NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 34


Two Bowls

Roshanak Keyghobadi

Currently, a 10th century ceramic serving bowl from Iran resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. This bowl was probably made in Samarqand but excavated in the city of Nishapur (in northwes tern Iran).1 The bowl has calligraphic decorations in Eastern Kufic script2 that wishes its owners/users “blessing, prosperity, goodwill, peace, and happiness.”3
Two years ago in Fargo, North Dakota (in The North Central USA) a ceramic serving bowl was made by the potter Michael Strand4 as a component of a project entitled Bowls Around Town. This bowl was placed in a carefully crafted wooden box along with a video camera and a recipe journal and then circulated among various individuals. Over the course of several years people would share the bowl and use it to hold meals. The camera was used to record the process and the recipes, and related memories and stories were recorded in the journal. Bowls Around Town was part of the Engage+Use project that “featured contemporary project-based work that investigated the processes of making, using, and living with bowls.”5
Although from different cultures and eras, these two bowls have many qualities in common. Both bowls are made out of cla y and their f orms serve the purpose of holding food. They have also been tools for communication with their users – the writings on the bowl from Iran transmit positive messages of wellbeing and happiness and the bowl from Fargo becomes a tool for evoking and transmitting stories. Connection with both bowls from the beginning of their making to every time they have been or are used involves a collective effort. According to art historian Sheila Blair,6 a team of skilled artisans was involved in making and decorating bowls like the bowl from Iran. They were the owners, managers, potters, people who did the cla y preparation, throwing and turning, painted decoration, glazing, and firing as well as calligr aphers, painters for the interior and assistants for the exterior painting.
Although the bowl from Fargo has one maker yet it involves a team of f acilitators and users such as various communities and groups, families, fire stations, public library patrons or anyone who has hos ted the bowl.7
But is there any relationship between the form and function of these two bowls, and do they have any aesthetic value? The debate about form and function in art frequently points to the architect Louis Sullivan8 and his famous statement about form following function. Sullivan believed that the purpose of a building establishes the form that it should take. As the continuation of Sullivan’s philosophy Frank Lloyd Wright9 proposed the idea of “organic architecture.” He believed in the close relationship between humans and nature, and designed unified sites and spaces that integrated the two. Walter Gropius10, who founded the German art school The Bauhaus in 1919 and was one of the pioneers of modern architecture, believed in “total architecture” and “total work of art” in which various forms of art are combined to create a singular experience. Iranian philosopher Seyyed Hossien Nasr11 believes that Islamic architecture and art have transcendent forms and qualities. Nasr (1973) has stated that: “…men live in forms and in order to be drawn toward the transcendent, they must be by forms that echo transcendent archetypes.”12 Also, Nader Ardalan13 and Laleh Bakhtiar14 (1973) have explained that the function of traditional Iranian art is achieving aesthetic and spiritual Unity. They believe that: “the traditional artist creates the external art form in light of the spirit; in this way the art form is able to lead man to the higher states of being and ultimately to Unity.”15

The shape, color, organic lines, decorations and calligraphy on one bowl and the proportions, form, texture and glaze on the other not only make each bowl sophisticated and beautiful but also offer unique visual experiences to its makers, users and viewers. As philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey16 points out, “a work of art is created every time it is esthetically experienced.”17
Dewey believed in the transformative nature of the aesthetic experience and stated that: “art throws off the covers that hide the expressiveness of experienced things; it quickens us from the slackness of routine and enables us to forget ourselves by finding ourselves in the delight of experiencing the world ab out us in its varied qualities and forms. It interprets every shade of expressiveness found in objects and orders them in a new experience of life. Because the objects of art are expressive, they communicate.”18
The makers of the bowl from Iran have created an expressive vessel that communicates through words, which transform its users eating experience. When the food is gradually consumed and the words are revealed an ordinary bowl becomes an object of beauty and contemplation, therefore according to Islamic thought, revealing meaning (mana) through form (surat).
The maker of the Fargo bowl, Michael Strand, explains that his art practice and mission is to create objects (cups and bowls) which are meant to function as tools for visual and verbal human interactions. He states: “I make objects that extend beyond the walls of the museum or the confines of a galler y. Without this restriction I work to build bridges between people through shared experiences with functional obje cts and ideas. Relationship is my content. Working in collaboration is my process. Human connection through art, craft and design is my mission.”
Ultimately, although the bowl from Iran and the bowl from Fargo function as pr actical vessels they are also “objects of art” and vice versa. And most importantly these bowls function as “objects of inquiry” that are expressive and open to new and contemporary aesthetic experiences. The two bowls “build bridges” between makers and users, past and present, meaning and form, form and function.

1 Nishapur and Samarqand were under Samanid rule in the 10th centur y Iran.
2 “Eastern Kufic” script is now referred to as “new s tyle script.” It is a script most often associated with the Eastern Islamic World.” Maryam Ekhtiar. (2015)
3 “Bowl with Arabic inscription [Found at Iran, Nishapur, Tepe Madrasa]” (40.170.15) In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art His tory . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. 40.170.15. (July 2011)
4 Michael Strand (b. 1970 ).
5 Engage+Use project and Bowls Around Town were part of a larger exhibition titled Object Focus: The Bowl that was curated by Namita Gupta Wiggers at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, Portland. Object Focus: The Bowl: March 07, 2013 – September 21, 2013. Engage+Use: May 16 – September 21, 2013. 6 Sheila Blair (b. 1948).
7 Blair, S. (2013) Text and Image in Medieval Persian Art. Chapter 2: The Art of Writing: A Bowl from Samarqand. P. 13.
8 Louis Sullivan (1864-1924).
9 Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959).
10 Walter Gropius (1883-1969).
11 Seyyed Hossien Nasr (b. 1933).
12 Nasr, S.H. (1973) Islamic Art and Spirituality. p. xi
13 Nader Ardalan (b. 1940).
14 Laleh Bakhtiar (b.1938).
15 Ardalan, N. and Bakhtiar, L . (1973) Sense of Unity; The Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture. p. 7
16 John Dewey (1859- 1952).
17 Dewey, J. (1934) Art as Experience. p.113.
18 Dewey, J. (1934) Art as Experience. p.108.

Roshanak Keyghobadi

holds a doctoral degree in Art and Art Education from Columbia University, New York and her MFA and BFA are both in Graphic Design. She teaches Visual Communications and History of Graphic Design at State University of New York and is also a research assistant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Roshanak writes about Iranian contemporary art and artists with special focus on design and typography. Her essays have appeared in a number of publications including AIGA’s VOICE as well as Design Observer and her artworks have been exhibited internationally.

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