In 1963, art critic Karim Emami used the term saqqakhana to describe the emerging style of a group of Iranian artists who had recently exhibited at the Third Tehran Biennial in 1962. The Persian word saqqakhana refers to a public water fountain that commemorates the Shi'ite martyrs who had been deprived of water during the battle of Karbala (680 A.D.). It was at Karbala that Imam Husain was slain by the hand of Yazid, the Sunni ruler. The saqqakhana often included a grill-like exterior upon which votive items such as flags or locks could be left by visitors or passersby. Inside, there was a fountain for drinking, and the structure was often decorated with religious objects such as candles, beads, ribbons, pages from prayer books, and even illustrated scenes from the battle.
For Emami, the resemblance of the artists' works to the actual saqqakhana was both visual and symbolic. Such public monuments allowed for private devotion by the common person: an individualized experience that Emami likened to the experience of viewing certain artworks of the 1950s and 1960s. Although these works were materially and formally diverse, the artists shared an interest in tapping into Iranian popular culture. Their sources ranged from religious objects such as talismanic seals and votive Shi'ite artifacts to common household objects such as bowls, locks, beads, and utensils. While some artists drew from literary texts and prayer and story books of the Islamic period, others dug back to their country's ancient past. This new focus was a reaction against centuries of royal and elite patronage of the arts, as well as a celebration of the lives and material culture of the underprivileged masses of Iranian society.
The resulting style was at once culturally specific and formally modern. More than subject matter or narrative content, it was the decorative qualities, color scheme, and iconography that gave visual synchrony to the group. Two of its first artists were Hossein Zenderoudi (born 1937) and Faramarz Pilaram (1937–1982), both of whom used text and later calligraphy as a point of departure. While artists traditionally considered calligraphy an articulation of beauty, these two challenged its elite status and chose instead to draw upon more commonplace sources of text for their works, such as talismanic spells. The choice to focus on seemingly mundane texts—rather than literary and religious ones—was an act of political defiance. It indicated that the artist was more interested in the language of the masses than in that of the royal elite. Furthermore, the saqqakhana artists chose to emphasize the visual properties rather than the content of these texts. They used letters and numbers as a decorative element to fill the composition's background, thus removing the semantic meanings of the characters. Their use of stamps and basic materials—pen, ink, and paper—further transformed the high art of calligraphy to something commonplace, even banal. Though Siah Armajani (born 1939) later became an internationally renowned public artist, his early work resonates with the art of this group both visually and conceptually. He created dense compositions that looked abstract from afar, but were in fact made up of religious and political texts, excerpts from children's fables, and talismanic spells scribbled across the surface (2012.109). Though the writing was legible, the point was more for the viewer to recognize it than to read it for its content.
In the early 1960s, Parviz Tanavoli (born 1937) began creating his iconic heech sculptures (2012.39) in reaction to the commercialism of some elite artistic circles. The sculptures were visual embodiments of the word heech, which means "nothing" in Persian and reflects the Sufi notion that God creates everything from nothing. Other artists worked more figuratively, incorporating images and iconography from the Qajar era all the way back to pre-Islamic Iran. Sadegh Tabrizi (born 1938) found inspiration in household items such as utensils, locks, ornaments, and texts. He drew this imagery from various generations of Persian painting, as well as coffeehouse paintings (qahvakhana). These large-scale, narrative canvases had a didactic function. They were carried around by storytellers (naqqals), displayed publicly, and narrated. They were meant to elicit an emotional experience by the commoners. The works of Massoud Arabshahi (born 1935) and Mansour Ghandriz (1936–1966), for example, look back to ancient Iranian artistic traditions. While Ghandriz explored abstraction inspired by textiles and metalwork, Arabshahi was inspired by the visual language of pre-Islamic Iran. According to Hamid Keshmirshekan, Arabshahi created pieces inspired by rock carvings, Zoroastrian writings, and maps dating as far back as the Achaemenid, Assyrian, and Babylonian periods. In addition to this myriad of artistic sources, several artists straddled painting and sculpture, shifting mediums fluidly throughout their careers, as seen notably in the work of Jazeh Tabatabai (1931–2008).
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (born 1924), one of the few female artists of the movement, belonged to the growing cohort of artists who left Iran in the 1950s for an international education. Immersed in the New York art scene of the 1950s, she acquired an appreciation for pop culture and established a network of artist friends such as Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, and Willem de Kooning. When she returned to Iran in 1957, she began meticulously constructing pieces using traditional methods that she rearticulated into a modern idiom: specifically, mirror mosaics from the Safavid period and later and reverse glass painting from the Qajar period (2010.395). Her unique style fused these two indigenous art forms with the aesthetics she had been exposed to in New York.
Though the saqqakhana artists are referred to as a school, their stylistic diversity speaks to the true nature of the movement: a fluid outpouring of practices and ideas, rather than one that was organized or philosophically driven. For Emami, the term saqqakhana reflected this spirit: the works became their own metaphoric repository of Persian objects, ranging from the religious to the secular. Any visual similarities resulted through an organic exchange of ideas, participation in exhibitions and talks at the Atelier Kaboud, and for many, the influence of studying at the Hunarkada-i Hunarha-yi Taz'ini school (Tehran's College of Decorative Arts). Ideologically and artistically, many of these artists were searching for a way to embrace both their cultural roots and their individual identities as international, innovative, and above all modern artists. They wanted to be perceived as cosmopolitan, current, and relevant. They were in search of an art form that would speak for the country's masses and embody elements of Shi'ite visual culture.
In addition, the considerable support these artists received from the government bolstered their visibility and creative output. The Hunarkada continued to function as a breeding ground for many artists who would come to be affiliated with the saqqakhana movement. It was there that they learned traditional applied arts and were exposed to symbols, iconography, and craft techniques drawn from popular Persian culture. Meanwhile, the rigorous training in fields ranging from graphic design to architecture, and the new foreign faculty expanded the curriculum's scope. It was the school's combination of formal training, historical focus, and international influence that produced a body of graduates who were at once global and local, contemporary and traditional.
Outside of the sphere of formal education, the Atelier Kaboud served as a gathering place for writers, artists, and architects. On a more public level, biennials, exhibitions, and local galleries gave artists a platform to exhibit their work locally. Five Tehran biennials held from 1958 to 1966 showcased the work of more than 100 Iranian artists to an international audience. Marcos Grigorian (1925–2007) helped organize the country's first biennial, and was later instrumental in bolstering the gallery scene, in particular the Apadana gallery founded in 1949. In addition to these promotional efforts, his own work as an artist contributed to the saqqakhana movement's expansion. Grigorian's legendary earthworks are abstract compositions that use parched earth as well as kahgel (a mixture of straw and clay used to build dwellings in Iranian villages) affixed directly to the canvas (2012.356; 2012.357). Rather than using illusionistic media like paint, Grigorian chose real straw and earth to render a vision of Iranian village life. He also sometimes made assemblages using eating utensils and food affixed directly to the canvas. These pieces revealed a sliver of daily life—for example, the worker's meal—and brought an experience of the common people of Iran into the audience's consciousness.
Finally, funded by grants and prizes, artists themselves began traveling abroad. To match this outpouring of art production was Abby Weed Grey, arguably the most important Western collector of contemporary Iranian art during this period. Her close relationship with many of these artists led her to acquire one of the largest collections of Iranian modern art outside Iran, which further expanded the visibility of these works abroad.
The unique combination of national support, local contact between artists, and international curiosity fueled the rapid growth of the saqqakhana movement. While at no point did these artists write an official manifesto, by the late 1960s there was one unifying concern, to develop a national art form, a type of visual vernacular of and for the Persian people. The artists' national and global outlook continued to influence the work of calligraphers, painters, photographers and sculptors of the 1960s and 1970s. Though the 1979 revolution marked a rupture in artistic production, the legacy of the saqqakhana artists was lasting. Several artists from this original group are still active today, though they have expanded stylistically beyond the original parameters of the saqqakhana movement. This stylistic development is reflected in many collections—including that of the Metropolitan Museum—which also contain works made from the 1970s onward, a point of entry for the next generation of Iranian modernists as well as younger artists today.