Contemporary Iranian art speaks from the heart

© Masoumeh Mozafari - 'Heat stroke', 2011

© Masoumeh Mozafari – ‘Heat stroke’, 2011

During World War II, the third floor of the building at Herengracht 401 in the Dutch capital of Amsterdam hid a number of German Jewish artists behind its facade. Today the post-war art venue Castrum Peregrini, which was founded subsequently, offers a temporary shelter to the contemporary artwork of over twenty Iranian artists carefully curated by Shaheen Merali. The latter titled the current collection of graphics, photographs, paintings and various installations ‘Speaking from the heart – The polemic sensibility from Iran’.

According to the internationally acclaimed artist Mehraneh Atashi (1980), this title somewhat unnecessarily replaces an earlier one. Atashi is among the twenty-three Iranian artists who already participated in the earlier though differently titled exhibition also curated by Merali, at the Freies Museum in Berlin in 2011. The only difference in the line-up is Reza Abedini, the famous graphic designer and artistic director of the Azad Art Gallery. He designed the poster accompanying the present exhibition and replaced late fellow artist Farideh Lashaei (1944-2013) in ‘Speaking from the heart’.

Aesthetic opposition

The Azad Art Gallery in Tehran is an initiative run by the artists listed at the bottom of this article, who are all taking part in the Amsterdam exhibition. The Azad Art Gallery exhibits artwork for a maximum of two weeks: a time-span long enough for the public to pay a visit, but usually short enough not to arouse the suspicion or repercussions of the regime. After the Iranian elections of 2009 gave birth to a series of events generally referred to as the ‘Green Movement’ (which originated a year ahead of the wave of uprisings in the Middle East dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’), Iranian artists found their social work space often confined to the borders of the city, or, in some cases, even limited to the confines of their homes. Their personal experience of gross human rights violations and immense social distress is a prominent and confronting feature in most of their works.

In the work of Mehraneh Atashi this is less visible. I asked her what message or image she intends to convey with her work. Atashi: “Imagine your home as a resistance space in a city that seems to equal a state, where there is always a possibility of conflict. Still, you can transform the conflict into something new, something fruitful, by translating it into art. Art is not about the story itself: there is always a story, a history. In my view, what matters is the way in which the story is told: the storytelling.” Four pictures of her series ‘Hanging garden’ (2010-2011) are featured in ‘Speaking from the heart’. Using a water tank to create these shots, Atashi used the tranquil transparency and fluidity of the water to break the light and reflect the imagery of the fixed and vexed city Tehran.

© Mehraneh Atashi - 'Hanging Garden' series (3, 2010-2011)

© Mehraneh Atashi – ‘Hanging Garden’ series (3, 2010-2011)

Art as a language

The exhibition came into being as a result of the cooperation between various parties and the funding by two separate subsidies. The initiator and co-organiser of ‘Speaking from the heart’ is Framer Framed, a Dutch “initiative to discuss the politics of representation and curatorial practices in the 21st century”. Framer Framed noticed the Berlin exhibition and subsequently endeavoured to bring it to The Netherlands, where Castrum Peregrini proved the most suitable venue. The intriguing past of this venue, interwoven with that of its charismatic founder and artist in residence Gisèle d’Ailly van Waterschoot van der Gracht (1912-2013), certainly adds meaning and poignancy to ‘Speaking from the heart’. This title was chosen by Merali and Framer Framed with regard to the differing Dutch context.

It is interesting to see how the organisations involved joined hands with curator Merali to allow the current exhibition to literally ‘speak’ for itself. Merali: “Local conditions determine the possibilities of the artists to mediate their work and their views. I am passionate about curating regionally, as this offers possibilities to exhibit what otherwise remains local knowledge. I hope it clarifies what remains still a starting point for further conversations about art as a language, instead of as about a group of objects. In the works at display in ‘Speaking from the heart’ it’s not the intellect speaking, but the heart. And the heart is universally associated with both love and pain – with blood, beating through the heart, and with bloodshed, death, loss.”

© Farhad Fozouni - TEHRAN (poster print)

© Farhad Fozouni – TEHRAN (poster print)

Scholarly precision and cold-blooded graphics mark the works of poet and graphical artist Farhad Fozouni (1979). In a different, map-like work, Fozouni laid out the province of Tehran in bloody red, its borders figuratively blurry in the northwest, cut razor-sharp in the southeast. He sprinkled certain spots with poetical musings in Persian and connected them with lines, both in white. Reza Abedini explained the words to me as diary-like fragments; tiny contemporary odes some of which are as intimate of tone as if being addressed to a lover. Viewing Fozouni’s work, I realise how much I would have appreciated an accompanying catalogue offering a translation of the Persian words which Fozouni included. Now, I feel dumb in a way: I can’t grasp the meaning of what the words convey, nor does Reza’s explanation sufficiently satisfy my hunger to understand the work. Still, the graphics of Fozouni’s somewhat macabre ‘Kitchen Poetry’ leave ample room for speculation.

© Farhad Fozouni, 2010 (digital print from same series as 'Kitchen Poetry')

© Farhad Fozouni, 2010 (digital print from same series as ‘Kitchen Poetry’)

Curating Iran in The Netherlands

How does one curate a country irreversibly re-awakening to democratic reform, that has been entangled in violent socio-religious constraints for so long? Well, with care. Merali opted for an outside the box approach – at least outside the general Western frame of reference which usually either involves some stereotypical links to Persia’s eclectic past of Mughal art, king stories and Sufi poetry, or explicitly refers to its peculiar religious-political situation in the region ever since 1979. Two explicit video installations plainly offer painful food for thought, whereas other works communicate a bitter sense of humour. Some of the works included in the exhibition have to be ‘discovered’, like a series of framed photographs obviously recovered from shredded photos depicting people who got wounded during demonstrations, shown behind wire gauze in a tiny dark room.

Although ‘Speaking from the heart’ reveals only a tip of the immense contemporary Iranian art iceberg, Merali succeeded in presenting a fair and wide variety of politicised Iranian art more than worthwhile viewing. Moreover, until the finissage on November 9, Castrum Peregrini hosts a variety of activities related to this remarkable exhibition every Tuesday evening.

‘Speaking from the heart – The polemic sensibility from Iran’ – 27 September to 9 November 2013, Castrum Peregrini, Herengracht 401, 1017 BP, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. The venue is open Wednesdays to Fridays 14.00–18.00.

Participating artists:

Mehraneh Atashi, Navid Azimi Sajadi, Mahmood Bakhshi, Masoumeh Bakhtiary, Majid Fathizadeh, Parastou Forouhar, Farhad Fozouni, Ghazaleh Hedayat, Taha Heydary, Melodi Hosainzadeh, Katayoun Karami, Aria Kasaei, Majid Korang Beheshti, Azadeh Madani, Amir Mobed, Mehran Mohajer, Masoumeh Mozafari, Homan Nobakht, Sara Roohisefat, Atefeh Samaei, Rozita Sharafjahan, Mohamad M. Tabatabaei, Reza Abedini.


This post is also available in: Dutch