Hadieh Shafie was born in Iran and raised in the United States, and is fascinated by reimagining shapes. He is also interested in drawing textual forms and exploring the emotional power of colors, in addition to “looking for new ways to make the space between drawing and sculpture disappear”.
Shafie's works can be seen in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Brooklyn Museum of Art, among others. In October 2019, his work Transition 7 it was included in Christie's auction of contemporary and modern Middle Eastern art.
Shafie's paper-based work is expressive and very laborious. It invites the audience to an imaginary and at the same time ordered and logical world, a world of capable in which, with each visit, the public gets to know a part of their vision of the world, its technique, its conceptual complexity and the magic of paper and ink. It is a journey that does not seem to have an end. Her use of words and phrases is different from Persian or Arabic calligraphy, it is more like an exit towards an unsolved nostalgia, a place where the artist seeks her memories and her identity in a world in peace and harmony.
In an interview with Global Voices, Hadieh Shafie spoke about her technique, her creative process, and her connections to Iran. This is an excerpt from the conversation:
Omid Memarian: One of the dominant and recognizable types of work in your work is based on colored rolls and piles of paper. What mental process leads you to do it?
Hadieh Shafie: My medium is paper. I like to rethink the ideas around drawing, painting and sculpture.
While focused on painting, I took paper-making and printmaking courses in undergraduate and enjoyed both processes. I liked how paint and ink would absorb into paper. When I moved to Brooklyn to attend the MFA program at Pratt in the winter of 1993, I was faced with serious financial constraints. At the time, since I had already found working on paper rewarding, I made the decision to work entirely with paper and drawing as I also thought it would be economical. At the same time, I was very interested in illuminated manuscripts and so it felt natural to explore the medium.
The paper scroll works came about from a series of works I was doing as an intervention performance in the early 2000’s, inspired by the children’s story “The Little Black Fish”.
In these performances, I would copy pages from the story, highlight and translate a sentence, then leave the page in a public space for someone to find.
I would leave them in books in public libraries, cafes and stores. I continued this exploration in my studio. I folded pages from the book into cracks of the floors and walls. I had a found table with a missing bolt that connected the leg to the tabletop. In order to get the pages of the book into that space, I had to roll the paper. When I did that, it was an “Aha” moment, and that is how the rolled paper works started. Later, a series of works based on these initial explorations were exhibited at School 33 Art Center in Baltimore in a juried exhibition by Allison Knowles, the renowned Fluxus artist.
Hadieh Shafie: My medium is paper. I like to rethink the ideas that surround drawing, painting and sculpture.
Although I was focused on painting, I took print and paper art courses during my degree, and I loved both processes. I liked how the paint and ink were absorbed by the paper. When I moved to Brooklyn to attend Pratt's MFA program in the winter of 1993, I suffered serious financial difficulties. At that time, since I already liked working with paper, I made the decision to dedicate myself completely to paper and drawing, which was also cheaper for me. At the same time, I was very interested in illustrated manuscripts, so it seemed natural to explore this medium.
The rolled paper works came out of a series of works that I did as an artistic representation in the early 2000s, inspired by the children's story “The Little Black Fish.”
In these performances, he copied pages from the story, marked and translated a phrase, and then left the page in a public place for someone to find.
He left them in books in public libraries, cafes, shops. I continued this exploration in my study. He folded pages of the book and inserted them into cracks in the floor and walls. He had found a table that was missing the screw that attached the counter to a leg. In order to fit the pages of the book into that space, I had to roll up the paper. In doing so, I had an “Ah!” Moment, and that was the beginning of my works with rolled paper. Later, a series of works based on these initial explorations were exhibited in the School 33 Art Center from Baltimore in a jury exhibition of Allison Knowles, the famous artist Fluxus.
OM: You use Persian words in many of your works, but not in the way familiar to us from Persian or Arabic calligraphy. It is as if the words carried a narrative attached to the paper. What is your connection with words, and specifically with “Eshgh”, the Persian word that means “love”?
MSM: I zeroed in on the word “eshgh”, because I felt it had lost its meaning. Drawing the form over and over again is a meditative performance. I have developed several series in my drawing practice. As of today, there is the “Grid Series”, which is ink on paper.
There is also the “Draw, Cut and Peel” series, which are ink and acrylic drawings of text and colors on museum board where the surface is scored, cut and then peeled to create a dimensional surface. And most recently the “Draw, Cut and Rotate” series, which is pencil on museum board with concentric circles that are finally rotated to create seismic lines and abstract the writing of the text.
I am interested in abstracting and obscuring language.
In the paper roll series, I hide handwritten and printed text within the concentric rings of paper strips. I not only hide, but sometimes partially reveal, the interiority of the paper scroll works by pushing the circular forms out into spike forms that reveal what is contained within.
During the four years between 1979 and 1983, my main source of inspiration and refuge was making art and reading books. It was also during this time that I understood that some books that I had access to, like “The Little Black Fish” or books in translation like “Gone with the Wind”, were books that you did not take in public. It was then that books became precious objects. One of my favorite things to do was to lose myself in reading a book while eating lavashak or sour cherries on a daybed. So daydreaming about characters and storylines and holding books is rooted in me as moments of escape and happiness.
When I start a work I don't always know what will be the final outcome. I do have a set of tools to play with, for example the word “eshgh” is one of these tools. Its meaning is profound in Farsi (revealed), but obscured in English (hidden). Other tools include a color palette or the form of a spike.
MSM: I noticed the word “eshgh” because I felt that it had lost its meaning. Drawing its shape over and over again is a meditative representation. I have developed several series in my drawing practice. Today, there is the “Series of bars”, in ink on paper.
There is also the “Draw, cut and empty” series of ink and acrylic drawings of text and colors on museum cardboard, where the surface is marked, cut and then emptied to create a dimensional surface. More recently, the series “Draw, cut and rotate”, based on pencil on museum cardboard with concentric circles that are rotated at the end to create seismic lines and abstract writing of the text.
I am interested in language that abstracts and darkens.
In the rolled paper series, I hide the printed and handwritten text between the concentric rings of the strips of paper. I don't always hide it, sometimes I partially reveal the inner work of the rolls of paper stretching the circular shapes to form peaks that reveal what is inside.
During the four years between 1979 and 1983, my main source of inspiration and refuge was making art and reading books. It was also during that time that I realized that some books that I could have, such as The little black fish or translations like gone With the Wind they were books you didn't show in public. Then the books became precious objects. One of my favorite things was getting lost in reading a book while eating lavashak or sour cherries on a sofa bed. So daydreaming about characters and stories and having a book in my hands are things rooted in me as moments of escape and happiness.
When I start a work I don't always know what the end result will be. I have a set of tools to play with, such as the word eshgh. Its meaning in Farsi is deep (revealed) but darkens in English (hidden). Other tools are the color palette or the pointy shape.
OM: Many of your works are very laborious. Your unique paper filigree style, using hundreds of colorful paper scrolls covered in handwritten calligraphy, creates amazing pieces. Where does the energy, inspiration and creativity come from?
HSH: My work comes from deep within me. I naturally think in colors and abstract forms. My mode of working is fluid. I play with materials in the studio. I follow the experimentations and what I see happening and I develop them into a visual language.
The process for making the work takes time and energy, that is true, but it is only difficult when I have deadlines. But ever since I can remember I was making art and I loved to draw and paint. That’s all I ever wanted to do. It always felt so natural for me to think with abstraction. I find the process of being creative playful. To me that is joy. Much of my work is me observing the things I see happening in the process of making a drawing or sculpture. I then create new works from those observations. My work is cohesive but always evolving. It became clear to me sometime in the late ’90s that there had to be joy in making work and so that is what I do — I make work that transforms sadness into joy.
MSM: My work comes from deep inside me. Naturally, I think of colors and abstract shapes. My way of working is fluid. I play with the materials in the studio. I follow the experimentations and what I see, and I develop them in visual language.
The process of carrying out the work takes time and energy, it is true, but it is only difficult when I have a delivery date. However, since I can remember, I have made art and I loved drawing and painting. That's all I ever wanted to do. It always seemed natural to think abstractly. The process of being creative is a game for me, for me it is happiness. A good part of my work consists of observing the things that I see happening in the process of making a drawing or a sculpture. Later I create new works from those observations. My work is cohesive, but it is always evolving. At some point in the late 1990s it became clear to me that there had to be joy in doing my job, and that is what I do, works that transform sadness into joy.
OM: You grew up in the United States, but you still have a strong and continuous connection and communication with your Iranian roots. How do you incorporate this into your work?
MSM: In 1983, we left on a two-week vacation. Through a series of unexpected opportunities and without any planning, we found ourselves, as a family unit, intact and abroad.
It was a joy to know I had left Iran. But within a couple of years, I recognized the pain of leaving my motherland and not having said goodbye. We had left Iran with two suitcases. Everything was left in the house as you do when you leave for two weeks of holiday.
I often think of my relationship with Iran like being in a relationship with an abusive lover.
I was 10 years old in 1979 and the four years of life in Iran between 1979-1983 killed my childhood. Those four years provided so much joy flanked by sadness and despair that it will take a lifetime to recover from all the trauma those years offered. Today, I am certain that much of the unpacking of those experiences is happening through my artmaking.
MSM: In 1983 we went on a two-week vacation. Thanks to a series of unexpected opportunities without any planning, the whole family found themselves abroad.
It was wonderful to know that he had left Iran. But some years later I knew the pain of leaving my country of origin without saying goodbye. We left Iran with two suitcases, everything stayed in the house, as usually happens when you go on a simple two-week vacation.
I often think that my relationship with Iran can be compared to the relationship you have with an abusive lover.
In 1979 I was 10 years old, and the four years of life in Iran between 1979 and 1983 killed my childhood. In those four years there was so much joy mixed with sadness and hopelessness that it will take me a life to recover from all the trauma that those years inflicted on me. Today I am sure that a good part of the liberation of those experiences is taking place thanks to my art.