Utne Blogs > Arts and Culture

Iranian Poster Artists Go Off the Script

 by Keith Goetzman


Tags: Arts, visual art, poster, design, U.S., Iran, Middle Eastern art, graphic design,

Seattle-Tehran Poster ShowThe Seattle-Tehran Poster Show that premiered last month at the Bumbershoot music and arts festival is an enlightening mashup of graphic design sensibilities in which Western motifs and techniques meet Persian script, and the hipster rock world intersects with ancient Middle Eastern culture. The show’s approach is to pair up posters, one by a U.S. artist alongside one by an Iranian, based on their styles and imagery.

Although the Iranian posters are not explicitly political, their design choices are more loaded with meaning than meets the Westerners’ eye. “In Iran, graphic design is viewed by many as a creation of the West and is met with skepticism,” Mark Baumgarten writes in Seattle Sound (article not available online). The use of Persian script itself is guided by cultural strictures.

“Graphic designers in Tehran are expected to treat it with a respect that does not allow for using the language’s characters creatively,” he writes. “Still some artists are rebelling against that orthodoxy.” One is Shahrzad Changalvaee, whose work (above) is paired with a Spoon poster by Jeff Kleinsmith in the show, which is being billed as the first exhibition of contemporary Iranian posters in the United States.

Curator Daniel R. Smith, who traveled to Tehran to find poster artists, tells Seattle Sound the search was a challenge—he had to escape his “tour guide” minders to do it—but that state censorship was more a chilling effect than a death-sentence scenario.

“There’s just this general sense of what you probably shouldn’t be doing in terms of imagery and definitely in terms of political stuff and poster design,” he says. “But what I also hear is that whatever you want to do in private is not a problem. If you want to have a private exhibition of nudes, you can have it in your own house.”

The Seattle-Tehran Poster Show will be on exhibit through October 15 at Design Commission in Seattle. Next year it will travel to Tehran, where its organizers aim to share it with Iranian designers who are often prohibited from visiting the United States.

Images of posters by Jeff Kleinsmith and Shahrzad Changalvaee courtesy of the Seattle-Tehran Poster Show.