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Tehran is a bright, whirling, magnificent wilderness. The air blows hot and heavy from the desert and brings with it some form of scorched earth residue; dust from another place where people are scarce and the moon hangs low, like a luminous stamp above stretches of sand and rocky outcrop. Through built-up streets this desert wind blows, past gridlocked cars from a forgotten era, against bodies swathed in cloth and faces shielded by headscarves. The people of Tehran carry on, remaining resolute against the dry heat.
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian lives on the other side of town. Tehran is more shining, shimmying colossus than common metropolis, and crossing the city’s dense sprawl takes resolve. After gender-divided subway systems are negotiated, heaving alleyways and human tidewaters, the foothills of the Alborz Mountains are reached. Monir’s house and studio live in close proximity to one another in the affluent neighborhood of Tajrish, which is located in the northern reaches of the city and flanked by a vast and snow-domed mountain range. Old trees line the avenues of Tajrish and create awnings of shade against the sun’s midday glare. The studio is unassuming – it lies within a walled enclosure off a side street and its white peeling paintwork looks tired, its gate a little rusty. A modest, light-patched courtyard gives way to the heavy doors of the studio itself and a blaze, far stronger than the Iranian sun, awaits inside. Monir’s studio dazzles, transfixes, eternally recreates the visitor. Mirrored works hang from every surface and compete against one another in their quest to replicate and redefine. Fractured light glimmers and glances from wall to floor to ceiling. The room appears to move in accordance with the brilliance of its bounty. In the centre stands Monir; her work surrounding her, engulfing her. She is 92 years old and small, and her smile is wide.
The mirror works that Monir creates first took shape in the 1960s and 70s when she returned to her native Iran after spending over twenty-six exiled years in New York after the Iranian Revolution. Her journey as an artist began long before the Shah’s overthrow; Monir’s artistic trajectory spans from her early days of study at the Fine Arts College of Tehran, to further studies and freelance graphic design work in New York as well as extensive traveling to Iran’s more remote regions. It was during this period that traditional Persian craftsmanship, Islamic pattern design and western principles merged in the form of Monir’s distinctive art practice. After her return to Iran in 2004 and the establishment of her studio and design workshop, Monir resumed work with many of the craftsmen with whom she had initially collaborated in the 1970s. “When I came back from America, I lived in many different cities in Iran, and traveled all around Iran to find my country. I was very young when I left… when I returned to Iran I wanted to see what my country was really like. What was this 3,000 year old culture? I went to many different cities as well as to the countryside to see what the history of our architecture and fine art was like. I traveled.” When asked what informs and inspires her, Monir replies: “Everything. Traveling, being born here in Iran, seeing mirror works in Shiraz, the mosques, the palaces – everything.”