The High Museum of Art is entering the holiday season with a little extra sparkle, but it’s not the kind you might expect.
The inspiration for the Mirror Garden—an exhibition of the late Iranian artist’s Monir Farmanfarmaian’s work that runs now through April 9, 2023—first struck curator Michael Rooks in 2018 when the High acquired her sculpture, “Untitled (Muqarnas),” a piece that resembles the vaulting found in the ceilings and corridors of Islamic architecture. Farmanfarmaian was 95 at the time, and Rooks realized that there hadn’t been many solo exhibitions of her work on display in the United States. Originally, he was going to focus the exhibit on the work form later in her life, but after she died in 2019, he shifted the scope.
“I got to know members of her family, particularly her granddaughter, Darya Isham, who’s running the estate, and discovered that there were a lot of works that hadn’t been seen for decades and decades and work from her years in Tehran before the Islamic Revolution,” says Rooks. “We made an exhibition that encompasses her entire career, so it was an abridged survey of this artist’s career from 1974 all the way through 2018.”
When guests visit the exhibit, they can follow a chronological path of Farmanfarmaian’s work. Her stunning mirrored sculptures will be on display—she used a 17th-century Person technique called Āina-kāri, a mirrored mosaic made with paper thin mirrors—but the exhibit goes far beyond that. In addition to the sculptures, various drawings and her assemblages (which Rooks approximates to 3D collages) will be on display. She dubbed the assemblages “Heartbreak Boxes,” and they pay tribute to her husband’s memory and her life in Iran.
“They’re like scapbooks, but dimensional. They suggested little interiors, almost like dollhouses in some cases. In other cases they’re more abstract,” says Rooks.
The drawings are Farsi calligraphy in which all the words are connected. “They often look as though they’re hanging and suspended in air and sometimes form a picture,” he says. The drawings came to Farmanfarmaian when she and her husband fled Iran and lived in New York with their daughter. “She was watching the American hostage crisis unfold on the television, and watching the revolution happen on the television,” Rooks says. “These drawings were a way for her to resist, forgetting the memories of her happy past in Iran, her language, her culture.”
Farmanfarmaian became particularly proliferate later in life. She moved back to Iran and her 80s and setup a studio with craftspeople and studio assistants. It was a “big production,” says Rooks. The final part of the exhibit focuses on the sculptures that came out of that studio in her later years. Always inspired by the geometry that appears in Islamic art (even in her early drawings), the mirrored sculptures are divided into five families based on the eight fundamental shapes and plainer euclidean geometry, explains Rooks. It starts with a triangle, then a square, and moves up through a decagon with 10 sides. “Each family has eight works, and you can see there’s a kind of shared DNA between them, the shared kind of formal logic between each member of each family,” says Rooks. “What we’ve done is we brought members from each family together so that it’s almost like a family reunion.”
The exhibition is also a celebration of a woman who refused to give up on her art. Farmanfarmaian created “Untitled (Muqarnas)” when she was 90, and started “thinking about ambitious, large, complex forms,” says Rooks. “Most people at the age of 90 are winding down, but she was doing the opposite. So I think that’s really an impressive work for that reason, in addition to the fact that it’s just really beautiful.”