Transcendantal Lines

This review was commissioned and originally published in Canvas magazine

In September 2018, The Third Line held two simultaneous exhibitions that juxtaposed Nima Nabavi’s works of pure precision with Monir Farmanfarmaian’s new choreographies of shattered glass. Emblematic of two different generations of Iranian artists who have returned to the sources of spirituality and science, this groundbreaking dual show was as much about processes of time as creative contemplations of the metaphysical.

Monir Farmanfarmaian, The Breeze at Dawn Has Secrets to Tell You, 2018, Installation view. Image courtesy of the artist and The Third Line.

Monir Farmanfarmaian, The Breeze at Dawn Has Secrets to Tell You, 2018, Installation view. Image courtesy of the artist and The Third Line.

The twinkling surfaces of Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s most recent exploration into kinetic art were the first works to catch the eye upon entering The Third Line’s season-opener last September. The mixed media installations featured geometric mirror mosaics framed by curtains made from panels of reverse-painted Plexiglas that swung gently as the viewer traversed along their path. As one of contemporary art’s oldest – Farmanfarmaian is now 96 – and most prolific practitioners of geometric abstraction, her solo show The Breeze at Dawn has Secrets to Tell You continued her exploration into Sufi mysticism, Persian motifs and Islamic cosmology, in addition to a new dimension of exploring oscillation and movement.

Upstairs in the gallery, another artist just beginning his exhibition career was delving into similar concepts. 1,2,3, was Nima Nabavi’s first ever solo exhibition and, just as fellow Iranian Farmanfarmaian is inspired by an interest in geometries and numeric symbolism, Nabavi’s practice also takes root in his exhaustive studies of quantum mechanics, which brings to the table the subject of movement again.

His works consist of meticulous grids of ink on archival paper. His primary tool – the completely straight line – dissects the framed area again and again at mathematical gradients until the effect is transcendental. Inspired by his grandfather, who owned a sign-writing business in Iran and dedicated much of his life to creating master grids from which different patterns would emerge, Nabavi grew up with an almost innate appreciation of three dimensions, symmetry and colour. However, during his teenage years, he left Dubai (where he was born and raised) and moved to Los Angeles where, after graduating, he opened his own online streetwear and music business, Digital Gravel. It was a success, catching the rising surge of web-based commerce, and it wasn’t until 2014 when he closed the business and moved back to Dubai that Nabavi picked up his interest in lines and grids.

“I had more spare time on my hands than ever before and I attended a few art classes [in Islamic geometry] just to see how things were being taught,” explained Nabavi, when I met him at the gallery. “But I didn’t discover anything new. People were simply trying to emulate ancient patterns, whereas my grandfather had shown me something really different; he had created a new kind of geometric language.”

Nima Nabavi, Series 3 (installation view). Image courtesy of the artist and The Third Line.

Nima Nabavi, Series 3 (installation view). Image courtesy of the artist and The Third Line.

In an extension of the spark his grandfather had ignited, and also following his interest in quantum mechanics, Nabavi alighted on a language of his own: one based on a deeper search that had as much to do with science as it had with art. “I wanted to understand what scientists know about the smallest particles of the universe. And I discovered that the world is made of almost identical, basic building blocks, with each one moving at a fractionally different spin or orbit. This means that a solid object or the air around us is made of these same infinitesimally small particles that are always moving,”he continued.

To illustrate this inherent order of the universe, Nabavi employed his tightly choreographed, mathematical rubric and applied it methodically as repeating lines of ink on archival paper and with an astoundingly acute attention to detail. In the monochromatic series labelled as 1, the pieces are all 16 inches x 16 inches and each inch is broken into a grid of 16 by 16. Furthermore, each of the one-inch square tiles is different – with there being 16 variations of that. By moving each square along one place for each of the 16 pieces in the series, the overall effect is that of a diamond shape emerging from the middle of each drawing and then retreating again, like a breath. Fractal-like, Nabavi’s works appear as if they are all emanating from the same yet inscrutable source like vibrations, especially with series 2 and 3, which are akin to polychromatic ripples. There is a specific movement and texture that forms within the endless repetition of lines.

An animation of all 16 images running concurrently also plays in the gallery, underlining this effect. Whilst mesmerising and incredibly soothing, the works are also astounding because of their underlying simplicity. Despite the fact that each piece takes over 50 hours to complete and just a single error means starting again from scratch, they are essentially straight lines drawn with a ruler and a pen. This adds an element of logic as well as accessibility to the work. It means that as long as the artist applies the lines at the correct angles, the result will be the same every time. It also opens up the possibility to the viewer that, if they gave themselves enough time, they could do it too. This lends Nabavi’s art a kind of universal appeal.


“I think that on some level, we understand there is a geometry to the universe,” he added. “That is why we find symmetry so pleasing to look at and why it took me so many hours to produce this level of symmetrical accuracy. Also, I definitely believe that there is a part of everyone that connects with this because, after all, we all can draw a line.”

Although Nabavi’s integrity and personal history makes these artworks all the more alluring, their placement within the same gallery space as Farmanfarmaian was also important to consider. Farmanfarmaian began her work in the 1950s alongside contemporaries such as Frank Stella and was deeply inspired by the mosaics found inside countless mosques in Iran. The discipline of sacred or Islamic geometry is of course centuries old, with practitioners using it to create three dimensions in lieu of figurative drawing and Sufis claiming the entire universe is accessible through understanding the complexities of the grid. Modern science does not dispute this and artists have long explored the possibilities of the humble line. In the contemporary sphere, the rise of minimalism and the work of artists like with Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin and Donald Judd are all part of the conversation.

“My background is more indie art or graffiti, but I’ve learned a lot since I started this journey and I’m well-aware of the history of this practice,” Nabavi admitted. “When I found out I was going to be exhibiting with Monir, I really wanted to do the most that I could do, to show that I am continuing the tradition and trying to add something new. At the end of the day, I feel that geometry belongs to all of us. I am not contributing anything else to your experience. I draw the lines, and for me, it is just as interesting that half of the work is being done in your own mind.”

  • Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian | The Breeze at Dawn Has Secrets to Tell You. September 24 - November 3, 2018 . Gallery 1, The Third Line, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai.

  • Nima Nabavi | 1, 2, 3. September 24 - November 3, 2018. Gallery 2, The Third Line,Alserkal Avenue, Dubai.