Seeking Sustainability: The Potters of Iran

1 Majid Ziaee’s Aporia 6 ft. 7 in. (2 m) in height, video stills from a 2015 performance with handbuilt coils. Photo: Majid Ziaee.

Tehran, Iran, is one of the world’s largest cities. It is a populous, sprawling, often-polluted place ringing with the sounds of development, traffic, and progress. Tehran is a city born from frenetic growth. Two hundred years ago, its Qajar rulers set out to transform their new capital city into a metropolis to rival any in the world. They pointed the way to regular bursts of destruction, construction, and reconstruction, supported of course by the brickmakers, tilers, plasterers, drain and chimney makers, and other tradespeople working in clay that made such expansion possible.

Today, more than half of Iran’s population is under 35 years old. This youthful energy pervades the busy fabric of Tehran and has inspired a contemporary art scene in which ceramics has a very public presence. Rooted in the migration of potters and tilers to work on the city’s original building projects, vast tile murals fill the dead urban spaces beneath freeway overpasses and enliven metro lines; public sculptures line the alleyways and populate parks and gardens; and from the center of roundabouts rise vast pottery vessels, ready to remind both visitors and residents of ceramics’ role in the Iranian narrative.

Adapting to an Urbanized World

As Iran’s population became increasingly urbanized, potters were faced with a difficult choice. It was apparent that they could no longer continue to work in the same way they had in the past. New opportunities to be found in the city made the difficult physical labor of a production potter less appealing to successive generations. While workshop after workshop closed their doors, the potters that remained had to adapt. From contemporary artists making work about climate change, to factory workers dealing with the chronic effects of exposure to lead and silica dust, urban planners facing increasing demands on limited resources, and the village potter seeking to maintain a valued tradition, the newest inheritors of Iran’s ceramics heritage are considering the sustainability of their profession. This generation is defining the role that Iran will take in finding global and local solutions to making the ceramic arts and industries more sustainable culturally, economically, and environmentally.

2 Novin Aslan Islami outside of his family-run studio in Lalejin in 2017. Official efforts to promote and support the potteries have led to increased interest from tourists. Islami says that his pottery receives a growing number of Italian tour groups.

3 A clay pit in Lalejin. In areas with rich clay deposits, each family traditionally dug and dried their own clay.

From 1979 until very recently, international sanctions isolated much of the Iranian economy. Inadequate access to new technologies and to basic equipment and imported materials made commercial survival largely more important than budding environmental concerns. Conversely, it inspired a reliance on regional resource materials; creative reuse and repurposing supported the growth of an increasingly dynamic and creative practice. Kilns were built in the shells of old washing machines, broken car windshields were ground up for use in glazes, wheels and pugmills were ingeniously fabricated in small workshops. Today, increasing access through the Internet to technical information, and importantly, marketing, has played a substantial role in preserving local potters’ professions and traditions. Iran is rich in ceramic pigments and clays and although a considerable amount is now mined for export (and then reimported in a processed form, as in the case of cobalt), it provides a solid foundation for a local industry as well.

New Technologies and Growth

As potters everywhere have sought to be more efficient—to reduce the human labor involved in producing each pot—the potters of Iran have consistently borrowed such technology and methods as were useful to them. Novin Aslan Islami, a master potter of Lalejin, recounts a visit from ceramics advisors associated with the British Army during World War II. These advisors brought with them a technology that would set Lalejin on a path to be one of the largest centers of ceramic production in the world: oil burners. Most potters now fire with natural gas and petrol rather than wood. At least one family used this equipment to facilitate their business’ transition into one of the country’s largest factories.

4 The potters particularly prize glass from old television screens because it contains boron, which helps reduce crazing and crawling on their earthenware bodies and makes the glaze more durable. Recycled glass is also processed into frit for the traditional soft-paste porcelains used here.

Since then, Lalejin itself has grown considerably, to encompass several hundred independent workshops, industrial factories, and a working population centered around this industry. It was recently designated by UNESCO as a world capital of pottery. Iran is now the world’s fourth-largest producer of utilitarian ceramics.1 The scale of this kind of localized production almost must be seen to be believed. Driving down the main street of the town, with shop after shop after shop of brightly colored wares of all descriptions and qualities, it is easy to see why this town has come under some criticism for becoming too industrialized, too far away from the roots of an authentic pottery practice.

However, it is important not to underestimate the importance of the domestic market. As ceramics has become less practically necessary, it is increasingly viewed within an ideological, and even nationalistic, framework. In small pottery towns like Shah Reza, piles of utilitarian dishes cover the roadside stands on every main street. There, the cheerful repetition of a brushwork fish is a recognizable local motif and is eagerly sought by Iranians who wish to have such wares in their homes as a distinct expression of and identification with the kind of lifestyle where one chooses to support local handicrafts—driven by symbolic value rather than strict practicality.

Sustaining Tradition and Raising Awareness

Raising environmental awareness is a topic taken up explicitly by Iranian ceramic artists such as Fatemeh Ghorbani Malefjani, whose work The Earth Warming features a flock of cast penguins huddling on a bed of sand, pressing in to what surely must be the last shrinking glaze pool of clear, cold water. The penguins cannot see the wider cause of their dilemma, but we can. Such art can push us to action or remind us that restoration can only be achieved through collaboration.

5 Students at Kashan University maintain their own studios and often find ways to construct their own kilns in their homes and apartments.

6 A workshop that makes large jars for storing water, making butter, and pickling vegetables.

Bita Fayyazi explores themes of consumption and environmental degradation in her work, which has found success in the international contemporary art market. Her cast and assembled sculptures often verge on the grotesque, reflecting the ugly and uncomfortable realities of contemporary life. Her work Road Kill consisted of hundreds of terra-cotta dogs cast and modelled from those she found dead on Tehran’s highways. In what she describes as a social performance, she redistributed them around the city and later buried them, undecaying monuments to an aspect of the city’s environment many would rather ignore.

Sara Boroujeni’s piece Arrive: (something or someone who comes) begins with a womb-like earthenware vessel and fetus. The artwork is experienced in stages: the figure is tucked away inside the vessel and covered in soil. Time passes before leaf by leaf a startlingly green plant slowly unfurls, emerging from the hidden seed planted in a child’s mind. The possibly disturbing hole in the child’s head becomes clear both as a functional means to facilitate the plant’s growth and a metaphorical container for the emergence of ecological thinking—an action resulting from our previous engagement with the soil and the earth. In its hardened form as clay, the earth cradles and hides the child and its potential, but also provides for the possibility for transmission and growth in the next generation.

7 Fatemeh Ghorbani Malefjani’s The Earth Warming, 4 ft. 11 in. (1.5 m) in diameter, cast ceramic, matte glaze, sand, 2011. Photo: Mahnaz Mohammadzadeh.

Nader Khalili sought inspiration from clay as a material for buildings well-adapted to desert conditions. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he left his career as a traditionally trained architect to experiment with glazing and firing traditional earthen-building structures as low-cost and permanent residences. These ceramic houses were originally known as geltaftan (which means fired clay in Farsi) and emerged from the metaphorical and physical combination of the elements: earth, water, air, and fire. As founder of the CalEarth institute, Khalili answered many of the difficulties facing resource-poor populations using the earth itself to develop sustainable solutions for living.

Iranian scholar and artist Majid Ziaee also draws on both traditional imagery and contemporary ideas in his work. He co-authored a paper that sought to identify ways indigenous ceramic traditions, particularly in the northern region of Guilan, relate to the modern understanding of environmental ceramics.2 So far, Guilan has largely escaped the influence of industrializing technologies and pottery production there is a communal and seasonal accompaniment to farming. The paper concludes that where small-scale, traditional production relies primarily on local and renewable natural resources, it is not seen as a threat to the environment and may even reduce plastic pollution. However, continuing modernization of production and a lack of knowledge about larger motivations for limiting chemical use and reducing waste is of some concern.

8 Sara Boroujeni’s Arrive: (something or someone who comes), 7¾ in. (20 cm) in height, handbuilt and wheel-thrown earthenware, soil, seed, 2016.

9 Tehran mural. Tehran’s subway system, freeway underpasses, and buildings frequently house large, contemporary murals like this one.

Potters in Iran also face difficulty in maintaining the social sustainability of traditional forms. For example, the shape of some pots may be explicitly connected with making a certain kind of regional food that is in decline as eating habits change. Promoting these handicrafts would likely ensure the survival of this unique ceramic identity, but increasing demand would, in turn, increase the cost to human life and the natural environment. This is to some extent what has happened in many other Iranian cities, particularly as they expanded into industrial and international markets.

the author Jillian Echlin received an MA in art education from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, where she also taught. She received an MA in history of art and is pursuing a PhD from the University of York. She has served as a consultant for the Leach Pottery and Clay College, and has contributed to numerous publications. Learn more about her research into Iranian ceramics at www.iranceramicarts.org.

1 Along with being a global player in ceramics manufacturing, sustainability is now on the radar of corporate sensibility. In 2016, Tehran hosted the 16th Energy Globe World Awards. This signalled a renewed recognition of the immense impact of ceramic construction materials on energy and resource use. Intensified efforts toward sustainability have also been underlined by an expansion in programs for renewables and energy efficiency. However, this has not had much effect on the smaller-scale industries that comprise the majority of the industry, where working conditions can be hazardous. And engaging in protest, including radical environmental activism, can still be a very precarious undertaking.
2 Ziaee, M., Nadalian, A., & Marasy, M. “The Ecological Aspects of Local Pottery in Guilan, Iran,” Journal of History Culture and Art Research, Vol. 6, No. 3, June 2017, pages 297-317.
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