While the graphic design of the Western world can take many different forms, the thinking, motivations and purposes behind it usually follow some well-trodden paths. It’s easy for a designer in London, Paris or New York to fall into the habit of assuming that this is what graphic design is, this is what it’s for, and there can be no going beyond boundaries that may not even be noticed most of the time.
The work of the Iranian designer Reza Abedini shows the deep limitations of this way of thinking. Abedini uses graphic devices familiar to viewers with even a passing knowledge of the discipline’s history. He does this with great concentration and style and his work can be appreciated by anyone with an eye for the medium. In moments of doubt, Abedini is inclined to wonder whether these devices make his work look “old” or at least too simple to Western observers. Yet his way of thinking and the meanings his designs carry reflect a culture and a sense of history quite different from o
ur own. His work is new from a secular European perspective and perhaps from an Iranian perspective, too.
Abedini is a key figure in the resurgence in
Iranian graphic design that has taken place since the late 1990s, though it has not so far receive
d much attention in Britain, where perceptions of Iran are shaped by the nuclear intentions of its government. In 2003, his work was included in Area, Phaidon’s global survey of 100 significant graphic designers. Last year, partly to counter Iran’s negative image, Abedini published New Visual Culture of Modern Iran, a survey of graphic design, illustration and photography, which included some of his work. He also won the Netherlands’ prestigious Prince Claus Award, worth 100,000 Euros and given to a figure making an exceptional contribution to the arts in the non-Western world. It was the first time a graphic designer had received the prize.
I met Abedini in Amsterdam after the prize-giving to talk about his work. He is dignified, courteous and serious and his full beard gives him a look of gravity. His acceptance speech the day before, at the city’s concert hall, had ended with an image of the human body as a kind of bridge. “In Iranian beliefs,” he said, “the human body is called ‘the small world’, where the words come down, as I have always tried to show in my works. Therefore the human body is sacred, like words, and is a passage to convey meanings through itself.” This seemed to offer a key to his work and I wanted to find out more.
Abedini, now 39, has a studio in Tehran with three colleagues, two of them students. It used to be a bigger operation when Abedini was designing moving graphics and titles for TV. He didn’t enjoy the meetings and contractual side and gave it up to concentrate on posters, books and magazines. He also teaches two days a week at Tehran University.
After studying graphic design at the School of Fine Arts, where the course was organised according to Bauhaus principles, Abedini applied for university. He filled in the form incorrectly and found himself taking archaeology in Isfahan. It was a happy accident because, in this beautiful, historic city, surrounded by magnificent mosques adorned by mosaics covered with masterpieces of calligraphy, he looked closely at Iranian art and architecture for the first time, having previously taken no more than a tourist’s level of interest in his own heritage. “During my study I never heard anything about the Iranian visual tradition or culture.” His inspiration had come from Western artists such as Kandinsky, Pollock and Warhol and Polish poster designer Roman Cieslewicz. The discovery of Iranian visual culture would have a lasting impact on his ambitions as a designer.
Abedini’s grandfather and uncle were both accomplished calligraphers and he learned the basics of the craft as a teenager. In the late 1980s, starting out as a designer, he discovered a fundamental problem with modern Iran
ian graphic design. “The structure of graphic design in Iran is totally Western, but we use the Persian writing system on it,” he says. “It doesn’t connect things together.” In Persian calligraphy, the letter is not an isolated character. Letters bond to form words and the shape of a letter may change in different configurations. Abedini found that lithographic works from the Qajar period, 100 to 150 years ago, created in response to new printing technology, provided valuable examples of ways of uniting Persian writing with images. “I said, OK, maybe this is a good reference for me to understand how it is possible to change the structure of Iranian graphic design.”
As we talk, the vital importance of Iranian history for Abedini becomes increasingly clear. He refers with pride to the country’s 7000 years of civilisation. In Iran, he notes, poetry is regarded as the mother of the other arts and he is a committed reader of Persian poets from 700 or 800 years ago such as Hafiz and Saadi. “It’s a really common thing in Iran, really popular, everybody reads poetry,” he says. “I receive lots of ideas for my posters from poems.” Transpose that notion to Britain and it’s hard to imagine Neville Brody or Michael Johnson citing Dante and Chaucer as essential sources of inspiration.
Do modern Iranian viewers understand his posters’ relationship to the poetic tradition? “Yes, of course,” he says. “At the same time I receive lots of criticism about them. About five or six years ago most of the calligraphers in Iran criticised my work, saying ‘You are going to destroy the Persian writing system’. We had a bit of a fight. We have a really strong calligraphic tradition in Iran. They wanted to keep the tradition without changing it.”
The calligraphers’ main complaint was that Abedini was running the letters so close together they became illegible. While this is hard for a Westerner to judge, it is certainly true that Abedini weaves the lettering to form tight webs of typographic matter and he treats English text in the same way. He wants the type to be more than just textureless information included as almost an afterthought, and he is critical of the way that Western graphic design is often not very graphic at all in this respect. Many of Abedini’s posters show a single figure surrounded by empty space – another historical reference, in this case to portrait paintings and photographs from the Qajar period where the subject is shown against a plain background. In Abedini’s posters, figure and type are closely interconnected. Sometimes the body’s silhouette becomes a container filled with the elixir of language; in other designs, the words flow up to the body and define its shape. Here, Abedini cites Persian
battle dress, which used to be inscribed, 800 years ago, with poems and prayers as a form of protection.
Abedini’s lone figures – sometimes, in posters for his own exhibitions, the figure is him – call out for some kind of existential or religious interpretation. You could see these protagonists, who are often artists, as merely introspective, or as engaged in some greater form of communion, their bodies acting as bridges for the revelation of the word. Abedini describes the mixed nature of Islam as it developed in Persia: the religion absorbed earlier beliefs and the mystic tradition of Sufism also found a home inside it. “You find your own way to reach the truth,” says Abedini. “I’m really happy because I can live in this situation. This is one reason why I read poetry, because this kind of idea sometimes comes from the poems.”
At a time when it is harder than ever in Britain to apply a personal voice to institutional design projects controlled by marketing, Abedini’s posters for exhibitions, film festivals and other Iranian cultural events seem remarkably confident in their assertion of a private and even mystical graphic language. Abedini begins any assignment by explaining that his work will embody his own point of view. His poster for the group exhibition Victim, on the theme of victimhood – an award-winner at the Warsaw Poster Biennial in 2006 – avoids showing any of the artists’ work in favour of his own interpretation. If a prospective client won’t allow him this freedom, Abedini turns down the project.
Clearly, though, Abedini and his colleagues are not at liberty under the present Iranian regime to express their views with complete freedom. “Of course we have censorship, of course we have limitations, of course we have political tension,” he says. Nevertheless, he insists, the Western media image of Iran as somewhere dangerous, warlike and not to be trusted is wrong. He doesn’t feel inhibited by the restrictions on communication because he doesn’t see himself as political in a narrowly defined ideological or utilitarian sense. “I have my own definition of politics,” he says. “For example, about ten years ago nobody thought about the Persian writing system and now everyone thinks about it in Iran. It is political.” This has even become an issue in the Iranian parliament and Abedini feels he has played a part in promoting this awareness. “I saved my culture and, for me, this is politics.”
“I don’t care about the journalists, CNN and BBC, blah blah blah,” Abedini continues. “I don’t think about them. I think about the real Iran. Maybe we have lots of wrong things also. Of course, we have to accept it. We do lots of bad things. So I have to be honest with myself and understand what I am and what is my situation and location, and explain to others what is happening in my country through my work, without saying anything direct.”
See more of Abedini’s work at www.rezaabedini.com