Contemporary artist Golnar Adili is playing with language. Specifically the shape of Persian. For the past 15 years she has been making art that revels in the physicality of her mother tongue. She has extracted individual letters from her father’s writing and recreated them in print and sculpture, designed her own Persian pixel typography, created a pattern out of verb pairings from Hafez’s poetry, rewritten a letter between her parents on the edge of 352 folds, used paper strips to fabricate a sculpture of Rumi’s words and made landscapes from her father’s handwriting. These works are memorials to a childhood ruptured by geopolitics. They are also joyful, wondrous constructions informed by Adili’s background in architecture.

Kajal connected with Adili to talk about her artist book Baabaa Aab Daad (Father Gave Water), the significance of language, and straddling the duality of joy and sorrow.


Golnar Adili, Baabaa Aab Daad (Father Gave Water), 2020, Wood, felt, board and cloth, 5 x 7 x 1.5 inches (closed), Edition of 25. Designed and bound by the Artist, Hot Stamping by Biruta Auna, Letterpress by Roni Gross

Kajal: Can you describe this work?

Golnar Adili: This book is a block which is pretty solid in the hand, but not too big. It’s a muted blue and has a gold stamp on it for the title. The top and bottom edges are open and it opens up to three main parts. The first panel opens and reveals a marginal history of an educator and an artist whose legacy is closely tied to the phrase “Baabaa Aab Daad.” Once the book is completely open, you can see that the center part holds the wooden letters in a deconstructed and condensed manner. On the left and right panels you see grooves cut out of felt which guide the reader to place the wooden pieces into the grooves through which the sentence is composed physically.

What does Baba Aab Daad mean? 

It means father (baabaa) gave (daad) water (aab). It is from a first grade book, basically one of the first sentences that Iranian children learn how to write in first grade because of its fundamental sound and lettering. B, A, D, are all in the beginning of the alphabet, all babies from different cultures pronounce these letters, so in a way, this sentence is a manifestation of early learning put into context.

How and when did you get the idea of this piece?

It all started after I had done a lot of different pieces with a very simple type I designed made of cube modules specifically for a complex Hafez poem, “The Samanbouyan.” I have been obsessed with this poem for years and could not find a way to express the beautiful tension which Hafez sets with the verb pairings in the poem. To address this, I boiled down the type to square modules to strictly look at the architecture of the words. When the pandemic hit, the first thing I decided to do was to clean my studio and I came across extra small wooden cubes left over from other projects. I started to build these Hafez verbs.

Blocks from past projects in Adili’s studio

Adili’s sketches and prototypes of verbs from “The Sambouyan”

Individual letters and a complete Persian alphabet set by Adili

Then I wanted to do something very simple and fundamental after these complex verbs and thought of doing an alphabet set. Having a toddler who is growing up in an English speaking environment also was a factor. I wanted her to be surrounded with the Persian language, or at least somewhat. After making a box of the Persian alphabet, I needed to make the next thing and that’s when the sentence Baabaa Aab Daad came to me very intuitively. It was the perfect sentence which was the next step from the letters. I work a lot with my late father’s archive and Baabaa was already a significant factor in my work. Aab (water) is so fundamental to our being, and the whole thing was a homage to childhood since the book also operates as a learning tool through tactility, and is a gift to my daughter.

How did you physically make it? How does one prototype something like this? Are you making it all by hand?

It took seven months of prototyping and you could imagine that the first and last iterations look a world apart. But this led to me building a mini bindery in my apartment. I was also thinking ahead, of selling an edition not knowing my financial landscape with so many uncertainties.

I am a process person and work with iterations which is basically making whatever comes to mind. These for me are parallel or branching ideas and one test takes me to the next one or four. I make them all and then look at them. It has to feel right. The real reason I could do all of this so systematically is thanks to unemployment and extra space. This is what happens when you give the artist resources! The focus however was key. To sit down and work for five hours straight on something is what made this go so smoothly. After two months of doing that I knew it was going to be a folding box which exposed the book top and bottom, was minimalist and opened to the horizontal sentence (baabaa aab daad) and that there was going to be deconstruction and reconstruction involved.

In researching the sentence, I came across a wonderful educator, Seyyed Abbas Sayyahi, who was instrumental in revamping the first grade Persian book and decided to embed this small marginal history inside my book. In addition to his significant contributions to the first grade book, Sayyahi co-founded the nomadic schools in Iran. He appeared in a lovely movie titled Gabbeh by Makhmalbaaf in the 90s showing the simple life of a rug fiber colorist in Shiraz and the dream concept behind making gabbeh – a kind of simple colorful nomadic thick Persian rug. He was also an herbal colorist of fiber in his real life.

Can we do a rapid quiz on all your material and aesthetic choices? Why wood? 

That was what I had in my studio and always wanted to make words out of them. It felt very right.

Why felt?

Felt is the perfect holder for wood when made into a receiving groove. The materiality is delicious and the colors I found are superb. You have to change the question to “Why not felt?”

Why blue?

The word water (aab) – it helped that when I looked at the felt I fell in love with the blue.

Why leave the wooden block units showing? Why not make solid letters?  

I welcome modularity, and really wanted to work with the cubes to create the type.

Why was it important for this piece to be an artist book? Why a multiple?  

I sat down to make an artist book, because I LOVE them. As a mixed media artist and a trained architect, delving into book arts has been a rediscovery of the joy of structure making. To make a handheld intimate object which unfolds speaks to constraints in mobility, lack of time and access to resources, all limitations which can be mined as opportunities.

But I also made an artist book because I was calculating about income. I know that there is a collector market out there, no matter how niche, there is a thriving one. I love repetition and multiples and so, I had a passion and a goal!

More artist books by Adili.

I love artist books too but I’m conflicted. On the one hand, if editioned, the multiple allows a plurality of ownership which appeals to me. But their very nature prevents a collective ownership; they are such intimate artworks – meant to be touched, opened, held – unless you are the owner of an artist book you will typically see it in a museum, behind glass. You can’t experience it as a true book. The display of the artist book flattens it into a static, two-dimensional object. So they can be democratic but then also completely private, singular. 

Yes, it is really a shame. Artist books are precious things that I can’t even have my daughter play with even though she is my main audience or at least the inspiration – how fucked up is that?!?

Though, my goal is to make it available democratically by designing a less precious one. It’s one of my next steps… I’ve already started talking to some designers who reached out to me to see how we can do it.

I’d love to hear more about the art community that supported you in the creation of this piece. Did you edition it yourself? 

I editioned myself. I am still half way through because I had to jump on other projects, but to be continued. My community of helpers are priceless and I could not have done it without them. One of the first names that come to mind is a wonderful neighbor book binder friend whom I met at my residency at the Center for Book Arts in 2017. Celine Lombardi was moving at that very moment when I was looking for some studio tools and sold me her guillotine, and press and most importantly would consult me throughout the process with all kinds of questions. Then Roni Gross who did the letter press, and Biruda Auna who did the most amazing foil stamp for my cover, and many more whom I seek their priceless advice like Beth Sheehan, my first book teacher to Anne Muntges. I really would not have been where I am with the book if it wasn’t for these individuals. The Center For Book Arts residency is what started this madness in 2017. I took the first workshop and then I gave birth. So it was a hectic residency but a damn good one too.

Adili (center) teaching a class at the Center for Book Arts.

The foil stamp for Baabaa Aab Daad (Father Gave Water) created by Biruda Auna

What artistic tradition is this work following and borrowing from? 

It borrows from different elements. The first thing that comes to my mind is Bauhaus and architecture. The type looks a bit like kufic – because of its orthogonal form. I of course learned so much from book arts in making the structure itself but minimalism is a big influence in my work generally.

In your work, You’ve been playing with the physicality of language, the shape of Persian script, the idiosyncrasies of handwriting – can you speak more about this interest? Why does language interest you so and when did this interest begin?

I’ve had a very split life between the US and Iran and I think that language has always been so mysterious to me. I can’t count how many times I’ve learned and unlearned both languages and the sound of words and cultural context, all of it intrigues me. However, I’m a visual person, and I honor my method of expression and the deconstruction and reconstruction as tools for investigation.

You’ve made artwork out of your father’s handwriting, his archive, images of your parents, your body and of course Persian, your mother tongue. It’s all so personal. Do you envision yourself ever exploring English in this way? Will English ever be personal in this way? 

No! It has not been, and I don’t see it being that way. But you never know…doubt it though. I don’t love the form, and don’t have the same connection.

Your work is simultaneously a moving visual diary of the trauma your family endured after the Revolution and a cerebral, playful, love letter to Persian. How do you get here? To inject some play and visual joy into a subject that is so painful? 

I think there are two parts to my personality and desires. One part is the child who is obsessed with the past, memory, and the two very disparate parts of me, Iran and the US. I try to bring these two or multiple parts together constantly to negotiate and process the past. We were living in the inert and grassy suburbs of Northern Virginia where I was born, and then at 3.5 I was delivered into a revolution, war, separation, bombs lots of relatives with lots of love and color. This is where the obsession comes from to keep delving into the past which actually leaves me devastated, especially now that I have a daughter who is the same age I was when I was going through these tough times.

But I also love jumping from one thing to another and having a kid brought out the playfulness even more. The language of puzzles, blocks, the wonder of seeing the world from a child’s eyes, is so so precious. I also love playing gymnastics with form and breaking rules and redefining for example what a book should look like, etc. I really think it’s part of being a Gemini, I mean we get bored with one thing. Even though I have focus for these fussy forms and processes, I have to shift between projects or take several forward at the same time. It’s a mess in my head. I’m shocked how anything at all comes out coherent. I love your reading of it: “Love letter to Persian.”

Adili’s Persian alphabet set

Baabaa Aab Daad will be on view at Center for Book Arts (28 W 27th St, 3rd Fl) from Friday, January 14 through Saturday, March 26, 2022.

All images courtesy of the artist.