South Africa: Kamyar Bineshtarigh's World of Words

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With a deliberate randomness and the works of a beloved Persian poet, the Iranian artist combines language, text and writing imaginatively to create meaning - or shatter it.

Artworks hang from the upper level of an abandoned factory in Cape Town's Salt River district. Hundreds of pigeons occupy the building, flying around or staring down from above. The floor is littered with dead birds, droppings, fallen eggs and feathers. Walking amid the debris, artist Kamyar Bineshtarigh says, "If I were a pigeon, I'd hang out here too."

Hanging from the building's beams and lining the walls are Bineshtarigh's fabric artworks, featuring large sections of text in Farsi - one of many languages written in the Arabic alphabet. The building is part of a compound where the artist has his studio.

There is a level of freedom in the artworks hanging there, withstanding the moody Cape Town wind and the chaos caused by the birds. "Using the spaces that you have access to gives a different life to your work," he says. The self-installed exhibition first went up in December, and again briefly in March because of its popularity.

The 25-year-old Iranian artist describes this latest series of work as being consumed by processes of "randomness". The pieces of fabric contain the ghazals - a type of lyrical poem - of famed 14th-century Persian Sufi poet Hafez.

In Iran, there is a tradition of divination called Fal-e Hafez, which involves consulting Hafez's poetry for guidance. "Everyone has this book of Hafez in their house. It's a form of celebration, or when you are uncertain about something or seeking advice, you randomly open his book and that poem becomes your answer," Bineshtarigh says.

He approached his latest works with the same random methodology, opening the Divan-i Hafez (a collection of Hafez's poems) to choose the ghazals that were transcribed on the fabrics. In this way, he uses the Fal-e Hafez method to direct the art, rather than attribute any personal meaning to it.

"The process starts with randomness. But there's some kind of decision that comes afterwards, like for example, what brush will I use? Will I let it bleed or not? Or how to tear the fabric?"

Writing on the wall

Language, text and writing are central to Bineshtarigh's process, which considers how they are understood and misunderstood. Before fabric, he wrote on glass with printing ink, which he loves for its ability to bleed. Later, he would break the glass. This symbolised the concept of broken language.

"I approach text as painting. Or as marks ... When I do my work, it's not writing anymore. It's usually just marks. So it was important to me to approach text as a non-comprehensive thing." The immediate impact of the work is its aesthetics rather than its meaning.

In Cape Town, Bineshtarigh is known for a mural inscribed on the entire surface of the AVA Gallery in 2019. The text is a transliteration - the writing of words using the closest corresponding letters of a different alphabet or script - of Edward Said's seminal book Orientalism, written in 1978. In this case, the English words were written in Arabic alphabet but their meaning was still in English, which caused intentional confusion among viewers. "People would not realise it was in English unless they tried to read it," he says.

Perched on a ladder with the book in one hand and paintbrush in the other, he wrote out a portion of the book on the building over two days. The text observes how perceptions of the East are manipulated through the Western gaze.

"Usually, I don't want my work to be comprehensive. I don't want for you to read it. I just want the initial reaction when you see and how you feel about it."

Connection and context

Facets of Said's Orientalism regularly filter into his life.

"Because of the media and the orientalism that exists, when you talk about Arabic writing, this conversation moves into another direction. For instance, people who don't understand Arabic but who are familiar through seeing the writing on the flag of 'terrorist' organisations or at mosques. That's the only reference they have. But they don't realise that an academic text can be written in Arabic [without a religious aspect]."

He received much public engagement while creating the mural. One passer-by asked if the building was a mosque, while others (even those who understood Arabic) would inquire about the text's meaning. The idea of a pure language can be demystified when approached as just making marks, without the particular meaning of the language being central.

The artist was also intrigued by the transnational identity language can take when he learned that Afrikaans in the Cape was first written in Arabic.

Bineshtarigh's work alludes to occupying a transnational identity - being a bit of an outsider in South Africa. Originally growing up in a small town called Semnan, about 200km to the east of Tehran in Iran, he moved to South Africa with his family when he was 15.

One of his works is a tasbih (prayer beads), consisting of 3 000 handmade clay beads dedicated to his grandmother who lives in Semnan. "It's a connection through prayer and creation. We are far apart, but I know at certain times she sits and prays, and so these are prayer beads that travel through time."

In 2016, he returned to Iran and spent three months travelling through parts he had not visited before. For the first time, he recognised the linguistic differences between regions. "It was a special experience. One of the biggest inspirations for me has been language because of this reason, especially when comparing the area that I lived in. Going 20km in the other direction, people speak a whole different language."

Bineshtarigh speaks Farsi and English and understands a bit of Semnani and Arabic.

Cinema's influence

The artist grew up playing basketball and wanted to play professionally, but laughs and says he did not grow tall enough. Art was always interesting but not a high priority. While travelling through Iran, he explored his deep love for Iranian cinema and the Iranian New Wave movement.

"I became so passionate about cinema. I was amazed by the work of Abbas Kiarostami. He was someone who deeply inspired me. Recognising the artistic language that cinema opens up allows you to see differently. I wanted to do film and study directing."

While applying for film studies back in Cape Town, the Fees Must Fall movement happened. It was bad timing and there were visa delays and uncertainties. "I've always had visa problems. I still do because of all the bureaucracy here. I've always been at once here and not here, and have relied on institutions to help me." At the last minute he convinced the Ruth Prowse School of Art to take him in. He graduated three years later with a solid portfolio.

Last year, he enrolled at the University of Cape Town's Michaelis School of Fine Art to further his studies, only to be met with further uncertainties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. At art school, he experimented with working with glass, fabric, pencil, pen, prints, engraving and even sound.

"I wanted to incorporate the ideas of writing, language, abstraction and painting and see how they can all speak to each other, but not in a traditional way," he says. His artworks also span video art and he has made a few short films.

A familial connection and new beginnings

"My father is a calligrapher. He does the Persian Nastaliq script," says Bineshtarigh, who used to watch his father and uncle write calligraphy while growing up. There is a delicate art to this particular form of calligraphy, perfected through a lifetime, like a form of martial arts. "The patience I would observe through calligraphy was influential to me. I would enjoy watching him do it." His father has collaborated on some of his artworks.

Bineshtarigh is clear that his work is not calligraphy. "I know the basic principles of calligraphy, like what each letter should look like and the measurements. But I use that background to question how to make sense of it today and how am I making it relevant. Taking the work into another direction that has not been taken, personalising it a bit more. And subverting the institutionalisation of it as well."

The influence of calligraphy in his work feels palpable in the shape of letters and the neatness of his freehand. The fabric works are his latest that include script.

"After the Said work, I wanted to go back to basics. I wondered what would an Iranian calligrapher write? They usually do verses of famous poets. Hafez is the poet in Iran. People have his verses hanging in their houses. He had his own style and he was the best poet in terms of skills in language and literature. A lot of his poetry has been misrepresented and misused in the West, in the same way Rumi has been."

In his short career, Bineshtarigh is lucky to have had the support of Suburbia Contemporary, based in Spain and Italy, which approached him through Instagram. He credits artist Jacob van Schalkwyk (represented by the same gallery) with encouraging him to exhibit his fabric artworks in the warehouse. Between organising visas and experiencing funding issues with his studies, the artist is still dealing with all forms of bureaucracy.

But his first studio space, where his expressionist writing sprawls from his artworks on to the walls, represents a new beginning for this burgeoning artist.

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