Wednesday, January 15, 2014

“The Persian Deck” – An Interview with Diba Salimi

Aces in “The Persian Deck,” original playing cards with hand-drawn designs and artwork by Iranian artist Diba Salimi

“I am hoping to make my art accessible by designing products that play parts in your lives,” writes Iranian designer and artist Diba Salimi about her latest project, “Surena: The Persian Deck,” a set of beautifully hand-drawn playing cards inspired by Persian art and history.

Salimi, who was born in Iran and has since relocated to Chicago, has spent the past year researching, designing, and sketching the myriad patterns and face cards presented in her deck. Drawn from four distinct periods of Iranian history, each suit is identified by a specific tazhib - an intricate, ornate pattern, usually floral or geometric in nature. Spades are represented by the Achaemenid empire (c. 550–330 BCE), clubs by the Sasanian empire (224–651), diamonds by the Safavid dynasty (1501–1736), and hearts by the Zand dynasty (1760–1794).

Salimi has named her project Surena, after a legendary Parthian general, and studied ancient etchings, archaeology, statuary, and primary and secondary source documentation (wherever possible) to best inform her visual depictions of the Kings, Queens, and Jacks, all notable figures from each of the dynastic eras she has selected. The artwork itself – delicate, finely-detailed line drawings – has been heavily influenced by what Salimi refers to as “Iran’s most precious form of art: Persian rugs,” the complex patterns of which were taught to her at a young age by her grandmother.

Accompanying her set of playing cards is a handbook that provides historical information about the four dynasties and short, accessible profiles of each face card character. To create the book, Salimi has partnered with Ramin Takloo-Bighash, a writer, translator, musician and mathematics professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Recently, Hanif Zarrabi-Kashani, co-editor of Muftah's Art & Culture and Iran, Iraq, and Turkey pages, spoke with Salimi about her project. The interview is below.

Salimi is currently fundraising in order to complete her project. Check out her Kickstarter campaign, which is active for only a few more days, and get yourself a deck of cards!

Hanif Zarrabi-Kashani (HZ): Can you discuss you own personal life? Did you grow up and study in the United States?

Diba Salimi (DS): I grew up in Tehran, although I did spend a few years in the northern city of Babol. I moved to the United States in 2003 when I was about 20 years old. Back in Iran, I was studying Computer Science at Shahid Behesti University, but my interests changed and I came to the United States to study architecture. I realized that architecture was not completely what I wanted to do, so I pursued a Master’s degree in design strategy. I was curious to know why people like certain things, and why certain ideas do not stick. I think architecture is a great and very beautiful art, but I was looking for something that would allow me to have more interactions with people; architecture left me feeling lonely. Now, I work at a company in Chicago as a “User Experience Specialist” where I focus on designing user experiences based on human behaviors.

HZ: What is your background as an artist?

I have no formal training and have learned everything on my own, both in terms of my visual art as well as my work as a musician. I played the piano back in Iran and, in the United States, I picked up thetar (a classical Iranian string instrument). I have been playing in a musical ensemble here in Chicago since 2008. Part of the purpose behind pursuing the Persian card deck project was to establish myself as an artist. I think of myself as having a practical approach to art. I look at art physically and think about how it can be translated into people’s lives.

HZ: What was the process by which you came up with the idea for the “Surena: Persian Deck of Cards?”

A few years ago I was drawing some sketches and I came up with half a face using flower patterns from Persian rugs. I ended up folding up the sketch and putting it away. A few years later, I was reading about patterns in an art history book, which led me to examine the art patterns in my own culture. I was also looking for a way to distribute the designs and portraits I was sketching. Although at the time they were just individual etchings, I began to ask myself, “How can I make these interesting to other people? Can I tell a story with this?” One day, while I was looking for projects to promote the portraits, I was playing cards and realized there were three face cards. At the time, I had three portraits already sketched, and everything just clicked. Since there are twelve face cards in a deck of cards, the number twelve became the goal in terms of creating additional portraits.

HZ: How did you get introduced to Kickstarter?

I was first introduced to Kickstarter by a classmate at school. I thought it was a small enough project to be successful on the platform. Also, while I am generally extroverted, when it comes to my art, I become introverted and very quiet. As a result of this, I did not have a large art network. I decided to share my project with the public and see how it was received. I did not just want to rely on the Iranian community because they would obviously like the idea. I wanted to share it with non-Iranians as well. I was a little scared at first – art can be like your baby; you want to protect it. I was concerned that people would attack the project, but I received a lot of positive feedback once I launched the Kickstarter campaign.

HZ: The deck of cards you created is full of cultural references. Is this project an artistic project or a cultural one?

When you live in Iran, art is spoken about frequently. When you are outside Iran, you begin to talk about culture, and this is where the drive came for this project. I was asking myself, “where do I come from?” I realized, in Iran, we use culture to glorify individuals and raise them above ourselves. I was struck by this when I came to the United States, and realized culture here was not about historical figures. Instead, culture is seen as existing outside individuals and societies. What I am trying to do with these portraits is make compositions that are not specific to any one historical figure. I am trying to look at these compositions from the stand point of art and culture, rather than the individual himself. Let us not think about these portraits literally; let us think about them poetically – that is my mission.

HZ: You spoke about art and culture both inside and outside Iran and how it relates to identity, how long did it take for you to reinvent your identity when you moved to the United States?

It took a while. At first, I enjoyed talking about my culture with people who were curious, but that grew tedious because I felt like I was reciting from a book. It was as if I was somehow following some unspoken rule about how to portray myself as an Iranian. It did not feel authentic. I felt like I was never truly honest about describing myself as an individual, so I started searching my true identity.

HZ: Why was it important for you to include a book to compliment the deck of cards? Was this to educate those unfamiliar with Iranian culture?

In this project, I am trying to think about Iranian and non-Iranian audiences at the same time. I am approaching them in the same way because I feel like Iranians do not really know a lot about their own history. Iranians know what they have been told, so I am trying to make my sketches more like stories, more fantasy-like. I want to move people away from thinking about “how much land this historical figure acquired or how many people he killed to acquire those lands.” I want to give these characters a story that people will remember. For instance, when you play the King of Hearts, you will remember Karim Khan and be reminded of a personality trait or specific quality of character rather than an unknowable historical subject (For instance, Karim Khan of the Zand Dynasty was known for having compassion toward his subjects).

HZ: Can you discuss the method by which you chose specific face card personas to represent each respective suit?

Once I actually started the project, I decided I needed to choose four Persian dynasties and three characters from those dynasties. I started by finding a rendering of the appearance of the character I was drawing, whether a statue or painting, for example. I tried to find characters that were not necessarily aristocrats – such as Bozorhmehr (a nobleman), Zebu Nissa (a poet) – as well as women, who were the hardest to find. It is very hard to find stories or portraits of women in recorded Iranian history. If I could not find an actual drawing or image for one of the characters I wanted, I would not use them. The selection process in still going on and I am still looking for new characters.

HK: How has this project been received? Inside and outside Iran, as well as among non-Iranians?

When I started the project, 80% of the backers were non-Iranian. At the moment, more Iranians are coming on board, but in the beginning it was a bit shocking to see that non-Iranians had donated more. When I speak to Iranians about the project they praise it, but when it comes to actually backing it, they do not advance the project. At first, I thought Iranians might not know how Kickstarter works, or how the donation process functions. They (Iranians) are proud of you as an Iranian artist, but they do not necessarily want to invest, which is okay. Iranians inside Iran have been very supportive of the project. Unfortunately, they are not able to donate (because payments are taken via, which they cannot access). There was even one man from Iran who asked me how he could start his own Kickstarter campaign for a project of his own. People like him demonstrate how many bright people in Iran are desperate to participate in open source funding. The younger Iranian generation is very eager to connect. My Iranian supporters here in the United States are very encouraging as well, and some of my big Iranian backers have told me they will do whatever they can to help. In terms of non-Iranian supporters, they are broken into two groups. Some of them are collectors of playing cards. Others are just intrigued by the design and artwork.

The text of this interview, which was conducted by telephone, has been edited for clarity.

Hanif Zarrabi-Kashani is co-editor of Muftah’s Arts & Culture page and Iran, Iraq, and Turkey pages. Follow him on Twitter @Hanifzk.

Nima Shirazi is co-editor of Muftah’s Iran, Iraq, and Turkey pages. Follow him on Twitter @WideAsleepNima.


Originally posted at Muftah.


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