• Leyla Fakhr at Asia House

Culture

Q&A: Leyla Fakhr

The film producer and curator on capturing the famously spirited life of artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian

Interview: Clare Finney
Portraits: Joseph Fox

Your debut film, Monir, is showing at Asia House in February. How did you first come across the artist whose life is celebrated in the documentary?
I properly discovered Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian about 12 years ago when she had an exhibition with a series of artists at the Barbican. I was really taken, first and foremost, by her work. I thought her medium was unique—her way of using mirrors, but also her geometric compositions. I felt she had developed her own artistic language, one that really stood out to me.

Then when I read her memoir A Mirror Garden, I was captivated by her as a person—and as a woman. Here was a woman who was so ahead of her time, I thought. She was certain she wanted to get to Paris, but she was unable to get a French visa because it was World War II, so instead she went to America via India on a battleship.

She was so determined and decisive—from making this journey, to being in New York’s vibrant, male-dominated art scene, mingling with the likes of Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman and Frank Stella. She was so brave.

It’s some leap from admiration to producing a documentary about her though—how did that come about?
I was working at the Tate as a curator, writing an acquisition proposal for Monir. You have to do quite a lot of work to persuade them to accept an artist into the national collection, and it was really then that I thought, we have to capture this.

Why now—and why film?
We didn’t want to be too late. She is still active and working in her nineties, and I felt that was so representative of her spirit. Also, and this might sound cheesy, but I was pregnant with my second child at the time and I think that had an influence.

I had this urge to document what Monir is really like, working at her home in Tehran. And I don’t think anything can do that quite as well as the moving image. We didn’t want to be too late. There have been so many exhibitions about her work, and her as an artist, but I wanted to show the persona beyond the frame of her work.

I wanted to show the process, the dedication. So the core of the film is that energy, and about how positive her move back to Tehran was, even though New York is such an artistic centre.

Leyla Fakhr

You were a curator before you were a film producer; now you freelance in both. How are the two connected?
I studied English translation in Tehran, then got curatorial experience in the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Arts before moving to London, to Goldsmiths, to do an MA in creative curating. I’ve worked as a curator in various museums and galleries, including the Tate, before doing this.

Monir is the first feature documentary I have produced, but in a way I do see producing as an extension of curatorial practice. I didn’t want to curate an exhibition on Monir; I wanted to record her life and her work in moving imagery to save it in art history. Highlighting her strength as a woman has been one of the most important aspects.

How influential has Monir been on you as a young, female artist from Tehran?
She has been a big influence, particularly the work she’s done in Tehran. She came back to Iran in the 1950s, found herself exiled after the revolution but then returned permanently in 2004. She had an international way of working, and there was an equanimity about it that I found particularly beautiful.

How significant was her journey to her art?
The thing about Monir is that even if you have an aesthetic appreciation of her work, once you learn about her and where her work is rooted—traditional Persian craft, the New York art scene—it becomes even more interesting. You really can learn about the language of her work through the journey of her life.

Her art is very continuous and consistent considering she has been through such huge political and personal change in her life. Maybe she has more of a meditative approach. She is working in a time of immense political change and there are inevitably elements of that in the film, but we really didn’t want it to be about politics. We are conscious that she removes herself. Her medium is her world.

Is there a political aspect to her work?
Well she had a large body of work which was confiscated when the revolution broke out in Iran, so there is a political element in there. But there are a lot of preconceptions about working in the Middle East.

Part of my reason for making this documentary was to show that she is like any other artist: I wanted to take away this mysterious aura around her and other artists from the region. It doesn’t matter where you are, being an artist is about having dedication to your work—and that is a universal thing.

The film has been some time in the making...
The process took two years, because initially Monir didn’t want to work with us at all. There I am, a third of her age, not very established in my career, wanting to make a film about her. We had to build up trust over time, and she insisted on being very involved. She always had great ideas on how to improve things.

Of course it comes with age, being less cooperative—but I think that is one of Monir’s strengths. While it was hard to get through to her, she is pretty open-minded—and she is so dedicated to the art. That is what finally led to her letting her guard down, I think.

What is the art scene like in Tehran at the moment?
There have always been many artists in Iran but over the past five or six years the art scene has really expanded. Tehran is really vibrant at the moment. A lot of Iranian artists who have left the country return to exhibit there now it’s more stable, and galleries are being opened by people of a new generation.

I think that is important—it has made it more of a social scene. Every Friday night there is something called gallery hopping, where people go from gallery to gallery, and I have noticed young people are gifting each other art now.

In a way, making this film was born out of us wanting to widen international understanding of the region. People are showing an interest in Iran, so it’s a good time to get a wider audience and show that the area’s artists are as worthy of interest as any from Paris, London or New York.