Pouran Jinchi’s art is characterized by an innovative play on calligraphy and script. While her inspiration often emerges from moments of social upheaval and political violence, Pouran translates despair and destruction into a beautifully ethereal visual language. Pouran trained as a classical calligrapher in Iran, before earning a degree in civil engineering at George Washington University in the US. She developed her own artistic approach: her attention to methodology stems from a background as a mathematician, while her formal approach reflects a creative tension between the rigid control of traditional Islamic calligraphy and the fluid spontaneity of Western abstract painting.
We talk to Pouran about inspiration, language, spirituality and the future.
How does your cultural heritage and childhood growing up in Iran influenced your work As an artist, I naturally draw inspiration from my surroundings. As a child growing up in Iran, I was an introvert. The creative process allowed me to create an internal world that was all mine. So, my art is very much driven by my heritage. Later in life, those cultural influences took new dimensions and were reshaped by my life experiences. Emigrating to the US as a student, studying civil engineering, and being a practicing artist in LA and NYC for decades—all of these have in some way inflected my thinking and my artistic practice. I believe we possess many dimensions in our humanity, evolving from a combination of our culture and the environment we live in. I believe we are all more than one thing and capable of being multi-dimensional.
What led your shift in focus from Civil Engineering to become an artist? There is a certain kind of pressure in Iranian society to work in technical fields like medicine and engineering. So, in the 1970s, when I came to the United States for college, I pursued a major in engineering. But I never practiced the profession. I had a career in fashion, working as a window dresser for Saks Fifth Avenue. I was studying and making art all along, but then I reached a point when I decided to devote myself full time to art. There is a certain discipline, an attention to methodology in my art practice that may stem from my math and engineering background. My use of color and pattern, my attention to detail and presentation – these are probably to some extent influences from my time working in fashion.
Your work is based on the traditional forms of Islamic and Persian art, shaped by a contemporary artistic expression. Can you tell us about your process? Every new body of work presents new possibilities to me. I like to experiment with new forms, new materials, and new colors. I think about how the material can add dimension, texture, and color to the work that can help convey meaning. Of course, ultimately, my art takes different meanings based on how other people see the work. That communicative capacity of art is very important to me, for people to be able to see the work through their own lenses and understand it in their own way.
At some level, I think all creativity stems from our own life stories. My art is rooted in my surroundings, in what is happening in the larger world. My own background as an immigrant perhaps heightens my sense of empathy when I see so many affected by war, conflict, and violence. My impulse is to reflect on current events. I read, look at art, listen to music and then all these influences get reworked in my imagination. In a sense, artists are like writers— we take it all in and use it in our work. But as artists, it gets expressed in a visual sense. So, the concepts that stimulate my art are a combination of autobiography, my research, the imagination, and a basic empathy towards suffering, pain, and injustice that I see in the contemporary world.
You did train as a calligrapher in Iran and some of your art draws on Persian calligraphic elements. In your opinion, is it important to know Farsi to understand your work or is your art universal? I find I am using color and material in new ways, and my work is becoming increasingly sculptural. In my art, the textual is becoming more obscured and abstract, more linear and dimensional. In an organic way, my work is progressing towards minimalism. It’s not necessarily intentional, but over time the noise settles and finds its way towards simplicity. Abstraction has always been an important part of my practice, and the use of letters and text is a form of my investigation into the relationship between language and art. My calligraphic works are really about inscription, about writing and language as a system that organizes the way we think, interact, comprehend the world. Both art and language are forms of communication regardless of which language.
Is there a spiritual element to your work? I was born and raised in Mashhad, which is home to the Imam Reza shrine. So for Iranians, it is a sacred city, with a spiritual sensibility. I sense there was a parallel between the use of repetition in my art making—repetition of texts, markings, gestures—with the rituals of prayer and chanting. Spiritually is the foundation of humanity which I hopefully convey through my art form.
Your work has gained much recognition and is in many public and private collections. What has been your career highlight to date? I have been extremely lucky to have the recognition of institutions, curators I respect, and serious art collectors. They are all a validation of my work for nearly three decades. Whenever my art is exhibited, be it in a museum in a major city or a smaller institution, I feel an immense sense of appreciation. Especially as a woman artist and an immigrant artist, to be able to have that connection with the people who view my art in institutional settings or who live with my art in their home--that is incredibly gratifying.
What does the future of Islamic art look like to you? I am not an expert, but I believe the global world is going through a major transition since the pandemic started. Travel restrictions have created an inevitable isolation and disconnection. Covid has affected every aspect of life and work.