Living the high life and telling it like it is: Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar
What interest could a stylish, twenty-something artist-cum-businessman living it up in the French Riviera and Monaco have in a tiny village in central Iran? In a tribe supposed to be as old as time itself? In a war he never experienced, fought for, or at the time understood? Quite a bit, apparently.
Born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, in the early 80s, Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar has a lot to be happy about. Despite having been dubbed the ‘new kid on the block’ (among other things) by some, he has, in a very short time, seen his work shown in solo exhibitions in London, major charity galas, international art fairs, and on prestigious online platforms; not bad at all, one could well say. Although he comes from a business background and is known for his entrepreneurial flair and drive, it isn’t money that’s driving Sassan’s artistic practice, but rather a simple love for his homeland, and a journey through the many facets of his identity. Combining traditional Persian motifs with black-and-white photography, fashion aesthetics, and archival material, Sassan strives to reveal through his work not only his own true self, but also that of Iran.
Who is Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar? What does he believe in? Who is this ‘man on a mission’ everyone’s been talking about recently?
I have often been called a self-styled purveyor of the truth by different major organisations and players in the contemporary art world during the past two years, which is due to the nature of my work – from my portraiture and art films, to installations and photographs such as those of the A Reason to Fight and The Real Me series – as well as my background. As an artist, one of my objectives is to show the world what the true nature of my country – Iran – and its culture, heritage, and people is. It has been too long that the majority of international media outlets have portrayed my fellow nationals, country, and heritage as something that is clearly false, and I think it is long overdue to start showing the truth and factual realities of Iran instead of all this negative propaganda circulating everywhere.
Today, I am using my practice to better educate the masses on a global level about Iran and everything that it involves, and my biggest satisfaction is when I see audiences of various ages and races understanding the message behind my work all in the same way. My work deals with a potent blend of nostalgia, history, and national cultural identity.
How would you, in your own words, describe Iran to an outsider? What’s it really like?
A truly beautiful country with kind-hearted people you can count on, alongside an extremely rich heritage and culture with probably the best food I have ever had. True hospitality is part of everyone’s daily lives, and you will always find someone who is willing to help you out in any scenario. The country itself if filled with so many historical treasures and hidden gems that you feel you have jumped back in history when visiting. There are also great ski resorts, beaches, different natural environments, the four seasons, and so much more. You are never alone in Iran, since you will always be at dor-e hamis (gatherings) with friends and family. Family values and true friendships are a big part of social life in Iran, and there is always an adventure waiting for you around every corner.
I’m fascinated by your background. You’re of Bakhtiari origin, from a family with ties to the late Soraya Esfandiary-Bakthiari, and grew up in southern France, where you’re still based. Where does your passion for Iran stem from?
Yes, that is correct. I was born in Paris, and spent the first 10 years of my life between the capital and the south of France before moving to Tehran. My passion and love for Iran come from different things. My personal character and immediate family played a huge role, as well as the eight years I spent in Tehran from the age of 10 onwards. I am a proud Iranian, and after spending much time in Tehran and learning about my country, people, and culture, fell in love with it all, and wanted to show how great Iran is. As my grandfather used to tell me prior to his passing, always know your roots and be proud of your heritage, no matter how weird this world gets. I was young at the time, but soon came to understand the true meaning and depth of his words.
Do you still go back to Iran? If so, what do you make of the local art scene there? The artists and galleries there, among other things, never cease to amaze me.
Of course I travel to Iran. We have so many young and talented artists back home that every trip is like a creative adventure for me; and, knowing many of them on a personal level, I can say without a doubt that our artists back home and around the world truly deserve more recognition and support than they are currently getting. Even though there is a great local art scene with solid galleries in Tehran that are internationally-recognised, I still wish there were more opportunities in the contemporary art world for many creative minds still residing in Iran.
As my grandfather used to tell me, always know your roots and be proud of your heritage, no matter how weird this world gets. I was young at the time, but soon came to understand the true meaning and depth of his words
Your works were recently featured in the RCA Secret Dubai section at this year’s Art Dubai, and last year, you had a solo exhibition in London and saw your works showcased in a Magic of Persia charity event. Not bad for ‘the new kid on the block’!
The RCA Secret Dubai was a great event, and I was happy to take part in such a reputable show. My solo exhibition The Real Me was great, and I could not have been happier with it. The day after my opening, I had Rory Blain of Sedition come for a private tour of the exhibition, which resulted in me joining their amazing curated list of blue-chip artists. Magic of Persia is a great charity, and I had the pleasure of joining their great list of Iranian and international masters of contemporary art in 2010.
Tell me a little bit about the A Reason to Fight series. I find it really interesting that, not having grown up in Iran – like me – you’ve chosen the Iran-Iraq War as your focus here. Although one result of the War was that Iran was successfully defended against Saddam Hussein, many Iranians I know have mixed feelings concerning it. For example, some maintain that those who fought for Iran did so chiefly in the name of religion (i.e. their fervour had more to do with religion than national pride), while others deem them national heroes. What do you think they fought for? For what and whom would Sassan have fought for?
During the years I spent in Iran, I saw how people were always split on the Iran-Iraq War. However, what is important to highlight here is that it does not matter for what reason the people defended their country, but that they went to war and were able to defend it during the eight-year long war regarded as the longest conventional war of the 20th century, and the most violent conflict after the Second World War.
A Reason to Fight is linked to the struggles of Iran against the Iraqi occupation, and each work in this series is my representation of the strength and courage of each Iranian involved in the war. Our country, with all its complicated history, is present today, and that is due to all those courageous Iranians, young and old, who took on the responsibility of the war and defended our land no matter what the cost and the situation at the time. Let us think for a second that we had lost the war: where would we be today? Each person had their own reasons for fighting, but that is not what this series of work is about.
I’m intrigued by The Real Me series. What’s the concept behind the juxtaposition of colourful, traditional Persian patterns with black-and-white photography? It seems like it’s become your signature style.
The Real Me brings together photography, collage, and video with lyrical poetry written and narrated by myself, and offers the viewer an image of a culture that may be unfamiliar to the modern world, presented in a rather familiar way. I wanted to reintroduce the world to the beauty of Iran and its heritage from a view untrammelled by modern politics and agendas. In this series, I have chosen a variety of traditional Persian carpets and patterns for their beauty, uniqueness, and timelessness, and shaped them into the forms and figures I wanted, translating a mood and feel in relation to the overall message of each respective artwork.
When working on The Real Me, my main objective was to get audiences curious and genuinely involved with each piece, and to bring forth factual realities with regard to Iran and its forgotten gems. This series also has two art films in English and Persian with poetic ruminations written and narrated by myself. The juxtaposition of ancient cultural and historical artifacts with modern media and filmmaking techniques offers the viewer a new perspective, an alternative vision of a country and its historical legacy – a vision that will remind its audiences of the beauty and relevance of Iranian culture.
Other than enjoying the sun in the French Riviera and Monaco, what will you be up to later this year?
I will continue to work on two brand new series of works involving painting and installations, which I am really excited about. I am also working on delivering some private commissions, as well as preparing for several exhibitions and auctions around the world for the end of 2015/beginning of 2016. I cannot reveal all the details now, but it has promised to be an interesting year, so far!
More of Sassan’s works can be viewed on artclvb.