Illuminating Iranian tradition

Twelve Gates Arts presents ‘Immanence: Tazhib in America | Behnaz Karjoo’

3 minute read
Capturing eyes from the sidewalk: Behnaz Karjoo’s ‘Jewels of the Heart.’ (Image courtesy of Twelve Gates Arts.)
Capturing eyes from the sidewalk: Behnaz Karjoo’s ‘Jewels of the Heart.’ (Image courtesy of Twelve Gates Arts.)

Twelve Gates Arts, Philadelphia’s premier location for contemporary and modern art of South Asia and the Middle East, is starting out the new decade with an important and timely feature of Iranian American artist Behnaz Karjoo. In her new solo exhibition, Immanence: Tazhib in America, Karjoo brings together her creative and intellectual pursuits in returning to the traditional art of illumination.

Tazhib then and now

Tazhib comes from the Arabic word for “gold,” referring to an Iranian gilding art. A form of Islamic illumination, tazhib uses gold and natural pigments to create outstanding geometric and artistic designs. The practice dates back more than a millennium, changing over time in patterns, colors, and purpose. Once used solely to adorn manuscripts or religious materials, tazhib now functions as a beautiful and intricate art in its own right.

This show traces not only the evolution of tazhib as an art form but Karjoo’s own development as an artist. Her works range from traditional illumination found alongside Quran calligraphic verses to more abstract representations of concepts in Sufi mysticism. The exhibition gains its name from three key works: The Solace of the Eyes: Qurratul-Ayn (2019), Yearning (2019), and Panjtan (2018), all displaying Karjoo’s technical mastery and personal inspirations from spiritual creativity. These three pieces, spread throughout the gallery, borrow from traditional iconography and stories to fashion a tale of a higher power engaging with us and offering protection.

Every atom’s pattern

“Rumi says that every atom in the universe is yearning for union with the Beloved,” reads one label. Karjoo notes her particular interest in the repetition of tazhib, in its recurring patterns of symmetric designs, and its similarity to the repetition of religious practice in the various stories referenced on the labels on each piece. This inner divinity, manifested in the material world of art as well as the spiritual enlightenment of the universe, is absolutely captivating in all of Karjoo’s work. And indeed, it seems to speak to others—the artworks capture the attention of passersby on the street, drawing them into the gallery to fully appreciate the exhibit up close. The immanence is in tazhib’s inherent beauty, as is present in the stories told as well as the art we see.

Divine materials

Though Twelve Gates Arts planned this exhibition well in advance of recent events like the US president’s threats to Iranian cultural sites, the show is a timely reminder of the importance of preserving cultural heritage central to the lives of Iranians. The exhibit’s opening reception was a huge success, bringing many members of the diasporic community together in solidarity and celebration, supporting the cultural heritage that unites them here in America. As one Instagram user said, “cannot wait to get lost in the beauty of @behnazkarjoo's work in the midst of all this ugliness.”

As part of the exhibition, Twelve Gates Arts will host a workshop with Karjoo to introduce the materials and techniques used in traditional illumination. Karjoo’s art and community engagement efforts encourage viewers to consider to consider the “divine presence in the material world.” As the Twelve Gates Arts mission itself says, let those who visit this exhibition remember the duty to preserve these artistic traditions for the sake of Iranian diasporic community.

What, When, Where

Immanence: Tazhib in America | Behnaz Karjoo. Through February 22, 2020, at Twelve Gates Arts, 106 North 2nd St. (215) 253-8578 or

Vistors to Twelve Gates Arts must navigate one step into the gallery.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation