Peace, love, and baklava – an exhibition of contemporary Iranian art in London
Peace, from the Bottom of My Art – on first impression, the somewhat saccharine title invokes a slight sense of uncertainty, alluding more to a 90s boy band ballad rather than an exhibition of contemporary Iranian art. Putting my reservations aside, though, I was intrigued to see what Iran’s art scene had to offer. The universal concept of peace – like those of love and war, for example – has always been a source of inspiration and motivation for artists. A subject with no boundaries, it can be understood and translated in many different ways. ‘[The exhibition] is an expression of everyone’s dream of peace’, read a line in the exhibition catalogue; and, in a collective show running between April 25 and May 9, 2013, London’s Opera Gallery proudly presented Iran’s take on the concept.
The exhibition happened to fall on the warmest, sunniest evening London had ever seen so far this year, and the setting could not have been more perfect. The influx of Iranian gallery goers who descended on New Bond Street was fantastic; the bustle of bodies chatting, reuniting, discussing, and interpreting the work on display was a sight to behold. A newcomer to Iranian culture, I received a warm welcome from the curators of the exhibition, Vida Zaim and Leila Varasteh, as well as the gallery’s director, Jean-David Malat, who was also on hand to introduce me to the artists of the evening.
Talking to Vida, I asked about the curatorial process, and how the artists for the exhibition were chosen. ‘We wanted to provide an opportunity to young emerging artists from Iran, not just the big names’, she told me as she glanced around the room, absorbing the art on display. Exhibiting 58 pieces in total, Vida also explained how difficult it was to select the artworks. ‘There is so much talent’, she remarked. It was fantastic to see the exposure that this emerging talent is receiving, especially in London, a hub for creativity and expression, and perhaps the perfect place for these artists to tell their stories. Walking around the gallery, I was faced with so many varying interpretations of the concept of peace, and of art more generally. Peace was a mixed media exhibition, and included works from the more ‘customary’ mediums such as oil and acrylic paintings, photographs, and installations, to other less-conservative ones including a canvas of condoms. The range of media was reflective of the different stories the artists had to tell, the variations in their styles, as well as their unique backgrounds and personalities.
I began my series of ‘interviews’ by speaking with Afshin Naghouni, an artist born in Tehran in 1969, who has lived most of his adult life in London where he now works. His piece, Universal Soldier, a mixed media canvas incorporating acrylics, oils, and cut-outs of photographic paper features an eye-catching pixelated image of a soldier’s visage. The earthy tones of the piece depict the characteristically-camouflaged image of a soldier on the front lines, the ‘universal’ soldier, and the all-too-familiar image of war. Afshin spoke of soldiers as ‘instruments of war’, and tools of the ‘war machine’. ‘For me, there is no justification for war’, he told me. ‘War does not happen without soldiers.’ And yet, the identities of these soldiers largely remain anonymous. They are the drivers, the backbone of the war effort, but we do not see their faces or hear their stories. As Afshin explained, there are many reasons for the pixilation of his images, and he wants to leave the interpretation up to his audiences, such that they stop and think. From one perspective, the soldier can be recognised as a hero, a guardian, a promoter of peace; from another, however, he appears as a tyrant and a murderer, the very antithesis of peace itself. From afar, one can almost see the face appearing through the pixilation. It all depends on how close one chooses to get to the subject, the concept. Things become more abstract with distance and proximity, literally and metaphorically. Depending on one’s experiences of war, and their own understanding of the notion of peace, Afshin’s work appears differently, presenting a multitude of faces emanating from a single visage.
It wasn’t an exhibition about politics; it was solely … a celebration of art and talent from today’s generation of Iranian artists, and the Iranian people’s interpretation of, and unwavering hope for peace
Born in Tehran in 1975, Negar Varasteh is a female artist from a legal background. Her contribution to Peace, an installation entitled Eternally, of One Essence is the Human Race featured a two-piece work borrowing its title from a verse by the medieval Persian poet Saadi, which now adorns the entrance to the United Nations building in New York City. Using acrylic paint, Varasteh embellished a convex mirror with the Persian word for ‘eternally’, repeatedly recurring in revolutions covering the mirror’s surface. Why the choice of the word ‘eternally’, though? ‘Because it gives me a sense of hopefulness that peace will prevail in the world one day’, came Negar’s explanation. This notion is also represented by the freestanding peace symbol that constitutes the second part of the installation, a reflection of the artist’s interest in geometry and perception. The idea of creating different perceptions leaks into the peace symbol, ‘which is also like a broken tree … the peace has been broken, but [it] also has a chance to heal’, she said, making a comparison to trees and their ability for regrowth and regeneration.
I concluded the evening by speaking with Bahman. Born in Iran in 1955, Bahman is an architect working in New York. Described as a ‘neo-allegorical artist’, Bahman’s creations uniquely depict human expressions, and draw on allegorical imagery inspired by Persian poetry, Greek mythology, German opera, and Russian literature, among other things. His piece Nuclear Paradise, isa depiction of a nuclear warhead at the centre of the destruction of the earth. His medium? Condoms. It is safe to say that this image aroused an immediate sense of curiosity in me (pun intended), as I was certainly not expecting to see any form of expression realised in this medium, and as such, I was eager to meet Bahman. ‘Why condoms?’ was obviously the first question I asked him. The artist explained his work to me, describing the piece as a form of allegorical expression, which brings together images and objects through a narrative story. Here, the condom is both a means of prevention as well as a representation of promiscuity. Juxtaposing concepts like war and peace, the ‘meaning’ of the piece is dependent on the perspective of the viewer. It is ironic. ‘This is about the prevention of, and the consequences of war’, he explained. Prevention and consequence indeed. Though Bahman’s composition is rather light-hearted, the subject is anything but. ‘In reality it is about Armageddon … we are not going to end war or end conflict. Just as people have the innate ability to love, they have the same for conflict’ – a bittersweet afterthought in stark contrast to Varasteh’s sentiments.
The gallery was nothing short of heaving all evening, with an excitable bustle of Londoners, art lovers, and intrigued passers-by. A night of culture, art, and baklava, it was perhaps the warmest and most welcoming exhibition I have experienced to date. Not only did it provide me with a flavour (in more ways than one) of the artistic creativity flourishing in Iran, but also a fascinating insight into the culture and mindset of the Iranian people. As Vida told me, it wasn’t an exhibition about politics; it was solely about art, which is exactly what it was – a celebration of art and talent from today’s generation of Iranian artists, and the Iranian people’s interpretation of, and unwavering hope for peace.