Text Made Textile

by Deirdre Kelly

photography by Mike Ford

Shabnam K. Ghazi (BFA ’09) keeps spools of thread, balls of wool and what looks like lengths of silken fabric stretched out on a pristine working table in her downtown Toronto artist’s studio. They look like dressmakers’ tools. But in reality, they are artworks made of paper on which Ghazi has written Persian poetry in miniscule calligraphic Farsi script, over and over and in various directions until the page became legible as a piece of abstract design. Ripping the paper into shreds, she interlaces the shadowy strips into text-rich textiles meant to resemble the Gabbeh carpets (traditionally crafted by women) with which Ghazi grew up in her native Iran. 

“I am weaving new stories from old stories,” says the 47-year-old multimedia artist who trained privately with art masters from a young age in Tehran. She formalized her studies at York University after relocating to Toronto in 2001. “The method is like a meditation. It allows me to remember the things I had and did back in Tehran.” 

Memory and the creative act are dominant themes in Once Upon a Time in Tehran, a work that debuted last year at Toronto’s Olga Korper Gallery and went on to reap critical acclaim at the 13th Havana Biennial, which took place in Cuba in May. 

The textile-rich artwork draws on a variety of traditions, including Islamic talisman shirts where religious text – sometimes the whole Qur’an – is calligraphed all over a simple garment to be worn into battle for protection, observes British culture critic and textiles expert Veronica Horwell, a fan of Ghazi’s art. “Memory protects our identity, so she’s in the words-textile-talisman tradition: memory is thread; memory as thread.” Some of those memories are personal and poignant. 

On the wall of Ghazi’s “ascenseur” studio (so-called because accessible by elevator) is a piece composed of real bullets tipped in 24 karat gold. “I grew up in war,” explains the artist, who was raised by intellectual parents during the revolution. “I make nice things out of really ugly things.” 

She also draws connections with nature. The Astonishing Story of Us in a Scarcity of Time, a continuation of a project conceived at York University and presented at Manhattan’s Edward Hopper House in 2016, uses video of city dwellers (the footage was shot in Toronto, New York and Tehran), audio of scurrying footsteps and an invasion of tiny sculpted ants to create a fictional world where urban and non-human worlds collide. Inspiration for the piece came from a Persian poem about migration whose line, “Wherever you go the sky is the same colour,” Ghazi writes and rewrites into her evocative compositions. 

“It’s my diary,” she says. “It reveals what is hidden.”