Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: “Daring to Look” – Pouran Jinchi and Re-Writing Women into the Great Calligraphic Traditions of Iran

By Delaram Hosseinian, PhD candidate at Leiden University, Netherlands, and Center Winter Intern

For generations, whether inscribing idealistic poetry or didactic religious narratives, the masters of Persian calligraphy have been male. Despite its genderless characteristics, calligraphy has served to empower one gender and suppress the other. The pioneering artist Pouran Jinchi is one of the few contemporary Iranian artists who confronts this tradition and depicts feminine sentiments, not for the sake of aesthetics but to reclaim an authentic feminine voice. For Jinchi, who studied Persian calligraphy as a teenager, calligraphy was not “a dated practice’’ nor one that hampered the female artist, but, rather, an artistic practice that was “her right’’. Rather than discard her passion for calligraphy, Jinchi chose to recast and rejoice in it.

Born in 1959 in Mashhad, one of the most conservative cities in the country, Jinchi would later move to the US, where she received her bachelor’s in civil engineering from George Washington University in 1982. Later, in 1989, she began her studies in sculpture and painting at the University of California, Los Angeles, and continued her studio practice at the Art Students League of New York. She currently resides in New York.

For decades Persian parents have pushed their children to pursue mathematics or become either a doctor or a lawyer. Jinchi’s family was no exception. She studied math as a teenager, along with calligraphy in her school curriculum and through private tutors, though “the thought never occurred to me that I was going to be an artist”. While studying engineering in college, she began exploring art, keen to extend her vision, and studying Western forms, from figurative to pop art or various surrealistic styles’. However, none of these seemed ‘’genuine to her heart” until it dawned on her that she had her form all along, calligraphy. For Jinchi, calligraphy was painting: “I don’t see a difference between brush strokes and calligraphy; calligraphy is like brushstrokes that have predetermined construction. My goal has always been to break away from that predetermined construction and allow myself to deconstruct and decode it, to give me that freedom to make calligraphy more expressive”.

Photograph by Brian Buckley for Pouran Jinchi

 “When I started researching other artists who are the famous artists who have worked on calligraphy,” she explains, “I learned that there were only male artists that are well known and that very few Iranian women have delved into this art form. At times I wondered why, and I thought maybe this art form is not expressive enough for females.” But Jinchi nonetheless felt no restrictions on her practice as an artist and a woman who based her work on calligraphy, saying that she “always felt very free with calligraphy, I never felt like it’s constraining me. My art is text based. I am really a writer without words. I basically use words that are poems or deconstructed words or books to say what I have to say.” 

Through each of her seventeen collections, Jinchi approaches a text from a primarily visual perspective in which words are aesthetic symbols–a view of calligraphy that contradicts the rigidity of traditional Persian calligraphic practice. She explains that the stories she portrays are chosen “because of the life I have led and the environment” that influences her thoughts. She approaches each series after much research, reading books and watching films. Like a seed through time, Jinchi’s thoughts grow until she is ready to begin to paint.  In her first series, “Omar Khayyam”, Jinchi explored her roots and sentiments. Dedicating two years to the project she reached into her core and developed a style she recognized as her own. Focusing on Khayyam’s sonnets, instead of the bulk of his works, she chose to paint miniature canvases that would remain intimate in scale. The format was determined before Jinchi started the series, and she clarifies that “coming from kind of a math, and engineering background I always have to have a format, a construction first”. She also determines the color palette and materials for each series before beginning the actual physical work.

Jinchi’s 2008 series, titled “Forough” used the writing of modern female poet Forough Farrokhzad (1977–1977) in a sequence of densely packed clusters of Farsi characters painted on canvas. The differently colored layers of text overlap forming a dense cloud of calligraphed language in the center of a square format. Jinchi grew up with Forough’s poetry and it was a huge influence on her, she continued to read her poems after leaving Iran. “She was so iconic for my generation,” Jinchi states, “that was the reason I picked her poetry and as far as the construction of the paintings based on her poetry it totally speaks of what the poems say to me: at times when you see very dense clusters of words, words of her poems, that [represents] when something was trying to restrain her life and journey; at the same time [the words are] very free.” For Jinchi this dual life – of restraint and freedom – is the dilemma of Iranian women: “We have always lived trying to build and not destroy. We live through the tradition of constraint by society but at the same time we have these desires for freedom and the desire to progress, and how do we break away from that? Forough is the very symbol of that.”

Jinchi also based two of her series on The Blind Owl by Iranian novelist, Sadegh Hedayat (1903-1951). “The Blind Owl” (2013) and “Black and Blue” (2014). The book was banned when Jinchi was a teenager in Iran and remains banned today, believed to promote suicidal thoughts in its readers. While thinking about her life as a young woman in Iran, Jinchi found the book online and read it. She was struck by the “amount of pain and violence” and there was one sentence by Hedayat that she found especially resonant: “I write only for my shadow which is cast on the wall in front of the light. I must introduce myself to it.” (The blind owl of the book’s title refers to this shadow on the wall, which in the shape of an owl.) In the two series, Jinchi used either the quotation or lines of diamond-shaped pinkish-red dots based on the exact number of words in the lines of the book’s pages, explaining, “basically I deconstructed the whole book, and the body of the work, for me, was a representation of the pain and violence that the book portrayed.”

Untitled 6, 2008, Ink, Acrylic on canvas 60x48in.

Choosing words such as “hanged”, “bruised” and “wound” as the titles of the individual works in the series “Black and Blue”, Jinchi focused on images of wounds and bruises. For the sculptural pieces, she chose to work in copper to “convey something natural and organic … for me copper translated into the skin.” Jinchi further explains that she also took the bookbinder’s triangular stamp and merged it in the collection. The angular dots are also a symbol of the shadow owl’s triangularly shaped ears and beak. Together, the conflated dots and owl stand for being aware, conscious, and able to speak.

In her most recent series, The Line of March (2016) and Signal Flags (2017), Jinchi applied the theme of violence more universally to war and its military language: signal flags, Morse code, and semaphores. She explains, “to use this language is really not so different from using any language … the whole idea of using military language came from the time when there was a lot of conflict in Persian gulf … and the thought came to me that “OK, there is NATO, and this language created for all the nations to communicate with each other, but Iran is not really part of NATO when a conflict occurs in that region, how do they communicate?” To address this question Jinchi “translated their phonetics alphabets, like B as Bravo, A as Alpha, etc., and I used Persian alphabets for that” within larger fragmented and abstract drawings.

From Forough’s poems to the brilliant dots and clusters of hanging copper of The Blind Owl series to the geometric cubes of semaphoric alphabets, Jinchi keeps depicting and narrating distinct patterns. After thirty years of exploring calligraphy and the power of feminine voice, Jinchi continues to break the boundaries. Throughout her art, Jinchi urges her viewers to explore her realm and to decode and deconstruct all the cultural symbols around them. But the viewer is not lost or overwhelmed in the process. The nostalgic beauty of Jinchi’s calligraphic art assures them there is a unique message waiting for them, if only they dare to look for new interpretations inside themselves. Parts of the “Black and Blue “series will be exhibited at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum in  February 2021 in the major exhibition “Epic Iran”. Exploring 5,000 years of art, design, and culture, Epic Iran will shine a light on one of our greatest historic civilizations. https://www.vam.ac.uk/ exhibitions/epic-iran.

We thank PhD candidate, Delaram Hosseinian for contributing this feature to our blog. She, in turn, would like to recognize her mentor Jamie Robles for helping her with this blog post. You can contact the author at: d.hosseinioun@hum.leidenuniv.nl

All photos courtesy of Pouran Jinchi.

Title Photo: 63, 1996, Ink, Acrylic on canvas paper, 9x12in

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