Color might be the first thing you notice about Iranian artist Sussan Sanavandi’s abstract paintings. Vibrant reds, blues, and golds saturate a canvas here, float into shapes inspired by the Persian alphabet there. “I love color,” Sanavandi says. “I used to do black and white, but now it’s all color.”
Her paintings that currently hang in the artist’s small Spring Street Sanavandi Gallery have a cosmopolitan quality to them. There’s an exceptionally skillful use of different shades, which, combined with the graceful, swooping calligraphy of the Persian alphabet, conveys a strong sense of formalism. On one canvas, Persian letters form a cascading waterfall falling from top to bottom, growing in size and intensity, against a pale yellow background with faint hints of purple. On another, letters in green, blue, and red are fuzzily outlined on a deep gold background.
Sanavandi was born in Bandar Anzali, a city in northern Iran, and was raised in pre-revolution Tehran. As a child and teen, she studied Iranian miniature painting — a traditional form similar to the style of painting that illustrates European illuminated manuscripts — with some of the country’s most famous masters. After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, which replaced the country’s relatively lenient monarchy with an anti-Western Islamic theocracy, Sanavandi and her family immigrated to Italy. That’s where she attended college and continued her formal artistic training, studying at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Roma. “It’s having the combination of the two traditions that gives you the freedom to do whatever you want to do — you can mix them, take them apart,” Sanavandi says. “It’s more familiar to me if I mix Western and Eastern.”
After living in Italy for many years, and marrying her husband, who is also Iranian, the couple moved to Atlanta. It was a job offer for her husband that eventually brought them to Charleston, where they’ve lived for 26 years.
In all that time, Sanavandi hasn’t been back to Iran, so she doesn’t know firsthand what life is like there for artists. Her sister, however, lives in Iran, so Sanavandi hears a good deal from her, and it’s quite encouraging. “Artists are really important in Iranian life,” Sanavandi says. “When you live under restrictions, you find a way to overcome it — to be more active, maybe.”
One reason Sanavandi opened her gallery, back in December of 2013, was to share that vitality with Charleston art lovers. As far as she could tell, Middle Eastern art wasn’t well-represented in the local arts community. “I was looking for a presence, but there really wasn’t one,” she says. And not only does she want a place for her own art and that of other local artists of Middle Eastern descent, she’d also like to hang works by artists living in Iran. “This is my goal: to bring in Iranian artists, especially women, because they are very active in the society,” she says. “But it’s very difficult. Maybe now it’s better, with the relationship better between our two countries — I don’t know.”
As important as Sanavandi’s connection to the country of her birth is, it makes sense that there’s one vital element of her art that’s firmly steeped in the Iranian culture: poetry. Sanavandi is deeply inspired by Persian poetry, particularly that of Rumi, a 13th-century Sufi (an Islamic mystic). Rumi’s poems are passionate, ecstatic meditations on spirituality and love, and form a major pillar of Iran’s literary culture. “How can I translate the poetry into painting?” Sanavandi says. “I didn’t want to translate it into humans, or whatever. I want to get the feeling of it. The only way that gets close to that is the alphabet.”
Sanavandi is currently working on a series drawn from the epic poem by the 12th-century poet Nizami, “Layla and Majnun.” Like Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, Layla and Majnun suffer from a forbidden love that drives Majnun to madness and Layla to death. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, however, Nizami’s poem is also a spiritual allegory.
That rich symbolism makes it an attractive tale for Sanavandi to translate into painting (as many others have done throughout the centuries). In one of the pieces she’s completed, a despondent Layla sits on a horse in one corner of the canvas, while Persian letters and alphabet-derived shapes in varying shades of green form what looks like a verdant, drooping tree — the letters are like leaves, drifting through the air, coming to rest on Majnun and his horse. “I wouldn’t call it a translation,” Sanavandi says. “More an interpretation. This is like a miniature.”
Sanavandi Gallery is located at 66 Spring St. Visit them online at sanavandiart.com.