The exhibition of contemporary Iranian abstract art at the Theertha Red Dot Gallery is an eye-opener because the Iranian plastic arts that we are familiar with are traditional. That there is a group of men and women whose artistic instincts and creativity are in synch with what is happening with modern art movements elsewhere certainly came as a novel experience. The exhibition ends today (July 25).
Abstract art may seem to be a misnomer because the exhibit includes portrait works. But faces, too, can become abstractions, vehicles for an idea or a world view gestating in the artist’s mind, like in the 13 black and white ink portraits titled ‘Hope’ by Omid Shayan.
The artist says even this cannot be publicly exhibited in Iran, which leads to an interesting question about our artists. There is no censorship on nudity as a subject in the plastic arts in Sri Lanka, but so few artists work with it. It’s a major part of the foundation of drawing in art schools all over the world
Two of the artists -Nasim Pirhadi and Marjan Habibian- were present. Nasim, currently living in Sri Lanka, works as the curator of Red Dot. Talking to them about the contemporary art scene in Iran was quite enlightening.
Non-traditional Iranian artists work under constraints hard to imagine in this country. That doesn’t mean this is a paradise for groundbreaking, challenging art in whatever form. But the Iranian situation, where art is censored by dogma, is alien to us.
That’s why what’s evident at this exhibition comes as a kind of culture shock of a pleasant sort. What these Iranian artists have achieved is quite remarkable. Some of them live and work abroad, but they aren’t exiles. They have a base and following in Iran, and this isn’t some underground movement. Centered in Tehran, they exhibit openly, discuss and sell their work to private collectors.
Nasim Pirhadi’s exhibit titled ‘Audience’ consists of a series of spherical paintings and an audio installation. While a number of small, painted circles hang from the ceiling in a white space, gently swaying in the wind, the audio imposes a consistent drilling noise over the almost sepulchral silence. These are Tehran street noises. It sounds like a robotic invasion of a very civilized, private world.
The paintings themselves, almost all in monochrome, are enigmatic. Alongside large swathes of black ink, you can see miniature figures. Some are human, some are animal, goat-like figures. The human figures may be seated, and absorbed in their own private worlds. Sometimes, they are in suspension, like the animal figures which may be scaling difficult heights or falling. They are all in a very delicate equilibrium. Despite the overall tranquility of this installation, there is an underlying sense of impending trouble, even violence, accentuated by that monotonous and insistent drilling noise.
Audience 2 (acrylic on canvas) has two large spheres and three small ones where similar motifs are repeated. The large one has a miniature, seated figure looking through a telescope. There also is an animal tied feet up to a bar, as if for slaughter. Another sphere has a large vortex on the left, with a tiny group of seated figures to the right. Are they going to be sucked in to the vortex? Again, we face the same unsettling questions.
The Iranian revolution wiped out a good part of this Westernised Iranian culture. These two couples, staring at us in total ignorance of the mayhem to come, look smug within their embroidered frames
Marjan Habibian has a series of ink drawings using pen and roller. There are portraits of her mother. An art teacher, who now lives in Austria, she has made hundreds of portraits of her mother. An admirer of Matisse, one can see the same sureness of line in her work. Her drawings of a cat and a deer place her firmly in that early 20th century European drawing tradition. There are three male nudes and one female. They emphasise a withered, reposeful sexuality, a memory of the past, and not anything sensual or erotic.
The artist says even this cannot be publicly exhibited in Iran, which leads to an interesting question about our artists. There is no censorship on nudity as a subject in the plastic arts in Sri Lanka, but so few artists work with it. It’s a major part of the foundation of drawing in art schools all over the world (except perhaps in very conservative societies), but most of our artists are so bad at drawing the human figure without clothes. What is the reason for prudery? It looks as if the artists themselves practise self-censorship. That will hardly make for progress in art.
The most disturbing exhibit
Negin Javaher offers three smaller nudes in colour. Fleshy, Lucian Freud like figures, they can be compared to miniatures, a Persian concept. But they are not placed in a specific cultural setting. Like much of modern art, they create their own contexts, leaving the viewer to making the connections.
Azam Tababei has the most disturbing exhibit, the photo installation titled ‘Inhibition and Self-Discovery.’ Through a series of large black and white prints, she explores a fascinating relationship with a number of female mannequin figures. These are reduced to lower bodies, and amputated hands smeared with paint which resembles blood, looking even more sinister in black and white.
Non-traditional Iranian artists work under constraints hard to imagine in this country. That doesn’t mean this is a paradise for groundbreaking, challenging art in whatever form. But the Iranian situation, where art is censored by dogma, is alien to us
Hung in between these disturbing images are small plastic bags with chocolate fingers inside, which the artist has made herself. You can’t escape the fingers in these images. They are smeared. The artist is seen in one, smacking them. Or she could be seen as a demonic figure trying to devour her own fingers? Are they smeared with blood, or chocolate? No matter what, there is something very disturbing about it. She’s performing a self-consuming task, and this is a laconic statement about the self-consuming tasks that many people focus on during their lives.
The amputated mannequins’ hands reach out for each other. One can sense a desperate search for longing and intimacy. Azam Tababei’s mannequin characters – and she includes herself amongst them – are victims, but they haven’t lost the capacity to feel and reach out.
Javid Ramazani’s exhibit of two black and white portraits dating back to WWII, is an attempt to recapture a vanished past. This is poignant because that past isn’t the victim of the normal passage of time, as it happens to peacetime generations. The Iranian revolution wiped out a good part of this Westernised Iranian culture. These two couples, staring at us in total ignorance of the mayhem to come, look smug within their embroidered frames. But they look pathetic when considering the historical context.
Atefah Khas’ Hair series uses the sensuousness of a woman’s hair to make an artistic statement about the feminine condition. She offers a photographic print of her auburn-coloured hair. Below it, you find strands of her real hair on a white pillow. It looks like a relic and an offering to eternal youth this hair will not age. There’s no clue as to what the owner looks like. As such, the hair itself becomes epicenter of feminine mystique and allure.
Omid Shayam’s 13 ink portraits titled ‘Hope’ are enigmatic. They represent faces from the 16th to 18th centuries. Judging by their clothes, they are Europeans. There is one African or African-American woman. Her earrings, in the shape of a cross, suggest a colonial background. Who are these people? They are certainly not Van Gogh’s potato eaters. More likely, they belong to the class of people who could afford to have their portraits painted. But this artist has recalled them from the past.
These images are connected to the video installation, made in Paris, where the artist and a multi-ethnic group are reading ‘Rubaiyat’ by Omar Khayyam. It is no co-incidence. Khayyam’s vision of people living the good life, not knowing the ultimate futility of it, is reflected in these somber, dignified portraits.
Some of these works are good examples of how to work to the limit within sanctions. It calls for both daring and imagination. In Sri Lanka, unfortunately, we rarely see such examples. Our artists are by and large content to perform way beneath the limits, often choosing the well trodden path of self-censorship.