"Your Mistake Becomes Part of the Piece": An Interview with Calligrapher Ali Pasandideh

"Your Mistake Becomes Part of the Piece": An Interview with Calligrapher Ali Pasandideh

By Yasmin Al Ankar

Ali Pasandideh is a calligraphist who officially started his professional career at the age of 21. He has had many honors and activities during more than twenty-four years of professional activity. In 2005, he won first place in calligraphy in Nastaliq script in Mashhad, Iran.

Since 2007, he has been teaching at the Iran Calligraphers Association. In 2008, he was the secretary of the Cultural and Artistic Festival in Sarakhs, Iran. His works have been included in Iran’s national auction in two periods and have been welcomed. In addition to participating in many group exhibitions, he has held 16 solo exhibitions in Iran and other countries, including Tajikistan, Turkey, Switzerland and Oman.

Ali Pasandideh is generously hosting a workshop at Kutubna Cultural Center early in January, where the audience will enjoy observing the artist as he performs a complete work of calligraphy with accompanying music. At the end of the workshop, the finished artwork will be given to one of the participants by lottery.

Yasmin Al Ankar, our marketing intern, interviewed Mr. Pasandideh and their conversation is transcribed below.

Yasmin: You have quite an interesting and impressive background and had an exciting start to your career, given that you started at quite a young age, which I would assume has contributed to the success in your career. I am aware that you developed a passion for calligraphy during your school days. What would you say sparked this interest and how have you nurtured it over the years?

Ali: At first, my goal was just to improve my handwriting—something my teacher advised me to do and emphasized at school. But, little by little, my interest in calligraphy increased and as time passed I decided to pursue this art seriously.

Yasmin: It is quite fascinating to see how these constructive critiques in our lives could inspire the rest of our lives—in your case, your passion and career. So after this critique you made quite a major life decision to move to Mashhad at the ripe age of 21. Moving to Mashhad at such a young age seems like a pivotal moment in your life. How did this relocation shape your career and, consequently, your pursuit of calligraphy?

Ali: You are precisely right when you say that it was a pivotal moment. It was a very important decision that completely changed the course of my life. In the city where I lived, there were not enough facilities dedicated to the field of art. I had to move. This relocation made me acquainted with profound calligraphy masters, and I learned many things that were very useful for my future career.

Yasmin: It seems as though this relocation really ignited the start of your career. You mentioned that you met many masters of calligraphy when you moved to Mashhad. Is there anyone in particular that has been a big source of inspiration or a big influence in your art?

Ali: Yes, I would say Master Ali Jafari. He taught me a lot of what I know today. I also want to mention Master Alireza Kodkhodaei, who helped me a lot in knowing my professional path.

Yasmin: At the start of your calligraphy journey, you were inspired by calligraphy masters and artists. It seems fitting to say that today you yourself are a pioneer in Nastaliq calligraphy, especially given your role as a mentor in the Iran Calligrapher’s Association. What inspired you to take on this role and what do you find most rewarding about teaching calligraphy?

Ali: Well, teaching at the Calligrapher’s Association was a very informative kind of experience for me. What I find the most rewarding and inspiring is the enthusiasm of the students and the ability to actively witness their progress. Their enthusiasm keeps me going and makes me really happy. It is the best thing in my role. I actually learned a lot from them. 

Yasmin: Thank you for sharing this. I am sure your students would appreciate hearing how your classes not only feel rewarding to them, but to you too. Can you share a bit of your experiences in these roles?

Ali: Learning at the Iran Calligrapher’s Association and then teaching at it are two very different experiences. Teaching is different in the sense that I deal with a wide variety of people—all of which are different ages. Each of these ages requires both a different approach and different behavior or attitude. Some of my students are little children while others are working people with doctorates. So these classes have helped in my professional development and growth a lot by challenging me to adapt to different paths in peoples’ lives. It is so different to teach a child in comparison to an adult. I learn a lot from them; it is mutual teaching.

Yasmin: Do you feel that given the wide variety of your students’ different backgrounds and experiences that their experiences and backgrounds somehow translate back into your art?

Ali: Yeah, of course. I really love poetry and some of my students are actually undergraduate students of poetry and literature. So we share our knowledge with each other. These are great moments for me and it gives me a lot of inspiration.

Yasmin: I actually did come across some of your pieces that have been influenced by poetry, like “The Moon,” for example. Was the usage of this poem inspired by one of your experiences with your students?

Ali: Yes, actually it was.

Yasmin: This is one of your most popular pieces, but it is clear that all of your exhibitions have garnered much attention both in Iran and internationally. Could you speak on the importance of sharing your art beyond the borders of Iran? How is sharing your art in a different context important?

Ali: It is really gratifying and encouraging to see that my artworks are favored and liked by art lovers from all over the world. Holding these exhibitions abroad has contributed to my professional growth a lot. In the beginning, getting to know artists from different countries has made me gain many new experiences and perspectives. They also give me new colleagues and friends in such a short period of time. We share our experiences, our techniques, our lessons and contribute to each other’s professional development. In terms of sharing my art in different contexts, it sometimes becomes challenging to see the feedback from audiences in different countries who might not fully understand the context that my art originates from.

Yasmin: On that note, would you say that the feedback you received from audiences in Iran vary from the feedback you get from audiences in other countries?

Ali: In Iran or other countries it is very different. In Iran, if someone comes to my exhibition, they would understand the script in which my calligraphy is written. They may or may not like the written words so the feedback is quite subjective on the basis of whether they like or dislike the written text. On the other hand, in other countries, audiences simply cannot read what is written because they do not understand the language it is written in. They simply focus their judgements on the beauty of the art piece. For me, this feedback is more important because with my work, I want to show the beauty and the meaning of the beauty. I don’t want the focus to simply be on the writing or anything of that sort. I want to show you a different thing and give different experiences – I want the audience to feel joyful from the beauty right off the bat.

Yasmin: Art certainly is subjective. Your art can be digested in terms of the physical appearance and aesthetics or in terms of the written word. Moving onto my next question, you have over 13 exhibitions, which I would like to applaud you for. You have had the opportunity to showcase the versatility of your art (in terms of beauty and deeper meaning) extensively. How do you perceive the impact of showing this versatility in your exhibitions on promoting calligraphy as an art form?

Ali: I try to contribute to the promotion of calligraphy as much as I can. Holding an exhibition is definitely one of these ways as it makes people more familiar with this type of art. During these exhibitions, it sometimes happens that someone who randomly comes to the exhibition with no background knowledge on calligraphy feels compelled and encouraged to engage in calligraphy afterwards.

Yasmin: That sounds familiar. I have found myself in instances where I am exposed to different styles of art and feel inspired enough to experiment with it afterwards. On that note, how would you say your style is different from other styles found in calligraphy? How do you mark your art as yours? In terms of individuality, how do you showcase your individuality in your calligraphy?

Ali: From my point of view, achieving a personal signature is a very important part of art. I use my interests in poetry and the meanings of words because I feel as though words have a different meaning for everyone. I think what makes my art distinctive is that it is primarily based on my interest in poetry. So I incorporate poetry a lot into my work. First of all, I start out by choosing a poem that I really like, then I try to break it down into other parts. Sometimes, I will take a word from that particular poem and draw my calligraphy in the shape of that word. Other times, I use the meaning of that word to inspire my work. The difference is down to personalities. I write my personality, I write from my mind, so it must be different. Because I am different from everyone else and everyone else is different from me.

Yasmin: I think your response can be applicable to different artistic styles, not only calligraphy. Your artistic “touch” is very unique and contributes to your footprint in the art world. Moving onto my next question, I wanted to ask you, given your success in your career and your ability to differentiate yourself greatly from other artists, what do you do in cases in which you deal with “artist’s block”? How do you navigate through periods in your life when you feel less inspired or motivated and what lessons can you give to aspiring calligraphists?

Ali: This is a very important question that may arise in the life of any artist. During these instances, I would take out a blank piece of white paper and write the first thing that comes to my mind. Whether it is full sentences or just a couple of dots. And then I write the next word that comes to my mind. Each of these words act like stepping stones and lead me to another step. After a short time, I will think of what new ideas come to mind. It is a way for me to stimulate new ideas. I would recommend this process to any aspiring artist.

Yasmin: You mentioned that you write anything that comes to mind. So, it is not exclusive to poetry or calligraphy. Do you feel like you take inspiration from different types of art? Does your inspiration extend the boundaries of calligraphy or do you mainly get inspiration from calligraphy?

Ali: Yes, my inspiration stems from completely different sources. Sometimes I learn and get inspired from a painter or a sculptor, or any other type of artist really. But what is most inspiring to me is nature. Sometimes I use the moon or the sun and their shadows to inspire my work. In my opinion, nature is the biggest source of inspiration not only for me, but for any artist. Nature has been a very big part of my work. If you are familiar with my work, you will notice that I use the moon a lot. I get inspiration from the moon and sun a lot. Every time you look at them, you find a different story and a different beauty that you can always admire and enjoy. For me, this always sparks something in my mind and gives me new ideas.

I also really love poetry, as I mentioned before. I love the meaning behind the word—it sometimes amazes me. I always try to show the meaning of each word and how each word has a beautiful meaning. I try to display the concept of the word through my work and poetry. Calligraphy is different from other forms of art because you only get one chance. In a painting, if you make a mistake, you can clearly cover it up by painting over it. With calligraphy, in contrast, your mistakes become part of the piece because you can’t hide it. This adds to the beauty, but you have to be very careful.

Yasmin: When you get inspired by natural elements, like the sun and the moon, is there a deeper meaning behind these elements or do you simply use them for the beauty or aestheticization of your work?

Ali: Sometimes I use just the shape of the moon at different phases. Then I incorporate poetry in the writing to give the piece greater meaning. This mixture of two different things contributes to the beauty of my piece comprehensively.

Yasmin: Great art tends to stem from different sources of inspiration. This is definitely visible in your art. I want to move on to another question that is quite different from my previous questions. As I am sure you are aware, the United Arab Emirates has been actively working to foster and promote its art industry through various initiatives and investments in recent years. But local artists are still in the process of gradually integrating themselves into the international art scene. Emirati youth are nurturing their talents and showcasing their work in art fairs and exhibitions to build a bigger network and stimulate their artistic careers. What would you advise these aspiring artists?

Ali: I came here not that long ago but I can see a quick pace in the growth of the art industry of the UAE. In Dubai, I feel that there are loads of galleries that showcase different artists and different art types, from sculptures to digital, contemporary art. I would advise and encourage local artists to take advantage of these exhibitions and build their network through forming a bigger platform at these exhibitions and galleries. By doing so, they can really show their individuality and beauty of their work.

Yasmin: I agree with you. This goes back to our discussion on an artist’s personal signature. To conclude the interview, what are you hoping to achieve from your workshop at Kutubna Cultural Center?

Ali: I am sure the turnout will be very multicultural and diverse. For some, I am sure it will be the first time they attend a calligraphy workshop. I hope that through this workshop, I will be able to share the beauty of calligraphy and inspire them to engage with this art more often. 

Register for "Dance of the Qalam" here.

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