Art and culture are integral to the Iranian-American experience. We at NIAC are so grateful to the artists that performed at our virtual events since the pandemic began to help us virtually build community and celebrate our heritage. To show our appreciation, we’ve launching the NIAC Community Artist Series to spotlight singers, dancers, musicians, and other artists honoring our culture. Today, we are highlighting Sarvin Haghighi!
Born and raised in Tehran, Iran, during the 1979 revolution, Sarvin’s journey as an artist started with her parents. They would recite poetry when she was growing up, so poetry heavily influenced her art. Her dad is a civil engineer who works a lot with geometry.e was the project manager of the Shahyad (now Azadi) Tower in Tehran, so naturally, geometry informs Sarvin’s art. Her mother is an artist who taught Sarvin and her siblings how to draw and paint. As the Iran-Iraq war raged on, Sarvin perfected her talent by taking painting classes. She later moved to Dubai to become more immersed in the art scene there and connect with other artists worldwide.
Sarvin primarily works with Persian calligraphy, but she didn’t learn Persian calligraphy until she relocated to Chicago. It was there where she saw the urgent need to bridge the gap between Iranian and American cultures. There isn’t a big Iranian American community in Chicago like in Los Angeles, but according to Sarvin, what moves a community anywhere is the power of words. Once you put down any word, you’re sending a strong message to audiences.
“Why not bring all the most powerful words on the planet into life with calligraphy?” asks Sarvin. “Graffiti has a negative reputation both in the United States and in Iran. In Tehran, graffiti is written in black and usually with negative words. I wanted to change the negative aspect of words into a more positive one. So I wait for the viewers to get absorbed in it. And it doesn’t matter what language. People would first ask me, ‘What does this word mean?’ instead of asking me the usual question where I’m from. Art is a medium for me to have a meaning and impact.” Even if one person is interested in her piece, Sarvin considers that a win.
And that’s precisely the goal Sarvin seeks through her art: to change the narrative. “The media here has unfortunately brought a negative image of Iranians. There’s good and bad everywhere, but our Iranian culture is so rich, which continues to be ignored by the media. For me, it’s just introducing pieces and spaces that’s not just visually interesting, but helps audiences learn more about Iran and our rich culture.” So Sarvin started hanging her art around neighborhoods in Chicago like West Loop and Bridgeport before expanding to the North and South Sides of the city. Sarvin fondly remembers one of her art exhibitions at the Chicago Theological Seminary, where they allowed her to convert the whole chapel into an art gallery. “I came into the room after a break, and I saw people praying in the middle of my art and sitting and taking it all in. This is exactly what I want, people enjoying and meditating in peace with my art,” says Sarvin.
Furthermore, when Iranian Americans would notice her art installations around Chicago which would feature words in Farsi, they would explain the meaning of those words to their friends, indirectly becoming ambassadors of Sarvin’s art and, more broadly, Iranian culture.
Sarvin is well-known in Chicago for her ‘Ishq (“love”) murals, written in Persian calligraphy. “The reason I chose the word “love” in Chicago is because of the famous line of poetry from the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi: دولت عشق آمد و من دولت پاینده شدم (The kingdom of love came and I became the eternal kingdom of love). No matter where you come from, you have that word, love, in your life. I think that makes it relatable for everyone no matter what religion.”
Although the majority of people who are familiar with her art are non-Iranians, Sarvin seeks to reach more Iranian Americans through her art. “I would like to see the day where Iranian Americans can have each other’s back. The community is very divided at the moment, and as much as I’m trying to connect with many Iranians, it’s been challenging. I wish for the day we can sit down at the table and talk together in peace.”
Sarvin has collaborated with other artists in Chicago, whose works deal with relevant social issues. She also continues to work with her mentor. “I love collaborating with other artists because it makes the message more powerful when you bring different points of view — you always learn from that, and it makes the art more interesting.”
Sarvin works with a lot of mixed media. Different materials, inks, and painstaking effort go into her paintings. She usually places her paintings on wood panels and works on two things simultaneously, side by side, so she constantly goes back and forth between pieces rather than working on one piece. Then in the process, she comes up with more ideas for more art. “I feel like when I’m immersed in art, I’m a different person,” Sarvin states.
The pandemic hit artists like Sarvin particularly hard. Several offers to exhibit Sarvin’s art have been delayed, but she’s hoping to have an exhibition in Chicago’s West Loop sometime in 2022. The public library in Downers Grove, Illinois also bought 2 of her pieces, and she hopes to have an event there soon. Sarvin has been working on new mediums, like textiles, and is trying to make paint from spices and tea. Her goal is to accentuate natural colors that are associated with Iranian culture.
Sarvin says it’s never too late for those hoping to pursue art — everyone has talent and unique ways of expressing their mind, thought, and soul into any artistic creation. You can check out Sarvin’s art, including those on sale here.Back to top