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The contemporary Iranian textile artist unearths connections between collective identity and materiality
Words by Laura Cherrie Beaney in Design & Architecture · Nov 24th, 2022
The Bakhtyārī tribe is known as much for their craftwork as they are for their influence in politics. In 1909 Bakhtyārī tribesmen played a prominent role in campaigning for the first Iranian constitution. The nomadic group were characterised by their annual migration. They moved with their livestock between the cold winter pastures and the temperate mountains during summer. Weaving was integral to their nomadism. Tents, blankets, clothes and coverings were handwoven by the collective in designs unique to their tribe.
In more recent years Bakhtyārī family members have built upon their heritage, engaging in handwork and design but on their own terms. Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian is one of Iran’s most celebrated visual artists, known for her captivating mirrorworks that absorbed geometric forms from Sufi cosmology and Shia funerary shrines. Decades later, Monir’s great-nephew, Taher Asad-Bakhtiari, has also made a name for himself as an artist. The self-taught creative has established a practice that encompasses three-dimensional works and textile pieces. It’s work that departs from his family’s traditions yet seeks to push the boundaries of materiality through intensive investigations into the capabilities of technique and process.
Taher uses his art as a medium to build upon a collective memory specific to his family's traditions, but beyond this, he understands art as something that must extend beyond himself. Through his design processes that reinvigorate age-old weaving traditions, Taher is able to preserve memory and uplift the communities of artisans that he employs from Iran and Afghanistan. We step into Taher’s Dubai studio to discover how his family’s past meshes with his contemporary practice.
Taher: I was born in Tehran, Iran, and went on to study first in Vancouver and then Lausanne. In 2003 I launched my events and catering business and, in parallel, developed my lifestyle brand in Iran. It was at this point that I began to work with Iranian artisans and explore the potential of the weaving techniques that my family was historically connected to and that Iran more broadly is known for. I also became aware of the limitations of the status quo, I felt that the craft had so much more potential.
The artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian was my great-aunt. In the beginning, she was in America but she left Iran for the US during the 1970s. She returned in 2002 with the intention of continuing her art practice in the homeland. I would have lunch with her in her studio, observe her work and talk about her goals. Her art was her life and she was a true inspiration.
Monir offered me some important advice early on in my career. She insisted that I stick to one thing and become an artist in the fullest sense. She really encouraged me. I come from the Bakhtyārī family, a tribe in Iran from the Bakhtyār region. My great-great-grandfather was a revolutionary and played a fundamental role in the advancement of constitutional rights in Iran in 1909.
I come from a long lineage of tribal craftsmen. The Bakhtyārī tribe moved between hot and cold terrain with their livestock. Their nomadic life required durable and adaptable materials from tents to blankets and clothing. Everything was woven by them - their economy and lifestyle orbited around this practice.
In 2015 everything came together: my family history, the advice of Monir, the time I had dedicated to building my own lifestyle brand, and my experimentations in process and design. I refined my focus and put everything into my artistic practice which spans three-dimensional works and textiles.
Design usually takes precedent over technique but I wanted to upturn this aesthetic hierarchy. I work with objects that are conventionally considered to be functional yet through my practice, I raise questions relating to the confines of art, design and utility. If you look at my tapestry and carpet designs, for example, the design work is minimal yet the weave is foregrounded.
I wanted to create something that's never been done - weavers usually weave for a purpose, my purpose was to reinvent the craft, strip it down, deconstruct it, add to it and push the boundaries of materiality and process. I weave with upcycled materials. I like to expose the parts that are traditionally hidden like the warps. I combine techniques that were once disparate. There are many layers to my approach, I play with the weavers. My approach subverts the traditions associated with my community, a group that always prized functionality. You don't have to create for a purpose you can play and have fun with it.
Designs remain minimalistic but triangular forms hold the tapestries together. The triangle is a regular icon in my practice. A building has triangles that form its foundations and hold the structure together. Monir started with triangles in her art, when you multiply and add them together there are endless possibilities with the triangle.
In terms of palette, I’m very colourful. I once created an installation for a gallery in New York that saw 80 tapestries suspended from the air, each with its own hue to reveal a spectrum of colour. I wanted to create a rainbow.
I scour Iranian construction sites in search of oil barrels that I upcycle in my practice. They are made for crude oil yet end up with a multitude of purposes. Construction workers steer cement in them, use them as ladders to climb on, light fires in them, and so on. I found them so gorgeous and full of character that I wanted to reimagine them through design. I work with metal workers to cut them down and cast them in resin. The barrel then becomes a unique and multifunctional art object. It could be a stool or an art piece. Beyonce has one of these designs.
I work with several groups of artisans to realise my projects including Iranian semi-nomadic Turk-speaking women based in Iran, CC-Tapis in Milan, and the Fatima Bint Mohamed Bin Zayed Initiative (FBMI) in Afghanistan. FBMI and I share a common cause in that we seek to preserve the ancient art of carpet weaving while empowering communities. The initiative provides women with employment and pioneers a process delivered entirely by hand from the shearing of the sheep to the spinning of the wool, and the hand-knotting.
I think as an artist to create is amazing but to create beyond yourself is more meaningful. This is why I strive to include others in my processes, beyond aesthetics my work uplifts the communities and artisans that contribute to it and preserves a historic art form that has been sadly dying out due to the rise of machine work. It’s important to me that my life's work extends beyond myself. As they say - you have to get the village involved.
All images are courtesy of Taher Asad-Bakhtiari.