Iranian Peacemakers

Iranian artists collaborate in the name of peace, in the form of a new exhibition at the Opera Gallery, London, entitled Peace from the Bottom of my Art

 
Untitled 2009-2013, by Ahmad Morshedloo. Courtesy The Majalla.

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The international community does not really expect to read the words ‘peace’ and ‘Iran’ in one sentence, even though peace is a desperately desired by Iranians. Because of this contradiction, Peace from the Bottom of My Art, the cleverly titled exhibition of Iranian artists at the Opera Gallery, is a timely effort.

The curators, Leila Varasteh and Vida Zaim, approached nearly eighty artists and selected fifty-eight works to display in a gallery with a capacity of twenty-five. “We wanted the artists to express their inner emotions about peace and how they view it in their mind and in their heart,” Zaim said to The Majalla. Most of the works, except for a dozen or so, were created for the exhibition and in response to this theme. Throughout the show, it becomes clear that the question of peace runs deep in the veins of Iranian artists.

On the opening night the room was buzzing with bubbles, so much so that the walls and the art were barely visible. “We wanted to introduce works of emerging artists as well as established ones, especially those who haven’t been introduced through auctions and such,” Zaim says. That range is palpable, as the works of big names such as Parviz Tanavoli (the famed highest-selling Iranian artist) and Koorosh Shishegaran were hung side-by-side with the work of lesser-known artists.

Despite the warm reception, only a handful of artists were present. The recent closure of the UK embassy in Iran and the country’s increasing isolation on the global stage has made travelling very difficult for Iranian citizens. Such restrictions and volatilities are what frame and influence artistic production in Iran, which is why in an exhibition on peace, there were plenty of bombs, bullets and guns. This subject matter revealed how he individual impulse for peace is often impeded by uncontrollable socio-political realities.

The notion of lack of control and suppressed desires was encapsulated in Azadeh Ghotbi’s Give PEACE a chance to soar. In bold black letters, she places the word ‘peace’ in a black cage, while the sides of the letters and a bird outside the cage are painted in a clean turquoise. The colored edges of the letters are visible only by moving around the installation, encouraging new perspectives on the issue. Ghotbi, who left Iran thirty-four years ago, is among the few artists in the show who have not lived in the country for a long time—specifically, after the Islamic revolution. “I’m actually very surprised, and mesmerized at the same time, at how much I am still—and maybe increasingly so—influenced by Iran,” she says.

Bright colors, Persian imagery and symbols gave the exhibition an intriguing aesthetic. Newsha Tavakolian’s riveting photographs are mainly of Iranian subjects, and her lens is positioned in the Iranian context. (Some of the works used a more global lexicon, without any particular allusions to Iran.) Another compelling example is Afshin Naghouni’s pixel-faced Universal soldier. It is a large painting with a dirty palate, a beautiful commentary on faceless combatants fighting in increasingly digital and automatic warfare.

Other artists used a more satirical approach to the topic. Majid Biglari’s The buying power of family, a series of logo-plastered baby bottles stuffed with bullets, is a sinister joke on inheriting violence and the post-industrial, post-modern war machine. A similar idea was incorporated in Naemeeh Kazemi’s camouflaged Cupcake.

Then there is Bahman Akhavan’s Nuclear paradise, in which more than 800 condoms stained in primary colors are assembled on a canvas, creating a cartoonish atomic bomb. In a quick glance it is reminiscent of a flower garden, but a closer look reveals the menace of destruction. “It’s both promiscuity and prevention—same as a bomb, always presented as defense, but it’s actually made for destruction,” Akhavan says. “A bomb will prevent violence as much as condoms will prevent lust.”

Some of the works, particularly those that were not commissioned for the exhibition, had a less direct rendition. Ahmad Morshedloo’s untitled work is a good example: it is a large and breathtaking three-panel composition of a concerned woman standing in front of what seems to be a dead man. Simply using pen on cardboard, it does not matter if we know that Morshedloo only works with real subjects and realistic situations. He is able to capture simultaneously the essential passivity of being a victim and the capricious nature of peace.

Shadi Ghadirian, who recently participated in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Light From the Middle East exhibition is famous for using paradoxes, which dominated her Qajar series replicating old photos of Iranian women juxtaposed with modern household items. In Nil nil, we are taken to a sunny corner of a pristine breakfast table, where in the midst of the white and gold china lays a combat drinking flask. It is a simple photo that shows her maturity as an artist.

Tanavoli was certainly a big attraction and his presence was felt throughout, since a few participants, such as Farzaneh Hosseini, were also his students. Negar Varasteh is another, whose Eternally, of one essence is the human race leaves out the violence for signs of hope. A mirrored installation of geometric patterns, it is a work about the “innate peace” she feels humans are born with and entitled to. “When all Iranians around the world hear is ‘No,’ this [exhibition] is the type of positive response that gives people a lot of hope,” she says.

Innate, inner peace is what Maryam Salour chases and practices in her art. When speaking about her work, she described it in an allegory, a favorite Iranian trait, frustrating in politics and befitting the arts: One day, a Chinese emperor asked the court artists to compete in painting a large dragon for the palace dome. They each go home, thinking night and day about the design. One of them prays over and over again, pleading with god to show him a dragon, until one night a huge dragon appears outside his window, blows a fiery breath and burns the man to death. The other artist closes his eyes and prays over and over: “God, please turn into me a dragon, turn me into a dragon.” He becomes a dragon and flies away.

Give PEACE a chance to soar, 2012, by Azadeh Ghotbi. Courtesy The Majalla.

  From Listen Series, 2012, by Niousha Tavvakolian. Courtesy The Majalla.


”Peace from the Bottom of My Art” runs until May 9, 2013 at the Opera Gallery in London.


Tara Aghdashloo is a journalist, broadcaster, and writer based in London. She covers politics and art, and is interested in the ways in which media and languages shape cultural practices.


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