Saffron, Saint of Spices, 2023-2024

Saffron, Saint of Spices, 2023-2024

Saffron, Saint of Spices, 2022-2024

The University of California, San Francisco Library Residency Project, 2021-2022

Solo Exhibition at the Triton Museum of Art, CA, 2023

Exhibition at Euphrat Museum of Art, CA, 2024


Pantea Karimi was the Artist in Residence at the University of California San Francisco Library, from July 2021 to July 2022. During her residency, Karimi explored the botanical archives, preserved in the library’s Archives and Special Collections. Among all the plant species she studied, the saffron crocus stood out because it has deep roots in Iranian culture, cuisine, and medicine.

To produce 1 kilogram of saffron spice, 150,000 crocus flowers must be hand-picked. The labor-intensive harvesting process is mainly done by women in Iran, for three weeks, in the late fall each year. Iranian saffron farmers struggle due to suffocating economic sanctions, endemic drought due to global warming, and the rise of shipping and labor costs. For Karimi, the above attributes make the saffron a symbol of contemporary economic and agricultural challenges, convolved with ongoing political issues under the theocracy in Iran.

Saffron, Saint Of Spices, a solo exhibition at the Triton Museum of Art in 2023 and Euphrat Museum of Art in 2024 explores the saffron crocus from historic, medicinal, pictorial, and socio-political angles in a religious context. Through various media from bottled saffron extracts, and hand-printed marbling prints to hand-made religious objects, Karimi assigns sainthood to saffron crocus and celebrates this ancient Iranian quintessential spice, visually and conceptually.

This exhibition is funded by the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant and UCSF Library Award.


The Saffron 3-D sculpture and the upper section of the Triptych were manufactured at the UCSF Library Makers Lab, in collaboration with Scott Drapeau & Jenny Tai, Makers Lab Designers.

Iranian women harvesting saffron crocus in Khorasan province, where 90% of its global production grows. The delicate flower sprouts for just 10 days a year. But its harvest and distributions are now in jeopardy because Iran has been suffering from sanctions and a devastating drought for the past two decades.  Video by Agence France-Presse, Nov 2018.

Pantea Karimi draws a saffron crocus using diluted safflower liquid on paper, 2022. Inspired by the depiction of the saffron crocus from Mattioli’s 16th c. book at the UCSF Library. Video by Pantea Karimi, March 2022.

Artworks Labels

A Divine Allegory, triptych, 2022, digitized hand-printed marbling on paper, digital collage and print on wood, hand-made wood frame, hinges, and hasp, 43 x 40 x 5 in.

Triptych, an object of reverence since medieval times, allows for storytelling and interactivity. The triptych, A Divine Allegory, is composed after the 18th c. religious triptych, hilya-i-sherif (a noble description of the Prophet Muhammad’s moral qualities), from the Ottoman period. I replace the botanical vegetation, and the religious texts in the original triptych with saffron crocus archival images, and its healing properties in Persian. I use my digitized hand-printed marbling patterns; a plant-based printing technique from late medieval Iran. The muted color palette and black flowers reference the absence of proper attribution of saffron to Iran where 90% of worldwide saffron crocus is cultivated. The subdued hues invite the viewer to have intimate proximity to the work and mitigate visual frustration.

Translation of texts on the triptych:

Left panel: Alzheimer’s disease. Oral saffron might modestly improve cognition in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
Right panel: Anxiety. Small clinical studies suggest that oral saffron might improve anxiety.
Middle panel: Depression. The oral saffron extract seems to improve symptoms of depression when used alone or as an adjunct to conventional antidepressants.

Saffron Crocus, Tradition, (Sonnatee in Persian), 2022

Saffron Crocus, Lust, (Mayleh-Jensee in Persian), 2022

Hand-printed marbling, gold acrylic, and gouache on paper, each 36 x 24 in

I use images of the saffron crocus, originally printed from hand-carved woodblock plates, which I extracted from the 17th and 18th c. UCSF Library’s hand-bound books. By painting saffron crocus in gold in between the patterns, I intend to highlight the exceptional nature of the flower while preserving the integrity of the original images. The marbling patterns, suggesting fragmented landscapes, incorporate my drawings and hand-written healing properties of the saffron crocus, in Persian, having both cultural and religious connotations. Marbling references those decorating papers with mottled designs that were used for manuscripts’ binding throughout the history of book-making.

Sacred Threads i & ii, shrine-Saqqaakhanaa, 2022, Iranian style shrine-facades, watercolor on boards,
3-D saffron crocus sculpture, light, threads, prayer beads, and metal, 37.5 x 24 x 10 inches

The shrine objects are designed after the Iranian shrines and Saqqaakhanaa – the (religious) water fountain. The visitors would leave votive items such as flags or locks on the grided exterior of the Saqqaakhanaa which is often decorated with religious objects such as candles or (prayer) beads. Either inside or outside of the structure there is a fountain for drinking. The votive red threads are symbols for healing wishes and the 450 saffron threads make up the 1-gram saffron spice. The illuminated 3-D saffron crocus flower sculpture was manufactured in collaboration with the UCSF Library Makers Lab in 2022.

Pious Readings i, ii, iii, prayer pages, 2022, hand-printed marbling prints on paper stretched on wood panels, gold paint, watercolor, and gold leaf, each 15 x 10.5 x 1/4 inch

The layouts and designs are inspired by the late medieval Iranian prayer books’ pages that were illuminated and decorated by vegetal scrolls and vines in vibrant gold. The Persian words describe the anti-depressant saffron healing properties, replacing religious texts.

Cartographical Re-Shapes, 2022, diluted safflower on hand-made paper, wood hangers, and screws, each 27 x 21.5 inches

On hand-made papers, I use diluted safflower to draw the map of the Khorasan province, where most saffron is cultivated in Iran. I started drawing the map within defined boundaries but gradually the natural liquid spread into the rugged paper and re-shaped the map organically. The new shapes are a metaphoric reminder of water staining the rugged-dried grounds where saffron crocus grows. Safflowers are occasionally used in cooking as a cheaper substitute for saffron.

Healing Chroma, 2022, diluted saffron spice in glass bottles, cube structure, and board, 30 x 30 x30 in

Kaaba was one of the first extensive geometric objects I discovered in our religious courses at school in post-revolutionary Iran. The word means cube in Arabic and it is the most sacred Islamic site. Plato in Timaeus c.360 BC wrote about Platonic solids in which he associated each of the four classical elements -earth, air, water, and fire- with a regular solid. Earth was associated with the cube. Diluted saffron, in various chromatic concentrations in medieval-style bottles, is placed on a platform in the middle of a cube structure, representing a sacred site.


University of California, San Francisco Library, 2021-2022

The Oddities of Marbling Garden, 2022-2024

The Oddities of Marbling Garden, 2022-2024

The Oddities of Marbling Garden, 2022

Marbled papers decorated manuscripts and books, throughout the history of book-making. Marbling- a plant-based printing method from late medieval Iran- uses natural pigments, solution, and oil. As a printmaker, I have found this old technique as a new “territory” to portray nature from historic, medicinal, visual, and cultural angles in diverse contexts in my work, 

In creating my prints I will treat the patterns as less conventional to allow room for content and additional visual elements. The patterns suggest turmoil and fragmented landscapes alongside the hand-written healing properties of plants in Persian, which have double meanings and cultural connotations.

The name of the series is inspired by the 13th c. manuscript, The Wonders of Creation and the Oddities of Existence (Ajayeb al-Makhluqat va Gharayeb al-Mowjudat) written by Qazwini, the celebrated medieval geographer and natural historian.


Printing marbling patterns in studio, 2022


University of California, San Francisco Library, 2021-2022

Folding Gardens, A Stained Memory, 2019

Folding Gardens, A Stained Memory, 2019

Folding Gardens, A Stained Memory, 2017-2019

Folding Gardens, A Stained Memory installation has been exhibited four times, in a traveling exhibition, in the San Francisco Bay Area, 2017-2019.


Minnesota Street Project, San Francisco, 2019

“Having printed the work on foldable and transportable silk organza, for Karimi, the notion of carrying gardens of medicinal plants that can be instantly opened and viewed emphasizes the importance of remaining connected to the healing properties of nature. Inspired by original plant images from Herbal of al-Ghafiqi, a prominent 12th-century medicinal botanical manuscript, this installation evokes memories of Karimi’s childhood in Shiraz, Iran, where herbal medicine has been a prominent tradition since the medieval period. Spending time in both traditional drugstores and gardens of Shiraz with her grandmother, Karimi was deeply influenced by the deep belief in the healing powers of herbal medicine and the importance of staying connected to the natural world. During the Revolution of 1979, protests interrupted Karimi’s idyllic life and caused occasional shutdowns of her elementary school. During a rushed evacuation, Karimi was seriously injured, her blood staining the classroom floor. Having printed the black and white floral patterns at Kala Institute in 2017, Karimi now adds fabric strips of red tulips (symbols of martyrdom in Iran) and bloodstains to reveal how a pleasant childhood in Iran became interrupted and “stained” by the Revolution of 1979.”

Folding Gardens, A Stained Memory, 2017-2019 Digital prints on silk organza, rods and silk threads

San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, 2018

Kala Art Institute, Berkeley, 2017


Folding Gardens is an installation of a few transparent silk organza strips suspended from the ceiling. The floral patterns on the strips are inspired by the plants’ images from the Herbal of al-Ghafiqi botanical manuscript. I arranged the composition of plants on each strip to represent a vertical garden. I printed the garden compositions digitally on silk organza that can be folded to become portable. The notion of carrying gardens of medicinal plants, that can be folded and opened on demand, is aimed to remind one of the healing properties of nature and the importance of connectivity with the natural world in general.

Folding Gardens installation is accompanied by wall shelves, the sound of water fountain and a Medicinal Herbal Volvelle (a wheel chart) that reveals the healing properties of eight medicinal plants. One shelf displays the folded version of strips and the others display jars, containing medicinal plants’ extracts. Visitors can select any jar and smell its aromatic content. They are also encouraged to interact with the Medicinal Herbal Volvelle to learn about the healing properties of plants and to walk around the Folding Gardens’ strips to see the drawings up close. Such a sensual experience that simultaneously engages the senses of sight, hearing, touch, and smell, again is meant to evoke the power of the natural world.

On a personal level, this installation evokes one of the earliest memories of my childhood: my family has deep roots in the southern city of Shiraz, Iran. Shiraz is known for its tradition of using herbal medicine which is still a vital part of people’s daily diet. The visual memories of many rows of herbal extract bottles on shelves at the Shiraz bazaar are still vivid to me. As a child I spent ample time shopping at the traditional drugstores in Shiraz with my grandmother, who firmly believed in the healing power of herbal medicine for all kinds of minor ailments. The Shirazi’s obsession with the power of herbal medicine goes back to the medieval medical practices that recognized the benefits of natural medicine for the human body. Folding Gardens not only underscores the significance of visual elements in the early science of botany and medicine but also draws attention to the contrast between natural medicines and chemically manufactured drugs.


Euphrat Museum of Art, De Anza College, Cupertino, 2017


Suspended Healing Garden & Shifting Horizon, 2017-2019

Suspended Healing Garden & Shifting Horizon, 2017-2019

Medieval Medicinal Botany, Silhouette Installations

Suspended Healing Garden, 2019

Installation at Root Division, San Francisco, CA

Suspended Healing Garden evokes memories from my upbringing in the city of Shiraz, Iran, known for its herbal medicine tradition. As a child, I spent ample time browsing through the traditional drugstores in Shiraz with my grandmother who firmly believed in the healing power of herbal medicine for all kinds of minor physical and emotional ailments.  The plants in Suspended Healing Garden are modeled after medicinal plants depicted in the 12th c. Arabic botanical manuscript the Herbal of Al-Ghafiqi. The inverted portrayal of plants is a metaphor for my life as an immigrant; once uprooted, life becomes suspended and things turn upside-down. It takes years to adjust and heal.

Shifting Horizon, 2017

SFMOMA Artists Gallery & Euphrat Museum of Art

Shifting Horizon is an installation of medicinal plants on the wall, composed of various kinds and sizes. The plants’ silhouettes are drafted after the original images in the Herbal, one of the most remarkable medieval botanical manuscripts, composed by the 12th c. Andalusian physician al-Ghafiqi.

Shifting Horizon is both the study of medicinal plants and cultural expression. It is a symbolic representation of the relationship between humans and the natural world and the potential this relationship may present. Such a fascination with the power of herbal medicine has its roots in medieval medical practices that placed great emphasis on the benefits of nature. By contrast, in our modern world, we mainly rely on chemically manufactured substances. The installation uses broken lines to represent our “shifting horizon” and perspective toward nature; plants are represented in black as a metaphor for the dwindling relationship between humans and nature.

The work is in the YouTube collection, SF Bay Area, CA, 2023. 


Botanical VR Project: Healing Garden, 2017

Botanical VR Project: Healing Garden, 2017

Healing Garden, Virtual Reality, 2017


Healing Garden is a virtual reality project that I envisioned in 2017. The concept and design are after the medicinal botanical gardens inside the Alhambra Palace in Andalusia, which was the birthplace of the Herbal; the most remarkable manuscripts of medicinal botany in the middle ages, composed by the 12th c. Andalusian physician and scholar al-Ghafiqi. Wearing a 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 plants’ 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 the water fountain. The participants can “walk” on the glowing Moorish tiles under the sun and pass through the arcades and enjoy their handcrafted garden from a short distance.

Healing Garden, Virtual Reality, 2017
Design and concept by Pantea Karimi
3-D modeling by Pedram Karimi
Interaction design coding by Cyril Zabala


Tech Museum of Innovation, San Jose, November 2017

Euphrat Museum of Art at De Anza College, December 2017


Alhambra is a palace and fortress complex located in GranadaAndalusiaSpain. It was originally constructed as a small fortress in AD 889 on the remains of Roman fortifications, and then largely ignored until its ruins were renovated and rebuilt in the mid-13th century by the Nasrid emir Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar of the Emirate of Granada, who built its current palace and walls. It was converted into a royal palace in 1333 by Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada. The below photos are taken in August of 2017, when I traveled to Granada and saw the palace for the first time.