An Interview with Bobak Etminani
By Iman Afsarian
Afsarian: Mr Etminani, you will soon turn sixty and although you have been interviewed many times, you have never spoken about your distant past and your family. Where were your parents from?
Etminani: I was born in Tehran on March 3, 1957. My father, Javad Etminani, was from Neyshabur and my mother, Parvin Saber, from Tabriz. They met in Tehran during the Mossadegh era. My father was a civil servant and my mother was a vice principal. I have a sister named Katayoun and a brother who goes by the name of Nima. My spouse is Mina Saber. We were married in the winter of 1994 and she has been my best friend and companion throughout these years.
Tell us about your childhood years.
My father was posted to Orumiyeh for his job and we lived there until I was five years old. My father was in charge of water distribution among the tribal communities there. My parents were liberals and supporters of Dr. Mossadegh and often argued with those in positions of power in favor of the powerless. These values have formed an important part of my character.
Do you have a particular memory from Orumyieh?
I remember when my father received his transfer orders back to Tehran the tribal chiefs came to our house and asked us to stay. They had always fought over the water supply and distribution among themselves and my father had successfully managed to make peace between them. They spread a wrapper in the middle of the room filled with title deeds for plots of land and villages for my father to choose as many as he wished and stayed with them to continue his role as wise man and watchdog. But, he did not accept.
What happened next?
Next, we returned to Tehran and stayed there for a year until my father was sent to Mashhad. I spent my first, second, and half of third grade in that city before going back to Tehran. In Tehran, I was enrolled at the Jahan-e Tarbiat primary school until the end of my fifth year. Our Headmaster, Dr Bani-Ahmad, was sensitive about good handwriting, poetry, and literature and reproduced fine literary texts in his own writing for us to do as calligraphy exercises. At Jahan-e Tarbiat, we had serious poetry contests with great prizes to be won, enticing us to read poetry and improve our handwriting. We also had music lessons.
When I reached sixth grade, I went to Mehran primary, which was co-ed. It was run by Mr and Mrs Māfi, a very successful couple among the forerunners of fundamental schooling in Iran. They had designed an intelligent, effective, advanced, and humane system. The effects of the latter two primary schools have always stayed with me.
Tell us about high school and adolescence.
I had the best years of my life at Alborz High. Still most of my best friends are the schoolmates from elementary and high school. At Alborz, every day and every moment had been filled with the qualities of friendship, discipline, and education. The school was much more than a high school. It was a turnout of the country’s elite students, teachers, and administrative staff, all handpicked by its principal, Dr Mojtahedi. We were all proud members of a small community, commanding the respect of others. There, I learned how to learn, how to cut out the essence of the matter in a simple language and put them together again by drawing interrelated charts of information to enable myself to see everything at a glance.
At the time, I wanted to become a surgeon; perhaps, because I wanted to save the life of my younger, sister who is four years younger than I am. She was born with a heart defect and I had heard from the very beginning that she would not survive. I was nine when my mother decided to take her to Germany for an operation and I prayed that she would not slip away from us. Once there, it became apparent that the diagnoses were wrong and my sister could have a normal life.
In my sophomore year a friend lost fifty tomans1 to me in a poker game; he gave me a guitar instead and taught me three basic chords. It was around the same time when my father’s mother died. I was sixteen. In her memory, I wrote a song and a simple track with those three chords. I still play that song sometimes. Music and lyrics had found their way into my life; of course, in an arbitrary and feel-good way. My grandfather used to play the Tar and my father had taught himself the violin. He was also good with his pen. My brother, sister, and cousins all have been playing instruments. If I could go back in time, I would certainly choose music.
What did you do after high school?
I took the university entrance exam for medicine and dentistry in Iran. Deep in my heart, however, I did not wish to remain in Iran and left for medical school in England as soon as I graduated in 1975. Once in pre-med, I realised that I was not interested in this field. Neither was I interested in any of the other fields. I had lost my academic goal. Beginning in 1976 I was filled with a sense of justice and liberty. The desire for activism and politics grew in me by the day. These were the turbulent times before the Revolution and the era of the Confederation of Iranian Students abroad. There was so much hope and energy. In 1977, I left England for Germany and returned to Iran after a few months. Shortly before the Revolution, I was on my way to Northern California. Once there, I picked at several academic disciplines, but none absorbed me. I dropped out and began working in restaurants to pay the bills. A big part of my life then was to study philosophical and political literature. I also wrote essays and engaged in polemics. In the meantime, I was also able to learn the various stages of layout and design while I was working with a student newspaper in California. At the time everything was done by hand. The cutter was one of the most important tools and I had mastered working with it. Perhaps the surgeon in me had been awakened and that was why the cutter was the only tool I used to create my first works on the day I suddenly found my way in life. On that day, it was as if my soul had been C-sectioned and my artist-within had been born.
Could you explain this further please? Did something bring it on?
It was not due to drugs. For some reason still unknown to me, my mind was able to slice the objective reality from a different angle. I was experiencing some “unconventional” observations on that day. I learned later that this was a natural, human state and could happen to anyone. Under that condition, awareness can receive and process information outside the norms of the five senses and objective reality, leading to a state I call “conceptual expansion.” Naturally, the experience gained from this encounter is different from popular and daily experiences.
Tell us about your first works. How did they come to be? Were they created from a lived experience?
Yes, they came out of a lived experience. When I was 28, ideology lost its stranglehold and I got free. Now, I had to think about my future and make a decision. Perhaps I needed an inner faith which followed no flag. I was thinking about becoming a writer. Simultaneously, a story kept coming to me in a peculiar manner, revealing a new layer every time, so much so that I could clearly see it as a three-dimensional reality but was unable to put it down as words. I had left home one day with the intention to write when I had a visual and connecting experience. I saw the trees in a light. I also saw the simultaneous presence of all four seasons in a single tree. I saw how and in which layers of this material world the seasons metamorphose into one another. I saw how migrating birds understand this and begin their journey; but my mind, the human mind as the most noble of all creations, is taken captive by official calendars.
This intuitive incident took place towards the end of autumn 1984 in Berkeley, California, and changed the course of my life forever. I wanted to express this experience in image. I returned home and my first collection came to life through cutter, paper, and glue. I used the same technique during my student years to produce graphic designs for Iranian art events in Northern California.
When this intuitive observation took place, how long was it since you had left the world of political activity?
What did you do during those two years?
I was searching for an answer to a question which had occupied my mind: How could I – a descent fellow, raised in a decent and liberal family – reach a point where I could bring myself to convince a crowd to accept an idea that I was already against it. I had done that in a speech. The answer I found freed my mind.
At time point had you studied mystic texts or been familiar with the hippie movement and the Native American worldview and spirituality?
I had not studied it. It was during my freshman year when I was exposed to the enigmatic worldview of Native Americans, initially through the books of Carlos Castaneda but also through a classmate who was a Native American. It was 1985 and I had just enrolled in the California College of the Arts (CCA).
Were you not familiar with the hippie movement?
I had hippie friends, but I never studied their philosophical worldview.
Those were the bipolar years. On the one hand, people fell in the trap of ideology and the tragedies that it brought, such as Nazism, Communism, and wars such as the Vietnam War, etc. In contrast, there were those who veered towards some sort of spirituality, or freedom from authority. Did you feel this atmosphere or experience it yourself? In other words, going through a period of very rigid ideologies, followed by a period of taking refuge in mysticism?
No, it was not taking refuge in mysticism, but being freed from ideological confines. This is what rapidly took me on the road to becoming an artist. The main energy of this metamorphosis was the one that brought me to see the four seasons of a tree simultaneously in the light. A month after this incident, I officially became a student at CCA, where I completed my undergraduate and graduate studies. It was Professor Larry McClary, head of the department of drawing who expanded my mind. It was he who planted the seeds of visual perception in my mind.
Did models pose in those classes and you tried to capture some lines?
In his classes, we learned to have an analytical, visual, and conceptual approach to the problems concerning form and space, using the medium of drawing. This was an approach that could penetrate the deep into the objective reality, translate the visible world into visual language, and describe it in literary language. A substantial part of my teachings follows his teachings. Based on his method I was able to raise new questions in the field of art education. The seeds he planted have grown into an interrelated, versatile, and solid system which can profoundly transfer the essence of university education to the eye, mind, and heart of the students in a short period of time. It is so simple that everybody understands it. The system developed gradually over twenty-five years and trained knowledgeable artists and effective teachers. When I was an art student, the analytical mind helped me understand theoretical concepts better and faster.
As you mentioned, it seems you had an evolutionist grasp of the history of art and science at this time.
Yes, I did. Once, our art history professor was teaching Islamic art. His lecture was on the patterns of tile works in mosques and how these were decorative. I immediately countered that these were not decorative but descriptive. He stopped the lesson, turned to me and asked what they were describing? “The unity and interdependence of elements in existence,” I replied. It was so clear in my mind that this was true. I had seen and understood this by looking at the small carpet in my room. The Shamseh pattern in the middle of the rug expanded through a symmetrical dance. Years later, when I was working on the Creation series, the memory of that shamseh pattern was with me (Image 5).
You received a bachelor degree in drawing, how did that affect your profession career?
In the short run, I created the Drawing Studio series which helped me get into graduate school where my work developed into abstraction. I owe this to my perception as a drawer and the years that I was tangling with visual and concepts through figure.
In the long run, my drawing perception helped me get familiar with various and contradictory species in the realm of visual form and space, find out their fundamental commonalities, and reclassify them from a new point of view that is free from the art history, similar to a biologist who wants to classify different species.
In your mind, did you believe that abstract painting evolved from figurative painting?
No. I stepped into the world of abstract by accident and did not fully comprehend it at that point. It came about in the summer of 1989, prior to graduate school, when I painted over the surface of a figurative work. It was a spontaneous act. Thrilled, I took it to McClary because I felt that something new had taken place in my work. He said he had been waiting for such a transformation. He pointed the “Iranian” element out in my work – creating depth by using planes parallel to the picture plain upon which a dancing curvilinear movement takes place. He said all these indicated the Iranian identity of the work and that he was pleased I had found the orientation of my work prior to graduate school. I called my art project Persian Themes (Image 9) and my written thesis was to be on Modernism and Tradition in Iran, exploring a triangle being drawn between my own work, the Iranian visual traditions, and the Western modernism. The thesis never fully developed. I submitted an abstract to the board as my thesis, which the board accepted it, an abstract that was about me and the era during which I had been living. It is still probably the shortest MFA thesis in the history of the college.
Writing this thesis and the vision, direction and style of my work prompted me to return to Iran and set up my studio in Tehran. I received my MFA in the spring of 1991 and returned in the winter of that same year. In the Persian Themes series, I focused on using the movement of Persian script without turning it into letters or words. I was using the gesture of Persian calligraphy aesthetically. At the same time, to create and explain space, I was using rectangular nesting structures so I could arrange movements and events, but not in a symmetrical way. I had picked up this structure from the traditional Persian rug design. To me, painting like this was like writing poetry in a visual language, because I was highly influenced by the efforts of formalist Iranian poet Nima Yushij and believed that, structurally, my paintings reflected his poems.
I don’t sense the presence of your psychological personality in these works, how you must have felt at the time. It seems to me that you were a very gifted, animated painter, engaged with a variety of visual qualities as well as a fresh, innovative approach to shapes on the surface of the work. That is to say, you had been mostly concerned with the formal aspects of painting rather than your own mental, sensory, or inner feelings.
From a young age, I used to be a melancholy person which is reflected in the poems I wrote in those years. But, when I started painting, I turned into a joyous individual who had found his other half. I found this joy in the playful arrangement of forms. Upon returning to Iran and in my continued artistic quests, little by little I entered larger realms where the story was no longer about human happiness or sadness.
And coming back to Iran was the connecting point between your various mental worlds; on the one hand, a world that is interested in classifying, rationalizing, applying scientific rationality, philosophy and thought, and on the other hand, a world with sensory and emotional dimensions. It seems as if these various dimensions could find a form to be reconciled.
Yes. That’s right. In 1993, I did a small painting that connects my works in the US to my works in Iran. It constitutes a turning point in my artistic career. The source for this was the same original abstract work I created in the US that determined the direction of my graduate studies. The Constellations series was the first I created and showcased in Iran in 1994. These were a combination of impromptu drawings and technical painterly explorations, the same factors missing in my Persian Themes series.
You were trained with an eye to formal and practical dimensions of art, but it is in your character to generalize subjects and say things that will become the basis of your next works.
What I verbalize doesn’t form the basis of my future works. On the contrary, it is my paintings that finally turn into my words and thoughts. My paintings have always been created first. Yet, what you say is correct. I am aware of the nooks and crannies of my evolutionary path and am only too familiar with its watersheds. I know which of my works have opened the door to works of other periods and how they are connected to my past. In principle, the journey of every phenomenon in life can be meticulously tracked down.
Why are you after principles that you can apply to a larger reality?
Because that is how my mind works. My mind enjoys reflecting on and processing my observations to arrive at bigger realities. These are universal concepts that can be applied to everything. For instance, let’s consider the concept of “proportion,” which has been the basis of my paintings and teachings. This is a concept related to quantity. In my view, “proportion” means having non-equal amounts; because, I have observed that every occurrence has its own large, medium, and small constituents, each with their own particular tasks. As these tasks vary, the size of constituents will also inevitably vary. I have learned that specific amounts of these quantities combined in uncommon ways will give rise to a qualitative state. I believe that “quality” means the accumulation of optimal efficacy in minimal space. I have acquired this knowledge by observing nature and manmade artifacts.
If you happen to be wrong somewhere, will you try to justify your view?
No. I will say there are exceptions to every rule. But if I see that I have made a mistake, I will certainly rectify it.
You mentioned issues such as improvising, letting go, and acquiring technical know-how when talking about the start of your work in Iran. These are the same issues that the New York School grappled with. Are you an abstract expressionist?
No, I have never been an abstract expressionist, because I have never wished to prove my physical presence through pigments and boast my ego. Initially, I simply wished to reach the same degree of emancipation and improvisation in painting that I had attained in drawing during my undergraduate period. Alas, I had lost this ability in my graduate years.
My work in Iran sparked off when some paint from my palette accidentally dripped on the wet floor; something that had happened hundreds of times before. Only this time, I noticed how a pigment could have an independent existence, outside my will and control. Unexpectedly, a piece of paint had come to life before my eyes and I had seen the unique spirit of nature in it. This observation became the source of my artistic ideas over the past twenty-three years. Different periods in my work are connected and are on an evolutionary track – Constellations, Creation, Grey Paintings, and Organic Expanses series. Needless to say, I have also transitional works, some of whose results I am yet to scrutinize. But, the starting point for all was when I observed the connection established between the paint and the wet floor.
How are these periods linked together? In what ways are they similar or different?
The Constellations series was like poetry, which could also take on the form of celestial phenomena. At the time, my painterly intention was to draw with paint and enjoy watching the formation of organic membranes between the various states of pigments. My physical presence is still clearly visible in the works of this period. Afterwards, over a long interim period, I studied structures that would take me closer to macrocosmic concepts with a painterly eye; concepts such as concentric circles and their longitudinal and cross-sections. Studying circular structures led me to produce the Creation series. It was in Creations that my artistic ideas took on a coherent, universal shape. On my canvas, fields of energy started to appear and gravity made an official entrance. This was the point where my physical presence in the works became imperceptible.
And that’s why this collection tends towards a center and expands from a center. This is why it seeks the moment of creation.
Yes; it reaches out to the primal or the final moment.
Why did you move towards the color grey?
Because I did not want the excitement of colorful hues overshadow my original intention, which was to integrate matter and energy and deliver this divine beauty. I had understood that it was in fact this woven mass which was doing the job, just like existence itself, and the colorful hues simply displayed these integrated, organic bodies. In a painterly decision, I put various colors aside in order to focus on the primary subject with black and white.
These cold, grey expanses create an extra-terrestrial feeling. They engender macro-scales and infinite spaces, but they also resemble cement-like surfaces where the texture is totally flat. Does this not cause a problem in your view?
On the contrary, this makes them more attractive. The viewer won’t know that the texture is completely flat until he/she touches the surface of the painting!
To what extent do improvisations and accidents play a part in the Grey Paintings?
Accidents are the driving force of my paintings. And I deliberately make them happen so I can observe and accompany the chaotic course and make the effect lucid, beautiful, and solid little by little, either through improvisation or in a calculated manner. If we look at the paintings through a magnifying glass, we will be able to see their multi-layered organic structures and fine, orderly texture linking everything together. The grey period lasted eight years, from the winter of 2006 until the winter of 2014. Then, I started the Organic Expanses series, the early works of which have formed the final chapter of the present book. In the early works of this period, colorful hues have been combined with grey spaces and the remains of organic bodies to create new situations and horizons for me.
It seems what you saw with the paint and wet floor originally is similar to your observation of the tree at the time. You suddenly lost control and became an observer whose duty is to see the mechanism of nature itself rather than composing or changing it.
Yes. That experience fundamentally changed my relationship with painting. Gradually, I changed from an active agent to an accommodating, elusive observer.
I feel deeply emotional and perceptive when I see the emergence and completion of a work. I create a unified field of matter and energy and tie it consciously and artistically to gravity so that the expanse of my canvas can become an extension of the cosmic formation, so that it can become beautiful and I can witness this majestic event and see how the phenomena become interrelated in order to make a single, unified body. I want to observe how my awareness expands in keeping with this wondrous occurrence and how I reach inspirations and insights that are no longer related to art. Painting and my observation of it have made me think about cosmic formation, genesis, and the origins of life and soul. I have been living with these concepts for almost twenty-three years.
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