Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (1922–2019)

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian wearing a Turkoman coat, New York, circa 1990s. Photo: Leonor Caraballo. Courtesy the artist’s family and Haines Gallery.

MONIR AND I FIRST MET in New York City in the late 1980s, when we discovered we were both born in Qazvin, one of Iran’s most conservative and religious cities, and one that took pride in being the country’s medieval capital from 1555 to 1598 during the Safavid dynasty. I was a struggling young artist newly arrived in New York, while Monir, then in her late sixties, had been active in the city since New York’s golden years of bohemia and had formed close friendships with artists such as Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, and Frank Stella. As a prominent and celebrated artist, cultural activist, socialite, and avid collector of Iranian folk art, Monir was also a central figure back home in Iran, which had become an international cultural hub with a thriving art scene under the auspices of Empress Farah Diba Pahlavi. From 1967 to 1977, for example, the annual Shiraz Arts Festival brought hundreds of international artists to Iran, and Monir was at the center of this tsunami of cultural exchange. 

Sadly, this euphoric time was interrupted by the 1979 Islamic Revolution and its brutal aftermath. Monir’s family was charged with having blood ties to the nineteenth-century Qajar aristocracy, and their home, wealth, and possessions were confiscated. For much of the following two and a half decades, Monir concentrated on the art of exilic survival, caring for her children, her grandchildren, and her ill, long-suffering husband. After his passing in 1991, Monir was alone and her art career in shambles. She had become disconnected from the New York art scene and, perhaps most devastatingly, felt unwelcome and forgotten back home. Despite the injustice and the suffering, I never saw Monir bitter during these years. She spoke of life, politics, and art with remarkable passion, irony, and humor, always optimistic and forward-looking. 

In 2004, then in her eighties, Monir surprised everyone with her bold decision to return to Iran. She fought the government to win her family home back, set up her art studio, and started making art full-time. The next fifteen years were the most prolific period of Monir’s artistic career. As if making up for lost time, her remarkable art started to flourish and was presented at international museums, galleries, and art fairs, finally gaining the respect and recognition it deserved both abroad and at home. In 2017, the Monir Museum in Tehran was inaugurated in her honor, securing the place of her historic contributions within Iranian art.  

Monir is a national icon, but her legacy will rise above and beyond her country, as she opened up possibilities for many artists at a global crossroad of cultures. She was among the very few artists who knew with such depth the Western avant-garde and the history and traditional art of Iran. She was well aware of Western artists looking to the East for inspiration to break away from the tyranny of form imposed by their tradition. Similarly, the prohibition of depicting the figure in Islamic art had made abstraction the only possibility for artistic imagination and expression. It was at this juncture that Monir injected her work with meaning. Her genius lay in her ability to infuse two seemingly different traditions into a perceptual unity, thus making cultural referentiality moot. If Islamic abstraction—with its emphasis on symmetrical harmony, geometric repetition, calligraphy, and decorative motifs—were to serve the glory of the divine, Monir’s rendering, reconfiguration, and introduction of the schematic flaw instilled the sacred with the conceptual and rescaled it to the human realm. 

Shirin Neshat is a visual artist and filmmaker living in New York.