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Life's pain and beauty written on the wall

Parastou Forouhar is channelling her art through elaborate calligraphy.

 Parastou Forouhar at Brisbane's Gallery of Modern Art. Photo: Paul Harris. Image courtesy of The Age

by Linda Morris, The Age

FROM her vantage point on a ladder against a wall in the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, Parastou Forouhar is applying paintbrush fragments of Farsi script.

Unrestrained by paper, lines drift down walls and cross the grey floor. The effect is tendrils of tree roots and branches reaching for sunlight. Standing in the centre of the installation, The Written Room, the gallery's acting director, Suhanya Raffel, thinks of it as ''stepping into music. It's a unique piece of work. It's truly wonderful.''

The intricate calligraphy carries no literal meaning, its intentionally figurative and ornamental abstractions drawing on the ancient heritage of text and decoration in Persian culture, and personal trauma in the region of modern-day Iran.

The Written Room is one of the most arresting of the new works commissioned for the 20th anniversary of the ground-breaking Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, a celebration of contemporary artistic life in Australia, Asia and the Pacific.

Forouhar's growing international reputation includes two New York exhibitions: Global Feminisms at the Brooklyn Museum of Modern Art (2005) and Iran Inside Out at the Chelsea Art Museum. She has previously shown in Melbourne and her Swanrider (2004) photograph was acquired by GOMA in 2009 after its showing in the exhibition 21st Century: Art in the First Decade.

''The work is like a second skin for the architecture,'' Forouhar says of The Written Room. ''It uses the architecture to spread itself in the space, but at the same time breaks the rule of architecture because it is not obeying the up-down direction that architecture might have. It's got a lot to do with me as an immigrant trying to redefine the space for myself, but also dealing with the situation that my mother tongue loses its function in everyday life … it becomes a memory, it becomes a kind of ambiguity between sadness and injury and open to other kinds of perceptions.''

The injury to which Forouhar refers is the 1998 murder of her parents, critics of the clerical regime. Her father, Dariush, was the leader of Iran's People Party and a strong supporter of the democratic election of prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1951. Dariush later became critical of the Islamic republic, and he and his wife were stabbed to death in their Tehran apartment by agents of the deputy minister for intelligence in 1998. Forouhar heard of their murder while in Germany, where she was completing postgraduate studies.
Art had long been a place to hide and escape the disappointment of crushed democratic ideals. Forouhar began drawing at the Academy of Art at Tehran University in 1981, two years after the shah was deposed in the Iranian Revolution.

What started as a place of retreat, however, soon ''opened some kind of space for me to look critically and perceptively at my surroundings, and what was happening''.

After her parents' execution, Forouhar says she returned to Iran many times to attempt to bring the perpetrators to justice. Meanwhile, she channelled her grief and anger into subversive digital depictions of torture and what it means to be an Iranian woman in the 21st century.

Forouhar's wordless script recalls the beauty and lyricism of Persian culture. While there is no mistaking her political convictions, in The Written Room, Forouhar draws a broader distinction between her artistic life and the geopolitical winds that fan memories of coups and crises.

''My own experiences in life are very much affected by politics. [But] I'm not searching for answers in my art; I'm not giving answers. I'm opening up space for reflection …'' Forouhar's ''extraordinary work'' derives from a rich tradition of calligraphy and printmaking in the Islamic world in which ''art and the word are one'', Raffel says.

More recently, her graceful imagery and elegant geometric patterns have cloaked experiences of dislocation as well as pain. ''I feel at home in Germany but, at the same time, not,'' she says. ''I feel at home in Iran and then not. What I'm doing with my art is just cultivating this space in between.''

The seventh Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art is at the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art from December 8 to April 14, 2013.

Via The Age
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