“Saint Saffron” and Pantea Karimi’s Artistic Homage to the Queen of Spices I Spring 2024 I Iranian Diaspora Spotlight I Article

by Dr. Persis Karim,

Director of the Center For Iranian Diaspora Studies


“Saffron is a symbol of the contemporary economic and agricultural challenges that have been convoluted with ongoing political issues under the theocracy in Iran.”


California-based visual artist Pantea Karimi has long been fascinated with the intersection between art and science. Her work spans more than a decade of exploration of the great scientific minds of the medieval Islamic period from Iran and throughout the Muslim world, in prints, installations, sculptures, and other visual media. But nothing has caught her attention quite like the saffron crocus. Her most recent work, Saffron, Saint of Spices now part of a show at the Euphrat Museum of Art at De Anza College in Cupertino, California, pays homage to the role of saffron, its properties and mystical beauty, as well as the ways that the saffron industry in Iran has built on the labor of women. Karimi’s interest in saffron, and more generally in plants and herbs, grows out of her childhood in the famously poetic city of Shiraz, in southern Iran, where she spent countless hours with her family walking and picnicking in Shiraz’s beautiful gardens, especially the famous historic Eram Garden that is located on the Khoshk River.


“I loved all the beautiful plants preserved in this garden, but I was also intrigued by plants and herbs because my grandmother was an herbalist and had knowledge of and prepared many herbal remedies for our family,” she says. In addition to the plants and the elaborate landscaping of the Eram Garden, Karimi says that the geometric and highly mathematical nature of the historic gardens influenced her attraction to the ways that science, math, and philosophy, undergird much of the art produced in the medieval period. Because her father is a retired architect and mathematician, she says she had a natural curiosity for the ways that art and science have been organically intertwined in Iranian arts and “embedded into the psyche” of Iranians over many centuries. It was these early childhood memories, and the influence of her parents and grandmother, that eventually led her to want to explore the role of plants and herbs in the culture, cuisine, and medicine of Iran. During the summer of 2021, she applied for and received a one-year residency at the University of California, San Francisco Library (largely a medical school and scientific research campus of the UC system) where she plunged into a year-long research project reading and studying UCSF’s Library botanical archives.


“My attention was on illustrated books, of which many had been produced at the height of the late medieval and early modern periods. They contained volumes of information, beautiful illustrations, as well as explanations of the properties and uses of many of these plants for medical purposes,” she says. Karimi was particularly interested in some of the earliest manuscripts contained in the USCF Library archives that mention the saffron crocus, the flower from which the saffron spice is derived. The books she found in the archives contained many illustrations, and what she noticed, in particular, was the emphasis on the “artistic” interpretation of saffron, which seemed to depart from the more scientifically oriented explanations of other plants and herbs.  


“What I learned is that beyond the beautiful color, the exquisite aroma of this spice, and its pervasiveness in much of the cuisine of the Persianate world, saffron was used as an anti-depressant, as well as in reducing anxiety and improving cognitive abilities,” says Karimi. “I found this fascinating because I knew saffron as the spice that permeated our Iranian cuisine—used in tea, and savory and sweet dishes, but also cherished for its color, but to learn about its importance in medicine made me feel I had something to add as an artist, and especially as an Iranian-born one. After my residency, I thought of paying homage to the saffron crocus through a series of 2- and 3-dimensional pieces that resulted in a solo exhibit at the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara, California, in early 2023.” This year, Karimi’s work traveled to Sacred Terrain, a botanical exhibition, at the Euphrat Museum of Art, displayed in a temple-like space that is painted gold. Several of her pieces illustrate the “saintliness” of saffron by drawing on its miraculous and medicinal qualities, by showing how this unique purple flower which blooms for a very short period in the autumn has multiple uses, such as culinary, cosmetics and medicinal. “By drawing attention to the flower’s beauty and its miraculous qualities, I decided to bring its 16th-century depiction into a contemporary context,” says Karimi. One of the pieces in the exhibit is a life-size saffron crocus sculpture after a 16th-century image of the flower that she produced in collaboration with the UCSF Library Makers Lab in 2022 during her residency. Other pieces in the exhibit are made after historic religious objects such as triptychs, shrines and Saqqaakhanaa – the (religious) water fountain. Traditionally visitors would leave votive items like flags or locks on the grided exterior of the Saqqaakhanaa. On one of the shrine sculptures, “Sacred Threads,” Karimi has hand-tied four hundred and fifty votive red threads. They are symbols for healing wishes and the four hundred and fifty saffron threads that make up the 1-gram saffron spice. The illuminated 3-D saffron crocus flower sculpture is shown on this object as a “saint.” The other object in the show is a triptych titled: “A Divine Allegory,” which is inspired by the 18th-century Muslim triptych, hilya-i-sherif. Karimi replicated the design but replaced the botanical vegetation, and the religious texts with saffron crocus archival images and its healing properties, described in the Persian script.   


Read full article On With a Trace: Documenting and Sharing the Experiences of the Iranian Diaspora

Of Saints and Spices: Inside Pantea Karimi’s World of Saffron I Fall 2023 I Content Magazine I Solo Exhibition I Article

 by Justin Ebrahemi



‘Pantea Karimi’s childhood experiences in Iran inspired the artist’s holy multimedia exhibition on the saffron crocus and spice. ’

Pantea Karimi’s upbringing in Iran was colored by a world of scriptures and saints. A schoolchild of the first post-revolution generation, the artist’s education in the Islamic state was synonymous with religious indoctrination. This only made her obsess over religious motifs, as she took in the structures, deities, and art that painted her childhood. She grew up observing elaborate triptychs unfolding to parables of Islamic doctrine, studied the intricate geometry that decorates mosques, and marveled at the stained-glass windows ornating the building facades around her. To Karimi, the aesthetics of religion are fascinating.


Yet, a ubiquitous floral figure was brewing as a topic of interest from the San Jose-based Iranian American artist and scholar: saffron crocus, the archetype and deity of Karimi’s exhibition Saffron, Saint of Spices, recently on view at Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara, California.

“In our religious courses, I was taught that saints did a lot of good, and performed miracles,” Karimi recalls. “Saffron crocus does both. It is a beautiful, medicinal flower whose use does miracles for the body and mind.”


Saffron is believed to balance moods and body temperature, reduce the effects of dementia, improve cognition, or fight cancer. Karimi’s grandmother taught Karimi about these natural healing benefits, along with her family who continue to integrate the flower in everyday facets of their life and cuisine. Whether for trade, cuisine or medicine, saffron has been a prominent tradition of her hometown of Shiraz since the medieval ages, and the love Karimi holds for the botanical realm stems from these herbal practices.


“As a child, the experience of cooking with plants felt magical and made me deeply connect to nature,” she says. “Its color and aroma that fills the kitchen and the house are the most familiar elements for me.”


After school, Karimi’s mother took her to an herbal extracts shop. Picture a traditional pub. Yet instead of the aroma of beer, the perfume of natural botanicals would emanate through the room. In lieu of bar stools, a long, metal bench continued along the wall and created a sense of community. And instead of alcohol, customers gathered to drink herbal extracts with ice and syrups. The popular extracts were contained in a row of large glass bottles along the floor, and when the sun shone through them, the pigmented glow was almost divine.

In Saffron, iconic Islamic symbolism is supplanted with multimedia interpretations of the crocus flower as a celebration (and at times a protest) of Iranian life. The exhibition is deliberately minimal in contrast to the busy ornamental stimuli of religious design.


horror vacui means fear of empty space,” Karimi explains of her vision. “I was influenced by the concept because it represented beauty, and yet I resented it because it also represented the subjugation found in religious spaces. So I envisioned an anti-horror vacui religious space at the Triton.”


One holy interpretation, titled A Divine Allegory, includes a triptych containing archival images of saffron crocus that she replaced from Islamic religious text. Here Karimi used the late medieval and botanical Iranian printing technique of hand marbling which she then digitized for the triptych, an interactive object often used for religious storytelling.


Another work displays an illuminated 3D printed saffron crocus flower. Produced in collaboration with the UCSF Library Makers Lab team through multiple iterations, this crystalline sculpture is illuminated in a soft glow to necessitate worship. Elsewhere in the gallery, Sacred Threads i and ii displays a fountain representing Iranian shrines and Saqqaakhanaa, or religious water. Visitors in Islamic countries leave votive objects on the gridded exterior of the fountain as healing wishes. Here, red threads are tied to Karimi’s work symbolizing the 450 saffron threads that comprise one gram of spice.


Perhaps the most iconic work in Karimi’s show, Healing Chroma is a large, black oblique cube that resembles the Kaaba, the most holy Islamic site. The cube centers the gallery room atop a Persian rug (that Karimi has owned since childhood and brought back to San Jose 2011) and holds diluted saffron extracts in chromatic glass bottles. Light shines through the bottles by shadows casted by the cube, reminding Karimi of the extracts she marveled as a child in the Iranian tea pub.


Naturally, visitors of Saffron circle the cube as an unknown act of worship: In Mecca, Islamic pilgrims circumnavigate the Kaaba as an act of worship; at The Triton Museum, art visitors unknowingly mirror this ritual.


These hidden meanings behind the show are a wink from the artist, who holds a wealth of religious and botanical knowledge stemming from her upbringing in Iran and her education as an artist and scholar of geometry, math, and science. If the exhibition acts as a quiet subversion of religious indoctrination, its execution couldn’t be more timely.


In recent months the Women-Life-Freedom insurgence has uprooted daily Iranian life in countless deadly protests, as international media broadcasts the humanitarian crisis and social uprising. Though Iran’s media attention has largely faded, protests are ongoing and the death toll continues to climb. Rather than produce another protest work, Karimi decided to illustrate gendered violence through a more historical lens, that at once illustrates the immutable beauty and progression of Iranian culture while highlighting systemic injustice and the politics of nature.



In one of Saffron’s displays, multiple televisions present inaudible footage of the various stages of saffron production, from cultivation to harvest. Saffron is infamously known as a precious spice due to its difficulty to harvest the flower and cultivate for spice. To produce ten kilograms of saffron spice, 150,000 crocus flowers must be hand-picked. That’s 450,000 stigmas needed for ten kilograms. Moreover, it has to be harvested in late fall during the cold season, with challenging agriculture conditions exacerbated by climate change.


The work is arduous, and predominantly carried out by women.


“The fact that mainly women are involved during this difficult seasonal harvesting period was a huge factor and attention-grabbing for my work in this exhibition,” Karimi explains. “I read somewhere that the soft touch of a female hand makes for the best harvest.”


That may be part of the reason women serve as the majority of saffron agricultural laborers, despite being paid less than the men who package and distribute the spice. “The Women-Life-Freedom movement highlights the plight of female laborers, who must adhere to the strict dress codes during the intense harvesting season,” says Karimi. “Needless to say, the movement also highlights the rights of the female gender in Iran and makes me ponder about pay inequality.”


As flower, spice, and allegory, saffron extends from a religious and gendered motif to something innately political in Karimi’s show. In recent years the value of spice declined as a result of the Trump-era sanctions against Iran, making it difficult for Iranian growers to distribute their produce. So they began repackaging their product as Spanish or Moroccan saffron, at a cut to their already-dwindling profits. 90% of saffron is grown in the Northeast of Iran in the Khorasan province, though these days many kitchens are equipped with saffron disguised by another origin.

“For me, this makes saffron a symbol of contemporary economical and agricultural challenges, convolved with ongoing political issues under the theocracy in Iran,” Karimi comments. “My exhibition is the story of the medicinal saffron crocus as a cultural symbol, yet in a political and religious context, because I can’t separate Iran’s culture from the political and religious issues anymore; in many ways the situation has shaped my mindset.”

Still, Karimi hopes her work illustrates Iran’s ancient and future wisdom, not just its post-revolutionary struggles that she’s known since a child. “Iran with 3,500 years of history has been under the rule of theocracy for the past 44 years,” Karimi explains. “All we hear is the news of political and religious conflicts but almost nothing about Iran’s history, culture, nature, cuisine, art, or architecture.”


So her works infuses saffron crocus in myriad renditions of adoration and worship—a symbol to be both defied and consumed as medicine, serving as botanical healer and religious icon, to poke fun at religion while decrying injustice, a reminder of Iran’s political unrest and gendered violence while drinking tea with guests in San Jose.

Today, Karimi and her husband incorporate saffron in traditional recipes stemming down from generations of families in Shiraz. Throughout Santa Clara and California, Iranian shops offer saffron ice cream, cookies, tea bags and more.


In 2016, the last time she visited Iran, Karimi visited her hometown of Shiraz and searched for the tea pubs she frequented as a child. She couldn’t find the pubs she recalled from her youth, but the saffron extracts were still displayed from shop windows in jars, light reflecting off the glass in the sacred glow that she remembered as a child.



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KQED, Arts & Culture I Dec 19, 2022

by Justin Ebrahemi




‘The struggle continues’

For many women who grew up in Iran, subservience was inculcated at an early age. “Learning was intertwined with religious indoctrination,” says Pantea Karimi, a San Jose visual artist who left Iran in early 2001 after experiencing harassment on multiple occasions from the morality police. “I was subjected to this systematic brainwashing to make me a religious female product.”

Now, Karimi draws from her experiences in post-revolutionary Iran to create work that simultaneously celebrates and protests Iranian life. One symbol reappears: the Kaaba (or “cube” in Arabic), the most sacred Islamic site.

Like Nouri, Karimi moved quickly to address the protests in her own work, which erupted while she was preparing a solo exhibition for Oakland’s Mercury 20 Gallery. “The upheaval and flashbacks took me to a very dark, emotional place,” Karimi says, and she felt compelled to reinvent her show.

For her exhibition, Karimi marked the opening and closing by staging a performance around Naked Cube, a sculpture made with donated hair. The piece is dedicated to Iranian women and girls, including Karimi’s cousin, who was beaten by the morality police just a few months ago.

“The piece is symbolic of simultaneous bravery and mourning,” explains Karimi. “None of the hair I presented in the piece was truly free — they were pinned to the broken glass, because the struggle continues.”

Karimi says the response from her friends and family in Iran was overwhelmingly positive, and Naked Cube has allowed her to finally express the hardship she endured as a child and young adult. She hopes to reprise the exhibition to keep advocating on behalf of the uprising, saying, “The struggle of Iranian women to gain their agency cannot die.”

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San Jose ICA I Nov 19, 2022

Breaking the Cube: A Perspective on Women, Life, Freedom

 by Tachiya Bryant



Breaking the Cube: A Perspective on Women, Life, Freedom

“All these years being outside Iran, I thought I had escaped the coercive force of compulsion, but the death of Mahsa Amini took me back to the first time I had to wear the mandatory hijab at school and other public places in Iran when I was a small child. The upheaval and the flashback took me to a very dark, emotional place. As a female artist who also had firsthand experiences with the morality police, I was compelled to respond and extend the exhibition’s content.”

Run-ins with the morality police are not only anxiety-provoking but can be life-threatening for women. Pantea’s visit to Iran in 2016, almost prevented her from leaving the country. Pantea wore clothing to the airport the morality police deemed “Too tight” and was kept in a room and questioned for more than 30 minutes. The female officer refused to release Pantea despite her superior’s orders. After a shouting match, the officer decided to follow directions and release her. She has not been back to Iran since.

Karimi’s latest exhibition is not the first acknowledgment of Iran’s current events. Naked Cube was a dedication to Iranian women, girls, and her cousin, Sadaf attacked by the morality police in Shiraz, Iran October 9th. On October 6th, Pantea Karimi sporadically filmed her friend cutting her hair and donating it for her artwork. 

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SF Weekly | Sept 28, 2020

Black & White 

Rediscover Visual Arts at These Reopened Galleries

By Jonathan Curiel

Pantea Karimi’s exhibit at Oakland’s Mercury 20 Gallery, “The Unbearable Lightness of Mathematics,” is a reconstruction of her school life in Iran during the late 1980s, when she struggled with the pressures of science education and struggled with the school administration’s attempts to root out her growing, teenage interest in the music of Madonna and Michael Jackson. A clash was inevitable, and Karimi, who now lives in San Jose, tells visitors how it ended through a sequence of 10 mock blackboards with mathematical formulas that gradually get more cloudy — with the final board almost completely shrouded in a chalky fog.


Iran’s 1979 revolution ushered in strict religious standards, so the Persian wording for “In the Name of God” shouts from each of the 10 blackboards. The first blackboard features a copy of Isaac Newton’s mathematical handwriting alongside Karimi’s Persian handwriting, which she uses to express her concerns about studying math and taking exams. Halfway through the 10 blackboards, two clouded photos of Iran’s religious leaders oversee the blackboards and a trove of Karimi’s personal objects from that time, such as Reebok sneakers and cassette tapes of U.S. pop stars.


The blackboards’ interplay of cloudy chalk, Persian lettering, and math formulas — and their sequential morphing from clearly visible to almost nothingness — is a kind of visual existentialism. This aspect of the work is underscored by the dark boards’ setting: a cavernous, white-walled space.


More than a decade ago, Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel and accompanying film, Persepolis, made the world smile and cringe at her former life in Iran, including her student life. “The Unbearable Lightness of Mathematics” produces a similar effect — only this time, we’re asked to physically stand in a place that mirrors what Karimi felt three decades ago. The mirror gets fuzzy in places. But even hazy images produce meanings that are crystal clear.

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500 Women Scientists | May 8, 2020

STEAM POWER: Art and STEM as a vehicle for change

Articles By Francesca Bernardi, Alison Marklein & Anila Yadavalli

The combination of science, technology, engineering, art, and math — it fills the imagination, brings ideas to life, and makes us feel. Ask most scientists and they will tell you about their passion for research, the inspiration and excitement of discovery. Science and art are two sides of the same coin, and art can harness the power of emotion to elicit curiosity, discovery, and connection to science. Artists regularly tap into science to bring important societal issues like climate change to light and scientists integrate the creative process and art into their work. Collaborations among scientists and artists can reach new audiences, bring forth new ideas, and change the way we think about both science and art. Here are some of the amazing projects that have been inspiring us with their love for science, technology, engineering, art, and math.

San Jose Museum of Quilts + Textiles:
The San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles recently held a solo exhibition called The Forgotten Women of Science by the Iranian-American artist Pantea Karimi. The exhibition featured women scientists from the second to nineteenth century and highlighted their contributions to science. The collection drew on the artistic and scientific talents of these women and included installations of embroidered hoops with laboratory notebook drawings, vials of medieval medicinal recipes, and panels with the accomplishments of several women scientists in both text and image. On February 23, 2020, the museum and the County of Santa Clara Office of Women’s Policy co-presented a panel discussion, Women Scientists: Vision & Visibility, with the artist (Pantea Karimi), a science historian (Cassy Christianson), and a scientist (Dr. Suzanne Pierre), who discussed parallels between historical and current status of women in science. Even today, the loudest voices are rarely representative of the scientific community or the broader communities science serves and women continue to be underrepresented. Exhibits like The Forgotten Women of Science at The San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles are using creativity to amplify marginalized voices and pushing for science to be truly representative.

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The Mercury News  |  Jan 19, 2020

Euphrat exhibit honors ‘Women Pathmakers’

By Ann Gelhaus

Textile Talks title page

Large-scale digital illustrations on fabric by Pantea Karimi depicting both early computer scientist Lovelace and Hypatia of Alexandria, a Hellenistic Neoplatonist philosopher, astronomer and mathematician who was murdered by Christian detractors. Karimi’s series “The Forgotten Women of Science” is on view at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles through March 1, 2020. “These women did not just assume marginalized roles in the male-dominated fields of science,” Karimi said in a statement. “They were also pioneers and generators of cutting-edge ideas.”

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The British Library  |  July 25, 2019

Library astronomy manuscripts in new visual forms

Solo exhibition Countdown: Biruni-Galileo-Apollo by Pantea Karimi

Published by the British Library Asian and African studies blog, 2019

The Iranian-American artist Pantea Karimi’s recent solo exhibition Countdown: Biruni-Galileo-Apollo at the Mercury 20 Gallery in Oakland, California, USA, was inspired by a study of several of the British Library’s scientific manuscripts which she reviewed during an extended visit in 2018. In this guest blog she speaks about this process and her work. 


Two ancient manuscripts in the British Library drew my special attention and formed the foundation for my exhibition: the 17th century Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo’s De Mundi Sphæra Tractatus Autographus cum Figuris (Add MS 22786) and the 11th century Persian astronomer Biruni’s Kitāb al-tafhīm li-awā’īl ṣinā‘at al-tanjīm (Or. 8349). My multimedia works in the exhibition explore an ancient and enduring fascination with the moon in science, culture and language, while simultaneously celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Lunar Mission.

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The Daily Californian  |  June 2019

At Mercury 20 Gallery, boxes, moons and bits of nature

By Skylar De Paul



The Bay Area is a hot spot for some of the best art California has to offer, and Oakland, in particular, is peppered with local galleries that showcase the works of artists from all around the globe. One of such spaces is the artist-run Mercury 20 Gallery, which rotates its featured collections every six weeks. It opened its newest collection of exhibitions last month, featuring works ranging from astronomy-inspired graphics to distressing commentary on FedEx shipments.


Artist Pantea Karimi’s section of the gallery, titled “Countdown: Biruni-Galileo-Apollo,” is focused on the Moon. “I aim to use the Moon as the catalyst to bring poetry, art, and science together,” she writes in her exhibition description. In her art, the Iranian American artist shares her knowledge of astronomy through mixed media art pieces. Karimi includes passages from Persian poets in some of her work, as these writings were her introduction to astronomy when she was growing up in Iran.


Karimi pulled information and inspiration from the manuscripts of early scientists, such as 11th-century Persian astronomer Abū Rayḥān Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad Al-Bīrūnī and 17th-century Italian scientist Galileo Galilei. Karimi first attained access to these manuscripts during her time studying at the British Library in London last year, during which she researched both astronomers.


“I was enchanted by this sense of imagination these scientists had,” Pantea said, standing next to her creations in the gallery she oversaw for the day. She channels this imagination throughout her works, some of which also feature scenes printed in the graphic collage on fabric from the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969. Pantea said she hopes her art will “bring a thread between the East and the West” through exploring scientific interpretation. “You cannot say science belongs to this culture or that culture. … Science belongs to humanity,” she said.

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Content Magazine | June 2019

Article by Nathan Zanon; Photo by Daniel Garcia

Iranian American visual artist Pantea Karimi began formally studying art at age 14 and never looked back. With the encouragement of her parents, she earned an MFA in graphic design from the Art University in Tehran before opening up her own studio there. In 2001, she moved to England to study printmaking while showcasing many of her own works in galleries and collections around the world. She continued her studies at San Jose State starting in 2005 with a second master’s degree in painting and printmaking. Drawn from an early age to her mother’s fashion magazines-not only for the clothing styles, but for the layout and design elements-some of Karimi’s recent work has brought this thread back into focus as she has studied various forms of print media from a design lens. Today, she is a sought-after speaker at museums and universities; she also teaches at the College of San Mateo and maintains a studio in Palo Alto.


“As an artist, I am naturally driven by my deep feelings and childhood experiences that have shaped my perceptions of the world. My work has been an exploration into the pages of medieval Persian, Arab, and early modern European scientific manuscripts. The scientific books from these periods offer nuanced understandings of the relationship between form and text, and above all, between scientific concepts and their manifestations in visual forms. I also draw inspirations from artists from around the world, my peers, and art genres. I am always thankful to the art communities that embraced me and contributed to my growth as an artist.”

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ISO Magazine, NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts | May 2019

Healing Garden, A Virtual Reality Project by Pantea Karimi


BY Katie Mcgowan & Nina Dietz

Healing Garden is a virtual reality project that I envisioned in 2017 after the medicinal botanical gardens of the Alhambra Palace in Andalusia, Spain. Andalusia was the birthplace of  the Herbal, which is one of the most remarkable manuscripts of medicinal botany in the middle ages. The book was composed by the 12th c. Andalusian physician and scholar al-Ghafiqi and was copied and read by many healers and physicians throughout the following centuries.
Wearing VR headset, participants “enter” the Healing Garden, which is a courtyard with white arches, and ten plant beds around a water fountain on a floor that is covered with Moorish tiles. They use their own hands to pick a series of medicinal plants and arrange them in the plant beds. Thus, they create a virtual garden as a metaphor for reconnecting with nature for healing. The plants are modeled after my screen-printed images on paper, which were inspired by al-Ghafiqi’s illustrations in The Herbal. Water and fountains were integral parts of medieval Islamic gardens and palaces of Andalusia. The sound of water fountains and the moving reflections of buildings, trees and flowers on its rippling surface contributed to a unique, calming experience for the residents. Similarly, in my VR Healing Garden, participants have the opportunity to listen to the sound of water fountain. The participant can then “walk” on the glowing Moorish tiles under the sun and pass through the Moorish arcades and enjoy her/his handcrafted garden from a short distance.

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SF/ARTS | April 2019

1979 Iranian Upheaval Resonates in “Once at Present”

Galleries at Minnesota Street Project showcase artwork inspired by the political and cultural changes in Iran since the 1979 Revolution

By Sura Wood

Twenty Bay Area visual artists of Iranian descent mark the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution in a contemporary art exhibition opening in multiple galleries at the Minnesota Street Project. “Once at Present” examines issues of migration, memory, history, the intersection of past and present and the cultural and personal implications of the Iranian diaspora.
“What people will see are similar experiences explored from very different perspectives,” says Taraneh Hemami, a local artist and educator raised in Tehran who co-curated the exhibition with renowned Bay Area curator Kevin B. Chen. “The work holds a lot of power because it comes from such a deeply personal place.”
In her work, Pantea Karimi addresses the emotional scars of the Iranian revolution both metaphorically and poetically. To create “Folding Gardens, A Stained Memory” (2017-19), she digitally printed black and white floral patterns, based on a 12th-century medicinal botanical manuscript, on long strips of transparent organza that hang on rods suspended from the ceiling. The installation, a maze of sheer curtains, gestures toward the healing properties of herbal medicine, a tradition reaching back to the Middle Ages that played an important role in her childhood in the southern city of Shiraz. “My idyllic life was interrupted by social upheaval that culminated in a decade of war and instability,” she recalls. Injured during the evacuation of her elementary school, she still remembers the blood stains on the classroom floor. Additional fabric strips depicting red tulips, an Iranian symbol of martyrdom, suggest the lasting effects of violence, and how the revolution left an indelible mark on her early life.

The Daily Californian  |  Jan 21, 2019

Mercury 20 Gallery’s ‘Self-Portraits in the Age of Selfies’ expands the scope of self-portraiture

By Camryn Bell

Artist Pantea Karimi created one of the exhibit’s most arresting pieces, offset in the gallery space by two small walls. Featuring digital archival prints of flowers arranged in circular fashion around a centerpiece, Karimi composed the piece as a reflection of the herbal medicine tradition in her hometown of Shiraz, Iran, as well as of her work researching medieval and scientific manuscripts. In this enclosed space, the piece takes up a sizable portion of the wall — yet another refraction of how the self-portrait can go beyond a physical representation and assume a more conceptual form.


“Self-Portraits in the Age of Selfies” is a comprehensive view of what self-portraiture can be, with a wide variety of pieces and perspectives on how we look at ourselves. Rather than indulgent or narcissistic, as selfies are so often seen, this exhibit is a celebration of self-interpretation and the many forms in which one’s self can be viewed.

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The California Printmaker  |  March 26, 2018

The Journal of The California Society of Printmakers:

Marriage of Technology and Tradition

The Versatile Screen-print: High-Tech Tools & Traditional Forms
By Pantea Karimi, pages 30-33

Screen-printing in its essence is a marriage of technology (machines and equipment) and tradition (developing imagery through multiple graphic techniques and printing on paper), which makes the medium versatile and suitable for both crisp images and painterly effects. In recent years screen-printers also have used digital applications, which help add further complexities and possibilities to the production process. I am a screen-printer with an interest in using the screen-printing process as a base for creating both multi-media and mixed-media artworks. As an artist, I find the screen-printing medium has inherent qualities that motivate me and stimulate a particular creative thought-process.


In 2014, I began a new research project which revisits my earlier investigations in the history of Iranian print media. My work since 2014 has been an exploration into the pages of medieval and early modern scientific manuscripts, particularly Persian, Arab and European. I am intrigued by the complex expressions of medieval and early modern scientists through scientific illustrations and diagrams. This research project further compelled me to utilize different materials, experiment with novel ways of displaying my work and employ new technologies. 


I have been using art installations, screen-prints on paper and other substrates, Virtual Reality and video projections to create a dynamic visual interpretation of the scientific concepts and ideas presented in the manuscripts. My research into the visual representations of medieval and early modern mathematics, medicinal botany, anatomy, optics and cartography is ongoing.

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Squarecylinder |  March 18, 2018

Printmaking rarely aspires to monumentality. Its history, with a few notable exceptions, is largely one of intimate works made either by dedicated printmakers or by painters seeking to expand their purview with help from master printers. Printstallations, a show featuring the work of eight such masters, upends that tradition by filling half the San Jose ICA with large-scale prints. They dominate entire walls, hang from the ceiling and activate floor space using a wide range of media and techniques, including photography, lithography, textiles, woodblock prints, computer-aided design, LED lights and much else. The exhibition is but the latest example of the ICA sidestepping staid white-cube displays in favor of more active modes of audience engagement. While size is a critical component, the strength of the show rests more with innovative processes than with expositions of sheer scale.


Pantea Karimi, a native of Iran, imprints floral patterns culled from a 12th century herbal medicine text onto translucent silk banners that hang from the ceiling. Her efforts, titled Folding Gardens, bring to mind those of another 19th century German photographer, Karl Blossfeldt. His precise shots of plants, achieved with a camera capable of magnifying subjects by up to 30 times their original size, revealed structural patterns never before seen.

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The Mercury News | Nov 17, 2017

Euphrat Museum’s fall exhibit explores kindness and hope

by Khalida Sarwari

Euphrat Museum of Art’s fall exhibit, titled “Kindness as Resistance,” features artwork by Bay Area-based artists that explore positive counter-narratives as a response to injustice or oppression. Pantea Karimi, a San Jose-based artist who teaches at Gavilan College and Cabrillo College, has several pieces in the exhibit, many of which were inspired by her childhood in Shiraz, Iran. Her works collectively attempt to engage four of the five senses: touch, sight, hearing and smell. Her most visible piece is called “Folding Gardens,” an installation of digital prints on silk organza, rods and threads that hang from the ceiling. The work is based on “The Herbal of al‑Ghafiqi,” a manuscript written by 12th century Andalusian physician and scholar Abu Ja’far al-Ghafiqi. “The idea is that someone can take these fabric strips in a folded manner and open them on demand,” Karimi said. “To me, it’s very poetic. It’s a metaphor for carrying the healing notion of nature. That’s why they’re printed on fabric so they can be folded.”


In this space, Karimi has the sound of a water fountain emanating from speakers. Alongside “Folding Gardens” is another piece that’s titled “Medicinal Herbal Volvelle,” an interactive wheel installation that reveals the healing properties of eight plants. And right next to that is a shelf that contains plant extracts—another interactive piece that invites visitors to open the bottles and take a whiff, a Shiraz-inspired piece of art, Karimi said.


Karimi developed these works this year as part of a six-month fellowship residency she completed at the Kala Art Institute in Berkeley. Her aim, she said, was to encourage people to engage with these concepts through the senses rather than just read about them online or in a book. “My main idea is basically that I would like to encourage people to get connected to the natural world,” she said. “The importance of connectivity with the natural world is the main idea behind this botanical work and also to highlight the ancient practices. I feel like in contemporary times, we are not connected to the healing aspect of nature. We are connected to the beauty of it and preserving it, but how about the healing aspect of it? So I wanted to highlight that through my work.”

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SouthCoast Today | Dec 15, 2016

University Gallery exhibit keeps spotlight on heartbreaking refugee crisis.

Stateless, group exhibition, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth

By Don Wilkinson

These are tumultuous times and there is an endless barrage of disturbing images that remind us how much misery and pain is in the world. One such haunting image surfaced in late 2015, when the world became aware of the photograph of a three year old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi. He wore a bright red T-shirt and he was face-down on the beach, like a discarded toy. He drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as his family fled crisis in the Middle East. That toddler could have been anyone’s son. But instead he became a symbol of something gone very wrong.


In an alcove, Pantea Karimi (sister of the curator) displays “Waters of Life, Waters of Death” in which a video projection of lapping waves on a tranquil beach is projected over black silhouettes derived from ancient maps of the Persian Gulf, the Caspian Sea and elsewhere. The sound that accompanies the video is soothing. But it would be a tragic mistake to get lulled.

California State University, Stanislaus  |  May 10, 2016

Interview with Art Historian Dr. Staci Gem Scheiwiller

Punctum Caecum, a visual exploration onto the magical world of medieval and early modern scientific manuscripts.

A 32-page published catalog, 2016

How would you normally describe the body of work that you produce? What kind of artist are you?

Pantea Karimi: I have had a long-term interest in juxtaposed textual and pictorial elements. I am intrigued by the ways in which image and text interact and convey meaning. Following this interest, my current body of work explores the history of archaic technologies and investigates how older scientific knowledge was communicated through both image and text. I examine medieval and early modern scientific manuscripts–Persian, Arab and European–and the longue durée (long term) exchange of knowledge across these cultures. This process not only provides me with a great means to explore what I love–the relationship between image and text–but also expands my appreciation of science and its role in the visualization of abstract concepts. The scientific manuscripts are dynamic and engaging. Most of them are filled with beautiful drawings and calligraphic texts. Others include interactive devices, such as volvelles (paper wheel charts) that accommodated calculation in many diverse subjects and used beautiful images, calligraphic texts and numbers.

I am a printmaker and painter and I also hold a professional degree with work experience in graphic design, all of which have influenced my fine art aesthetic and practice. For the past few years, I have been using mixed-media techniques in my works, mainly a mix of silkscreen and monotype printing with watercolor and graphite on various substrates. Additionally as a graphic designer, I have always been intrigued by the design and layout of books and print media; my graphic design capstone project in 1999 was an exploration into the design and layout of nineteenth-century Iranian newspapers.

How is Punctum Caecum different from your earlier projects?

PK: My series Punctum Caecum, which means “blind spot” in Latin, is the result of my exploration of ancient Arab, Persian and European scientific manuscripts. “Blind spot” stands for both the Dark Ages and for when we turn a blind eye to the fluidity of exchange of knowledge between these various scientists. The scientific books from the medieval Islamicate world and early modern times offer nuanced understandings of the relationship between form and text, and above all, between scientific concepts and their myriad manifestations in visual forms. Medieval and early modern scientific manuscripts were composed of hand-drawn images and diagrams, as well as textual and mathematical explanations. Each page of these manuscripts often separated images and texts through both structural compositions and random layouts as they appear to our eyes. To reiterate, sometimes commentators penned their thoughts as marginalia, thereby initiating a dialogue with the reader. All the above attributions make this project not only different from my previous ones but also very special and fascinating for me to work with. This new project and research have elevated my inner awareness about the ways in which we communicate as humans and the many forms that this communication takes.

What were some of the driving forces behind Punctum Caecum?

PK: I came across an article in The Guardian about a new book, Mathematics and Art: A Cultural History by historian Lynn Gamwell. In the article, I encountered a quotation by Gamwell that deeply resonated with me:

“To research Math and Art I had to learn maths concepts like calculus, group theory and predicate logic. As a novice struggling to understand these ideas, I was struck with the poor quality and confusing content of illustrations in most educational books. So I vowed to create for my book a set of cogent math diagrams that are crystal-clear visualizations of the abstract concepts. As a lecturer at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, I wrote this book for my students, such as Maria, who told me she was never good at history because she couldn’t remember dates, and for Jin Sug, who failed high school algebra because he couldn’t memorize formulae. I hope they will read this book and discover that history is a storybook and that math is about captivating idea.[1]”

In Iran, high school students are required to choose a major and stay with it for the entire duration of their education. By the age of 15, I had invested most of my free time in fine arts studio practice and had received music lessons on a regular basis. Despite all this, my parents wanted me to enter my high school’s natural sciences department, which prepared students for medical school. My parents were great advocates of art; however as pragmatists in a society that mainly praises doctors and engineers, they encouraged me to become a pharmacist. But their wish never came true. As years went by, I faced many difficulties and ended up switching fields of study on entering college. This was mainly due to the fact that the scientific concepts were not explained extensively or in a hands-on way, and rote learning was the main focus at the time. My biology and chemistry textbooks included images (albeit in poor black-and-white quality), and in hindsight, I recognize how those difficult and abstract scientific subjects spoke to me more vividly through images and diagrams. This relationship between visual representations and abstract ideas has continued to captivate me and has become the basis for my current research and work. As an artist, I am naturally driven by my deep feelings and childhood experiences that have shaped my perceptions of the world. So, my unsuccessful encounters with scientific subjects have always endured, and I am still in search of a way to overcome this shortcoming. Consequently, Punctum Caecum is somehow a personal journey.

What do you want viewers to take away after seeing Punctum Caecum? How do you expect viewers to relate to medieval and early modern depictions of knowledge in a contemporary context?

PK: All the pieces in Punctum Caecum collectively highlight a long-term flow of scientific knowledge and exchange of ideas across cultures. This series aims to initiate a dialogue with the viewer, communicating how knowledge transcends social, political, and cultural boundaries. By highlighting the medieval and early modern manuscripts’ visuals and other contents, I also aim to draw attention to these rich forms and to invite the viewer to observe science and its history through the process of image-making.



[1] Lynn Gamwell “Why the history of maths is also the history of art” The Guardian, December 02, 2015. Available at http://www.theguardian.com/science/alexs-adventures-in-numberland/2015/dec/02/why-the-history-of-maths-is-also-the-history-of-art (accessed December 10, 2015).