Charles Hossein Zenderoudi and Tanavoli (who had returned from studying in Paris and Milan, respectively) started to adapt traditional Iranian motifs and themes into their work as a way to create a bridge between tradition and modernity. Tanavoli was also the founder of the Atelier Kaboud (1959–60), a gallery and gathering place for poets, artists, filmmakers and architects, which was, according to the historian Hamid Keshmirshekan, a catalyst for the development of the Saqqakhane movement.

Tanavoli returned to Iran from Europe in 1960 when the art scene was dominated by painting. While this fashion opened a fertile ground for him as a sculptor, he had little chance to develop the Western figurative tradition that he had been exposed to while living in Italy. Iran reflected a fear of idolatry and this urged Tanavoli to look at his own cultural heritage. He used mostly found objects, carefully chosen to create abstracted figures and compositions. Alongside his art practice, he collected locks, talismanic objects, posters with religious inscriptions and carpets. His studio was situated in the south of Tehran, surrounded by pottery workshops, blacksmiths, foundries and welders’ shops, and this environment was a major inspiration for his practice.

Further reading
Shiva Balaghi and Lynn Gumpert (eds.), Picturing Iran: Art, Society and Revolution, London and New York 2002.

Leyla Fakhr
August 2011

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Display caption

Tanavoli, a pioneering figure in contemporary Iranian art, incorporated traditional techniques and subjects within a resolutely modern visual language. As well as scenes from Persian love poetry, he also reinterpreted icons found in Shiite folk art, such as the cage, the lock and the bird, using geometric forms. While he was studying art in Tehran in the mid-1950s, the Iranian government’s cultural policy was opening to western practices, at the same time as encouraging the development of national and traditional arts. In the 1960s he played a leading role in the Iranian avant-garde movement, the Saqqakhaneh School, which drew on popular culture.

Gallery label, February 2016

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