The first posthumous retrospective of the Iranian artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian is due to open at the Sharjah Art Foundation in the United Arab Emirates in October.
Monir, the charismatic, silver-haired artist who produced stunning mirror works inspired by an ancient Iranian tradition, died last April at the age of 97. She had received her first career survey at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2015.
The Sharjah survey is organized by the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) and the Sharjah Art Foundation. Titled “Sunset, Sunrise,” it will bring together more than 70 works that explore the artist’s six-decade practice across the disciplines of sculpture, jewelry, embroidery and collage.
“Encapsulating histories of both East and West, ‘Sunset, Sunrise’ reflects a life lived between two cultures,” said the Foundation.
Monir’s early years in New York, where she was involved in graphic design and experimental modern abstraction, “gave way to a period of intense research into traditional craftsmanship and folk art in Iran’s more remote regions,” the Sharjah Foundation explained.
While Farmanfarmaian always stayed true to “Western avant-garde principles,” she also “delved into Persian mysticism and simultaneously evoked the socio-political Islamic landscape as well as the easily recognizable geometry of Iran’s artistic and architectural heritage,” it added.
Monir was born in the northwestern Iranian city of Qazvin in 1923 to an aristocratic Ottoman mother and a father who founded Qazvin’s first girls’ school before being elected to Parliament. After studying fine arts at the University of Tehran, she sailed to India in 1944, then boarded an American warship to Los Angeles. From there, she travelled across the United States to New York, where she studied fashion illustration at the Parsons School of Design. It is during that time that she met the artists Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.
In 1950, Monir married fellow Iranian artist Manoucher Yektai, with whom she had a daughter, Nima. The couple divorced in 1953, and the artist took a day job at Bonwit Teller’s advertising department, where she worked with Andy Warhol. The two developed a friendship that would last for decades. She made mirrored disco balls for him and subsequently received one of his Marilyn Monroe portraits.
In 1957, Monir married Abol Bashar Farmanfarmaian, a lawyer and investor. The couple returned to Iran, where she gave birth to her second daughter, Zahra.
For more than 20 years, the Farmanfarmaians entertained in style at their Tehran villa — until the advent of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when they happened to be in the United States. They were forced to settle in New York, losing everything they had left behind.
According to the American abstract artist Frank Stella, it was Monir’s post-revolutionary move to New York that made her the artist she is today. She was able to “find herself, and find a way of working with the visual culture she came from.”
Monir’s love of mirror work originated during an early 1970s visit with the American artist Robert Morris to the Shah Cheragh Mosque in Shiraz. The mosque’s interiors were entirely covered with carved mirror fragments that sparkled like diamonds and reflected the hundreds of worshipers gathered there.
Monir secretly wished that she could cut a piece of the mirror work off the wall and take it home for her own private contemplation. So she decided to make her own, and invented a personal art form in the process. Her mirror works were stand-alone sculptures based on meticulous geometric designs that she produced herself.
After decades in New York, the widowed Monir returned to Tehran in 2004, partly to be closer to the master craftsmen who helped make her mirror sculptures. In 2014, she was featured in “Monir,” a documentary directed by Bahman Kiarostami (son of the late filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami) and produced by the London-based Iranian curator Leyla Fakhr.
In 2017, she attended the opening of the Monir Museum in the historic Negarestan Museum Park Gardens in Tehran, which contains more than 50 pieces from her personal collection.
Though she was gratified by the attention that came her way in recent years, she told the New York Times in 2015 that she knew herself well enough as a nonagenarian to realize that what brought her the greatest pleasure was to be at home alone, in Tehran, drawing.
The Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) is a contemporary art and cultural foundation based in Sharjah that was established in 2009 to build on the cultural collaboration and exchange that began with the first Sharjah Biennial in 1993.
“Sunset, Sunrise” opens on October 12 and runs through December 28. An earlier version of the exhibition was at IMMA in Ireland from August to November 2018.