Parviz Tanavoli shown in February, 2017 front of a picture window in his West Vancouver home overlooking Howe Sound. Photo: Gerry Kahrmann/PNG GERRY KAHRMANN / PNG
In 1989, one of the giants of modern art from Iran settled in West Vancouver.
Parviz Tanavoli has been described as the artist who almost single handedly created free-standing Western-style sculptures within the Persian tradition. His works have sold for millions of dollars and are on permanent display at major international institutions such as the British Museum. He’s also the author of numerous books on art and artists in Iran and the Middle East.
Thirty years after arriving in Canada, he’s having his first solo show at the West Vancouver Art Museum, a small municipal art museum.
A fair question to ask is this: Why has it taken so long for the Canadian visual arts world to recognize someone of the stature of Parviz Tanavoli?
(My earlier story in The Vancouver Sun on Tanavoli’s exhibition is here.)
Explaining why something hasn’t happened is virtually an impossible task, especially in the constantly shifting world of visual arts where what does get shown is the outcome of a strange alchemy of talent, politics, personalities, and money.
Discovering why something did happen is often much easier. Tanavoli’s exhibition Oh Nightingale in West Vancouver, for example, came about because of two people: Darrin Morrison, the museum’s director and curator, and Pantea Haghighi, an Iranian Canadian and independent curator and gallerist.
Morrison said that he became aware of Tanavoli’s work about 14 years ago when he started at WVAM. Through one thing and another, nothing happened.
Morrison got to know Haghighi after she had curated a couple of shows at the museum. More than a year ago, they talked about mounting a Tanavoli exhibition.
“I told Pantea that I thought it would be really important to do a show of Parviz’s work. He’s probably the preeminent artist of his generation from Iran,” Morrison said.
“He’s a modernist, and given our focus on modernism and the fact that he lives in our community, it seemed like a really great thing for us to pursue.”
Haghighi, Morrison said, was the conduit that connected Tanavoli to the museum.
Oh Nightingale, 1974, screen print, by Parviz Tanavoli. Photo: Parviz Tanavoli.
When I asked him about the 30-year delay for Tanavoli, Morrison replied: “I don’t read too much into it but I think there are some cultural differences. He’s really well recognized in the Iranian community but maybe not so much out of it.”
Part of the reason for the delay in recognition in Canada is that after the shock of leaving Iran, it’s taken Tanavoli years to figure out how to make art again in an entirely new culture and country. He went from being an accomplished Iranian artist making modern art in his native country to an outsider in the Iranian diaspora in a foreign country. That’s a big change.
“When he moved to Canada, he left behind the infrastructure that he built there,” Morrison said.
“He had to basically start over.”
Part of starting over included figuring out how to fit in with a different art world in Canada.
Because of his stature as an artist in Iran, Tanavoli was better known in the U.S. and United Kingdom. In part the level of knowledge about Iranian art and culture had to do with colonialism: both those countries have a history of involvement and intervention in the Middle East.
The UK and the US have academic experts knowledgeable about Persian and Islamic art and culture. That kind of expertise doesn’t exist in the same way in cultural institutions in Vancouver.
“I think the way our museums and galleries are structured are different than in the U.S. and Europe,” Morrison said.
Tanavoli made art works that are visibly recognizable as western. Yet he was also working in a tradition dating back 7,000 years that didn’t differentiate between art and decorative objects.
The Metropolitan Museum in New York, for example, has curators and staff knowledgeable in both areas. As one of the world’s great comprehensive museums, The Met has 15,000 objects from the 7th to 21 centuries in its Islamic art collection including Iran, not to mention an extensive collection of European decorative arts, plus a whole wing for contemporary and modern art. The Met has 17 curatorial departments overseeing a collection of two million items.
Tanavoli has work has been displayed at The Met’s and is in its permanent collection.*
In comparison, the Vancouver Art Gallery has about 11,000 works of modern and contemporary art but no decorative arts. In Victoria, the Royal BC Museum is a general museum focussing on natural and human history with only an incidental interest in the visual arts.
“I wonder too if collections in some of the cities that are older are from different parts of the world – lots of which is probably the result of colonialism,“ Morrison said.
Vancouver and Canadian art museums do represent different cultural communities in their programming but Morrison said he thought more attention is probably paid to younger artists with contemporary practices and less on more established artists working in a modernist tradition.
In 2015, the Davis Museum at Wellesley College in Greater Boston organized the first comprehensive solo exhibition of Tanavoli’s work in North America.
At about the same time, a curator from the Vancouver Art Gallery spent time with Tanavoli and saw a selection of his works. Although it seemed like an exhibition of Tanavoli’s work might soon take place, the VAG so far hasn’t scheduled one.
Detail of Caged Wall and Birds, bronze, 34 x 25.3 x 11.5 cm, by Parviz Tanavoli. It’s in Oh Nightingale at the West Vancouver Art Museum. Photo: Kevin Griffin [PNG Merlin Archive]
Morrison said he’s really pleased that Tanavoli agreed to work with West Vancouver. “I hope more people will be more aware of his work. He certainly deserves that kind of recognition,” he said.
“Who knows: maybe under the new director of the Vancouver Art Gallery, there will be some opportunity for him to exhibit there.”
Before the Tanavoli exhibition at WVAM, Pantea Haghighi had already curated several shows involving Iranian artists. They included the work of Iranian-Canadian artist Sanaz Mazinani in Mirrored Explosions at West Vancouver Art Museum and a group show of several Iranian artists in where/between at Equinox Gallery.
She said over the years Tanavoli had become very cautious, especially after some bad experiences with local art consultants.
“Until a few months ago, he was telling me: “I’m not sure why but Vancouver doesn’t like me.’”
That’s changed since the exhibition Oh Nightingale.
“The loveliest thing is that now he’s changed his mind,” Haghighi said. “Now he feels included.”
Individual works by Tanavoli have previously been shown in exhibitions in Vancouver. They include Oh, Persepolis II (see image below) in a group exhibition at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC in 2013. Oh, Persepolis is a second version of The Wall (Oh, Persepolis) which sold for $3.6 million at Christies Dubai in 2008. The sculpture depicts a wall of pictographs in an imaginary language.
In 2018, Haghighi included his work in Modernism in Iran, a group show at Griffin Art Projects.
In Ontario, three of Tanavoli’s big bronze sculptures were shown from 2016 to 2018 at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. One is now in the museum’s permanent collection.
In July, more than 250 people showed up at the opening of Oh Nightingale. There were too many to fit into the small museum so they spilled outside. The opening turned into a garden party.
Haghighi believes interest in Iranian art is growing in Metro Vancouver. Some things, she said, just take time.
“In general, I think everybody needs to be ready,” she said.
“The audience needs to be ready and the support needs to be ready. We needed Iranian community support and regular art community support.”
The 80-page catalogue of Oh Nightingale is available Thursday, Sept. 19 at the WVAM. At 6 pm, the museum will screen Terrence Turner’s documentary on Tanavoli called Poetry in Bronze.
The exhibition Oh Nightingale: Parviz Tanavoli continues to Saturday, Oct. 5 at the West Vancouver Art Museum.