LACMA’s first exhibition of their contemporary Middle Eastern art collection charts the expanding parameters of Islamic art.
With a collection of Islamic art spanning from the Early to the Medieval and Late Islamic periods, LACMA in Los Angeles has recently been expanding into the contemporary arena. The first showing of its contemporary art collection from the Middle East has marked a milestone in the understanding of the region’s art history – as welll as triggering debate.
Azerbaijan’s Faig Ahmed merges fresh, modern textiles with traditional techniques.
Faig Ahmed, one of Azerbaijan’s most internationally recognised visual artists, adds a decidedly modern twist to carpet weaving, string art and embroidery. Art Radar spoke with Ahmed to learn more about his most recent riffs on traditional Azerbaijani textiles, and how the artist prevents himself from being held “hostage to tradition”.
Faig Ahmed (b. 1982, Baku, Azerbaijan) successfully completed his BFA in Sculpture from the Azerbaijan State Academy of Fine Arts in 2004. In 2013, the artist was shortlisted for the Jameel Prize 3 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Ahmed has exhibited his work throughout the world, including group and solo exhibitions in Europe, India, Hong Kong, New York, Russia and the UAE. His work is part of both private and public collections, such as the Amhem Museum, the Buta Foundation, the Seattle Art Museum and the Yarat Contemporary Art Centre.
Art Radar caught up with Ahmed to learn more about his creative process, what makes the Azerbaijani contemporary art scene unusual, and why he considers himself more of an “explorer” than an artist.
Creating outside of the box
I’ve read that you feel you are “not an artist but an explorer”. Please elaborate on this comment.
To me, an artist is someone who sees the tangible results of his/her ideas reflected in their artwork. You may think that I do the same, but no! The final result itself doesn’t interest me that much. The reality of my art is that it is still very much in the process of research and discovery. I create it and it’s just a part of the global system of art fairs and people’s opinions about each piece.
I’m an explorer, so I’m much more interested in what I unearth through my research. My artworks are just my reports that reflect various periods of my investigations.
In 2014, you travelled to India for the first time. Regarding this journey, you said it was “a dream come true”.
Throughout my life, India has had a great impact on me. I was dreaming about it even as a child. When I was ten, I found a yoga book that mesmerised me. I started practicing and it naturally brought me to Osho and other beautiful practices and philosophies. I even started learning Sanskrit. I dreamed of travelling to India and finding a guru.
So when I eventually travelled there, I thought I’d be prepared, but I was not. India is a place that influences all of your senses at the same time. I mean, if something is dirty, it’s really dirty. If the food is good, then it’s absolutely divine. This happens with everything. I had this experience on my own and had difficulties sharing these feelings with my friends when I returned home. Then, I started observing myself and found out that my best friend (just like when I was ten) is myself. I had to live twenty more years to understand that. Now, I’m ten again and I’m happy.
Has your recent interest in Indian embroidery influenced your artwork? How?
In Delhi, I started doing my experimental artwork with Indian embroidery and I met two people who have really helped me with that – Valeria Corvo and Mala Shukla. Before my trip to India, all my artistic expression was directed outwards. After I went through the process of learning Indian embroidery, my expression is now internal and directed into myself.
How does one make a “liquid” carpet? Do you use local artisans for your work or do all of the work yourself?
I work with a group. Usually there are twenty to 25 people involved in the process. This group experience gives my work vitality and I’m the spark that ignites it.
When I decide to begin a piece, I first talk to the carpet makers and then edit and correct their work alongside my own sketch. Next, my artwork is transferred onto engineering paper. After these preparations, the weaving process begins. As a rule, the process itself is not that easy, and I have to visit the workshop often and make corrections all along the way.
Each work needs a different type of research. For a carpet from the “Fluid Forms” show, for example, I was pouring paint onto the walls to see how different colours blend into each other and flow. For the Geometric series of carpets, I was cutting different shapes from paper to place over the surfaces to see what kinds of shades they create.
Being held hostage by tradition
Tell us the story behind the carpet upcycled for the Recycled Tradition piece. Have you had the opportunity to send an image of the piece to the woman who sold the carpet to you? If so, what was her reaction?
The idea of this artwork was born from the depth of the “transformed carpets” concept. Initially, I had done research analysing recycled culture. It was all very impersonal. I started to work four months before production to find the right carpet. What I needed was a 150 to 200-year-old carpet to be cut into the form of a “recycled” symbol.
I was shown different options, but there was only one that caught my attention. I wanted to start cutting it immediately after leaving the workshop, but the carpet seller asked me if I wanted to hear the story of the carpet first. He told me that there are gypsies who buy and resell old carpets. They suggested visiting an old woman in south Azerbaijan who had a beautiful old carpet in perfect condition. Initially, this woman rejected selling it, because she had inherited this carpet from her grandmother and it was the only thing she had taken with her from her father’s house when she got married many years ago. This was a tradition in the old days in Azerbaijan.
This woman couldn’t take anything from her home, because her parents were against her marriage and only her grandmother had supported her, giving her this carpet and helping her run away with her lover. After several visits and after she knew the carpet would be sold to an artist, she agreed to sell it.
I also discovered that this carpet was a Garabakh carpet, which is in another part of Azerbaijan. This lady can’t go there anymore, because this territory is occupied by Armenia and there are armed clashes between the two countries. So, when I took a cutting knife to cut the carpet, I couldn’t do it. Suddenly, I realised that I’m also a hostage of tradition! This story’s impact on me was so huge that I couldn’t destroy this carpet with my own hands.
I then passed it to an art production company to prepare it for me and didn’t tell them how old it was. After the work was done and Recycled Tradition was sent to Holland for the exhibition, I tried to find this lady. She had moved to another city, and that happened all of a sudden. I wanted to talk to her. I spoke to her on the telephone before it was processed and she told me that she wanted to see the result. Maybe she saw the artwork and doesn’t want to talk to me anymore?
What did it teach you about being a “hostage to tradition”?
I love being a hostage, because it’s a quiz and you have to take it to set yourself free. I think we are never completely free anyway, but you should exactly know where your own cage ends.
Please tell us a bit about your Embroidery Space installation. What were some of the challenges that you experienced with this installation? Were there any surprises?
Maybe it’s my most interesting artwork, because it can be exactly divided into parts. The first part is totally traditional regarding the rules of composition. Usually my assistants make this part. The second, or freestyle section, is the most spontaneous and unexpected, because I always decide how to do it on-site.
I did this installation in Dubai in 2014 and decided to connect two buildings with threads. It was so difficult to get the permit for that! Eventually we got permission, on the condition that the work could only be done after nine o’clock at night. I had to drink energy drinks to stay up day and night!
The result was amazing: threads were connecting buildings from the roofs to the balconies and back. All the people who worked in this area were totally unprepared for this change in their environment. It was so beautiful until the wind started blowing and the rain started falling – along with the threads.
What is the inspiration behind the combination of traditional Islamic forms and patterns within your contemporary structures?
Islamic shapes have been developed over many hundreds of years and have reached an apogee of ornament and geometry. Because of this tradition, it’s a huge responsibility to work with such difficult and complex patterns and try to pull a new form out of there.
Brave new world
How would you explain the current Azerbaijani art scene to someone who is new to the country and its creative traditions?
Contemporary art in Azerbaijan is not new, but it is developing and still very fresh. After the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s, most local artists were using abstract and Western art as a model. Today, they try to find their way by looking back to traditional art forms and techniques. Perhaps I have in some small way helped with this transition, as I have curated shows with several young local artists in the recent past.
I think it’s difficult to define the face of contemporary art in Azerbaijan. I like that there are lots of young artists who explore and research the culture and history of our country, in both ancient and contemporary times. There are enormous amounts of resources and energy there.
Is life in contemporary Azerbaijan changing? As an artist, do you feel that it is important to embrace the past, while breaking away from some of the possibly outdated traditions and stereotypes?
You can’t move forward without leaving some parts of tradition and culture behind, but it’s tradition that observes and examines a country.
Azerbaijanis are very flexible. We have been conquered many times and have been a part of different empires, spoken many languages and changed alphabets many times – from Farsi to Arabic, Cyrillic and Latin. At the same time, the majority of the people use traditional elements of home decoration – like carpets – to connect with some kind of cultural ground under their feet.
It’s a delicate balance. You have to be sensitive to changes while keeping your identity and remembering your roots.
Any interesting stories on how the audience reacts to your work both inside Azerbaijan and abroad?
I like the reaction of kids. They have the most honest and transparent reactions to my art. During one of exhibitions, a boy ten or eleven years old approached my Flood of Yellow Weight carpet and asked his mother if the boy who stained the carpet was punished like he was! I asked the mother if she punished her son for staining the carpet and she answered that she did. I told her that my parents didn’t punish me for doing so, and maybe that’s the reason why I dare to do all these manipulations with the carpets and maybe she has to give him more freedom.
Are there any upcoming shows, exhibitions and biennales where your work is being shown in the next six months?
I will have a solo show in Rome at the Montoro 12 Contemporary Art Gallery in March/April, and in New Delhi in November. I’m also doing an installation during Art Dubai at the Dubai International Financial Centre and am included in a group show at the YARAT Contemporary Art Centre in March. In addition, I am planning solo shows in London and New York this year.
It is rare for an Iranian artist to be widely celebrated at home, withstanding the scrutiny of a nation in love with both art and the contemporary and yet highly critical of its living artists because it recognizes the contemporary as a category imposed from the outside. Born in 1937, Parviz Tanavoli has become a legendary figure through a prolific career as artist, scholar and teacher. Iran’s first significant modern sculptor, he works in a style distinctly his own, undeniably modern, and entirely Iranian.
In bringing together over 50 years of his art in his first US solo museum exhibition, the Davis Museum has the task of engaging with thousands of years of cultural heritage, which Tanavoli draws on with fervour and ease. He neither imitates nor ignores the Iranian visual lexicon, but rather makes it his own and expands upon it.
Tanavoli is one of the handful of artists responsible for the Saghakhaneh style, which developed in the early 1960s as young, mainly western-educated artists sought to reconcile distinctly Iranian forms with the language of contemporary art. In doing so they turned to traditional forms, touching on pre-Islamic and Shia Muslim art and architecture, as well as Iranian folk motifs.
Among those associated with the style, Tanavoli’s work embodies the widest range of cultural signifiers, from the grandiose to the familiar, from the ancient to the now. His scholarship has been impressive in its scope and influence. Tanavoli has published books on locks, talismans, gravestones, horse and camel trappings from tribal Iran, rugs and textiles, make-up boxes, tablecloths, ceramics, and the magic of letters and numbers, among other topics. He is by temperament a collector, and the innumerable hours he has spent scouring flea markets, villages, and artisans’ workshops have deeply affected his work.
It is indeed often difficult to distinguish an established cultural motif from one Tanavoli has established. When one thinks of an Iranian form, one is as likely to visualise a Tanavoli as an ancient relief. The pseudo-cuneiforms covering his more recent Wall series are just as much etched into my mind as the 2500-year-old inscriptions on the side of a granite boulder at the foot of Mount Alvand in Hamedan province, to which I made weekly pilgrimages as a child.
As the country has grown more secular, Tanavoli has built up and maintained certain religious motifs as a significant part of his visual lexicon. A good example is his relationship to locks, as fastened by devotees to the lattice grillwork of Shia shrines.
He shows the same devotion to saghakhanehs, small niches in walls offering passersby drinking water in memory of Imam Hussein, who with his followers was cut off from water before his martyrdom at the battle of Kerbala in AD680. Tanavoli’s devotion to form while excluding function releases the artistic tradition from its mythical aura.
While the lock has been a site of both ingenuity and metaphor in Iranian heritage, it is Tanavoli’s sculptures and extensive research that make it so significant. He ties in religion, myth and history with contemporary hope. He equates the praying hands that fasten locks onto shrines with his own, which sculpt them in the studio, often as small breasts or disproportionate penises.
Tanavoli’s fervour for Iranian formal heritage is balanced by a sense of irreverence and play that give his work relevance beyond a specific cultural context. In Innovation in Art, 1964, he cuts a vaginal opening into a handmade Persian rug to make room for a toilet ewer, a scatological object most common and most rejected in the Iranian domestic psyche. The ewer is painted after a Jasper Johns Target and the intricate patterns of the rug are flattened into kitsch as they are crudely traced in paint.
His signature Heech series, which has for years been a staple of Tanavoli’s practice, was conceived of in 1965 as a protest. The three letters of the word heech, meaning nothing or nothingness in Farsi, took form in the decorative Nastaliq script both as a protest against the empty overuse of calligraphy in the increasingly popular Saghakhaneh style and the individuals, the institutions and the market that embraced this emptiness. The many years Tanavoli has spent with Heech, and the sheer number of pieces produced with his factory-like ambition, take it beyond the cynicism of its initial protest.
It is radical for an artist to make “nothing”. But Tanavoli’s heech is constant neither in form nor narrative. The pieces are made in all sizes and media, from bronze to fibre-glass and neon lights. Heech emerges from a box, melts into its chair, lies beneath a table and embraces another. As it takes form it grows both endearing and ridiculous. Its irony, not lost on the artist, points to his nostalgia for the figure, a need for play, for narrative, for history.
Tanavoli cannot stay on a heech hiatus. However freely he has drawn from and built upon his own heritage, he has always done so with great care. It is partly this sense of responsibility that has given him the popular status he enjoys in Iran. While it may be a source of pleasure and inspiration, it is no doubt also a burden for any artist, one he has borne seamlessly, and with grace and humility.
Parviz Tanavoli at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, curated by Lisa Fischman and Shiva Balaghi, offers more than 175 objects from the artist’s expansive oeuvre. The exhibition opens today and runs through 7 June 2015
“The combination of emotion, personal experience and consciousness tends to provide the perfect ingredients for a meaningful work of art.” (Kashya Hildebrand)
During her successful 14 year long career in finance, Kashya Hildebrand lived in New York, Paris and London. Visiting the museums and galleries of these art capitals ultimately led her to change careers. Kashya Hildebrand established her first gallery in Geneva in 2001 and, after stints in both Zurich and New York, is now operating out of London. Her internationalism and her plural heritage –Hildebrand has a Pakistani father, an American mother and a Swiss husband—are reflected in the gallery’s emphasis on global contemporary art. The artists represented, many hailing from the Middle East and East Asia, produce transnational work that often challenges the binarisms of East and West, modern and traditional and craft and art.
Kashya Hildebrand, director of the Kashya Hildebrand Gallery / Courtesy of Kashya Hildebrand Gallery
Your artists come from around the globe, in particular from the Middle East, Iran and East Asia. Did you set out to establish a gallery specialising in global contemporary art or are you simply showing artists whose work you are drawn to most?
I most definitely show artists who I am drawn to but contextually I feel that the artists represent the eclectic, internationally diverse, global world we live in.
Do you think that art can play a critical role in forging more positive relationships between cultures or is this just naïve idealism?
I certainly do believe that art can play a role in bridging cultural divisiveness and feel that, by creating a high level of awareness and a platform for artists, we can bridge an important gap. Our recent exhibition RCD>PLY>RWD>FFWD>STOP>EJ in October-November 2014 featuring artists from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Palestine illustrated this point to me given the warm reception the exhibition received.
RCD>PLY>RWD>FFWD>STOP>EJ / Randa Mirzas, Beirutopia series, curated by Aya Haidar / Courtesy of Kashya Hildebrand Gallery
RCD>PLY>RWD>FFWD>STOP>EJ / Ayman Yossri Daydban, curated by Aya Haidar / Courtesy of Kashya Hildebrand Gallery
RCD>PLY>RWD>FFWD>STOP>EJ / Yara El Sherbinis, Buzzwords in the foreground, curated by Aya Haidar / Courtesy of Kashya Hildebrand Gallery
How does your own plural identity influence your selection of artists and shape the gallery’s overall vision?
Having straddled three continents over my life, I am well aware of what it means to live in an international community and also of the perceptions and biases that occur when one is isolated and living in a small community. The privilege of this platform has allowed me to maintain an open mind regarding our programme and to recognise the importance of having an international programme.
The work you show possesses both tremendous aesthetic appeal and craftsmanship even when the medium is recycled socks! Both beauty and craft are often considered irrelevant to contemporary art but your artists demonstrate their power.
The artist’s intent will always play a critical role in the selection process. There is, however, no doubt that I appreciate beauty and craft. Perhaps it was the exposure to oriental rugs at an early age… at any rate, I adore the works of Lalla Essaydi, Ghada Amer, Anish Kapoor, Shirazeh Houshiary, Farhad Moshiri and Idris Khan just to name a few and I would put them all in that same category. How wonderful when an artist can synthesise an important thought or concept and translate it into beauty.
Lalla Essaydi, Installation view / Courtesy of Kashya Hildebrand Gallery
Abu Dhabi Art booth with Khaled Al-Saai in background and Lalla Essaydi in foreground / Courtesy of Kashya Hildebrand Gallery
Abu Dhabi Art booth with tapestries by Ahmed Moustafa / Courtesy of Kashya Hildebrand Gallery
Could you say a few words on what you look for in an artist and his or her work? And who were the first artists you showed in the original Geneva gallery?
I am always intrigued when artists are driven by their own passion and creativity and touched by their social and economic standing. The combination of emotion, personal experience and consciousness tends to provide the perfect ingredients for a meaningful work of art. One of the first exhibitions the gallery ever launched was of Farhad Moshiri in 2001.
Calligraphy continues to play an important role in the work of many contemporary artists from the Muslim world, as witnessed by the gallery’s current show ‘Memory of a City’ of Khaled Al-Saa’i’s work.
It is such a privilege and honour to host the exhibition of Syrian artist Khaled Al-Saa’i here in London. We have followed his practice for the last nine years and have seen the most incredible evolution of his work. The more classical modern form of calligraphy painting has recently been replaced with extraordinary mixed media interventions reflecting the contemporary moment. The reference to protests, demonstrations and graffiti reveals the current socio-political unrest in his homeland. The titles he attaches to each work are also extremely revealing, expressing his own pain and concern.
Khaled Al Saai / Inner Journey, 2014, mixed media on paper, 50×70 cm / Courtesy of Kashya Hildebrand Gallery
Such artists reveal the depth and breadth of calligraphy-related or inspired work. This type of work is greatly prized in Iran and the Arab world, but does it have equal success with European collectors?
Clearly this work is coveted in the Middle East and recognised as important within their classical modern art history. With that being said, there is a graphic contemporary reference point that the artists seek that also has some Western appeal. The varied media of such work such as sculpture as well as mixed media also bring a new energy to this genre and are appreciated by Western collectors. For example, when an artist makes their first pilgrimage to Mecca, the work then reflects this seminal moment and is suffused with a new contemporary perspective that can be extremely powerful.
If the West conceived of modernity as a complete break from the past, many non-Western modernities translated traditional elements through the prism of the changes that modernity brought about. Much of the work you show is innovative while also integrating elements associated with pre-modern artistic traditions. Why does this combination intrigue you?
This combination intrigues me because it reveals the fact that all art is grounded in classical art history and has reference points that provide a solid foundation for an artist’s development. Given our presence in the Middle East over the last nine years, it has become clear to me that in order for collectors from the region to feel comfortable with the contemporary art movement, they must have some reference points. I find this perspective helps create the narrative that allows one to travel to the present day.
A Hidden Order, installation view / Courtesy of Kashya Hildebrand Gallery
Did your professional background in finance help you with the daunting task of establishing a gallery or did you nonetheless have to go through a process of trial and error?
My successful finance career potentially left me feeling too confident when I first started my gallery. Trial and error is indeed a wonderful way to describe the journey. After more than 13 years in this business, I do feel that we are getting closer to defining our gallery programme and to reflecting the spirit of our vision. The fact that financial markets are often driven by exogenous forces and commodify certain assets is similar to the art market so for sure there are some similarities.
Nobuhiro Nakanishi / Layer Drawing, Light of the Sunrise 1, 2012, Mixed Media on Sculpture, 28,5x31x198 cm / Photo © Islamic Arts Magazine
Katherine Tzu Lan Mann, installation view / Courtesy of Kashya Hildebrand Gallery
The Kashya Hildebrand Gallery has been open now for over a decade. What do you consider to be its biggest accomplishment and how do you see it evolving from here?
The biggest accomplishment is to have put together a wonderful team of dedicated and passionate individuals who are driven to present a creative and insightful perspective. My colleagues are just as important as the artists who help drive this vision and perspective.
I thank you so much. IAM wish the gallery much continued success and hope you will keep us posted on your upcoming shows.
Thank you for giving us this wonderful platform!
Iran’s Women Police Academy had existed for just two years in 2005 when Iranian artist Abbas Kowsari went to photograph a graduation ceremony. The women wore hijabs as they did things such as scaling walls, which is what they’re doing in the Kowsari photo on view in LACMA’s “Islamic Art Now: Contemporary Art of the Middle East.”
A lot of the work in LACMA’s new exhibition traffics in subtlety. “At the end of the day, these artists don’t have the same freedoms. You have to read between the lines,” says photographer Firooz Zahedi, who was born in Iran but left at age 9 and doesn’t consider himself an Iranian artist. Zahedi belongs to LACMA’s Art of the Middle East: Contemporary council, which purchased Kowsari’s work along with about half of the artworks in the exhibition. Zahedi also is partly responsible for the council’s relatively recent formation.
Late in 2010, his friend, artist Yassi Mazandi, took him with her to visit Linda Komaroff, the head of the museum’s Art of the Middle East Department. Komaroff had become interested in contemporary art coming out of the Middle East around 2006, after seeing an exhibition at the British Museum. She found resonances between the contemporary work and the historical work she had studied for years.
Michael Govan, who believes in giving curators freedom to shape their departments, had just become LACMA’s director at that point, and he encouraged her to collect contemporary work, as long as she found the funds. Her department already had a collectors council (its own group of donors) but its members weren’t terribly excited about newer art. So she began to wonder if she could start a contemporary council.
At some point during their conversation, Zahedi told Komaroff about photographs he had taken on a diplomatic trip to Iran with Elizabeth Taylor in 1976, because his cousin, Iran’s ambassador to the United States and a friend of Taylor, wanted her and other big names to be on Air Iran’s inaugural flight. Taylor, who had met and liked Zahedi, said she would go if he went.
Certain photographs Zahedi took during that trip look almost like ornate tapestries. In one, Taylor wears glimmering clothes she’d just bought at a bazaar and reclines in a tent of fabric she and Zahedi built together as a slapdash set.
LACMA exhibited these photographs in a small gallery in its Ahmanson Building. The opening, on Taylor’s 79th birthday, pulled in the Hollywood and Iranian community, and the excitement around them helped Komaroff get a viable council started. By the end of 2011, a growing group of people had agreed to contribute at least $1,000 a year to help LACMA acquire contemporary Middle Eastern art.
Zahedi remains a member of the council. “I like art in general, and some of the contemporary Middle Eastern art I really like and some is OK,” he says. “But for me to see an American woman like Linda so committed to this part of the world was inspiring. Many Westerners would like to avoid this part of the world.”
|Gift of the artistHassan Hajjaj’s Gang of Kesh Part 2 (2000)|
Installed on the fourth floor of LACMA’s Ahmanson Building, “Islamic Art Now” (the first part of a two-part exhibition) is the first chance to see much of the work Komaroff’s department has acquired with the council’s help. For the past few years, visitors who came to see historical tiles, calligraphy or manuscripts might also encounter recent video work by Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj or a photo of a young woman in hijab and red boxing gloves by Iranian artist Newsha Tavakolian. But now there’s room for a full exhibit, since some of the permanent collection is on tour.
Komaroff’s department has a world-class contemporary collection, with almost 200 works. The Met’s Islamic Art department, in comparison, has fewer new works, and its holdings are less diverse (fewer young artists, less conceptual photography).
“We tend to see Islamic art as ending around 1900,” Komaroff says. The reasons for this, as usual, have to do with the unwieldy ways in which institutions work, the way history is written and the fact that much of the Middle East has been embroiled in conflict, keeping its art under-exposed. Plus, many people in the West see Middle Eastern culture as stuck in the past.
For instance, when art historian and curator Tim Stanley joined the Victoria & Albert Museum in London around 2002, he found the Middle East department had been subsumed into the materials department around 1900, and there had been little focus on new art since. Stanley spent his first few years at the museum constructing new galleries for Islamic and Middle Eastern art. When those galleries opened a few years later, they included a minbar, or pulpit, from 1468 next to a video of people in Cairo of today, praying in a mosque with a similar minbar in the background.
“We want to combat the idea that it’s somehow a dead civilization,” Stanley says. Since 2009, his department has been awarding the Jameel Prize to artists influenced by Islamic tradition. It’s a way to “demonstrate that our collection is a living artistic phenomenon,” he explains.
Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, gave a 2012 lecture in which he described driving around Abu Dhabi, thinking about how Middle Eastern art history has either been “erased over the course of much of the 20th century” or “simply never written,” whether due to a lack of interest or prejudices.
“Artistic practice in the Middle East,” Lowry said, has “parameters and a history we are only now beginning to see and understand.”
That “we” could refer to the Western curators who only recently started paying attention to art of the Middle East. But it also could apply to the artists beginning to understand their history in a new way.
In “Islamic Art Now,” the wall texts Komaroff wrote are especially open-ended, leaving the art itself to push at the parameters and tell complicated stories about tradition and history. London-based Iranian artist Mitra Tabrizi’s panoramic view of a residential area on the edge of Tehran shows figures dressed in solid colors, all moving as if entirely alone, in different directions, while a billboard of Iran’s revolutionary leaders looms behind them. The leaders, reads the wall text, seem “incapable of imposing order or direction.”
Hassan Hajjaj’s photograph Gang of Kesh Part 2 shows a group of women in hijabs made of patterned fabric posing next to motorcycles — their veils, in this context, are like gangster bandanas.
The photograph, about being badass while tied to a heritage, is conventionally elegant in the way it’s been composed, with the figures centered. It seems like a strategy: to stay familiarly beautiful while challenging perceptions.
“Islamic Art Now: Contemporary Art of the Middle East,” LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Miracle Mile; ongoing. lacma.org.
- As a young boy Parviz Tanavoli’s favourite toy was the simple lock. As there were no ready-made toys like those of today he would take them apart, fix them and make keys for the ones that didn’t work. “I was the locksmith of the neighbourhood because all the locks in those days had one key and they were handmade. There weren’t that many machine-made locks. If there were they were very expensive,” he tells me.
Later Tanavoli went to Italy to study. It was on his return, he recalls, that he realised the role locks played in Shia Islam and Persian culture. In Iran public water houses were built in bazaars and neighbourhoods and during the hot summers passers-by would stop to take a sip of water. Gradually people started to make donations and the water houses became shrine-like decorated with imagery of the imams.
“People who have wishes or problems go to the shrines and tie up a strip of their clothing or fasten a lock to the grille of the shrine hoping that they can unlock their problems and cure their sicknesses or disease,” explains Tanavoli. “So the lock has great significance in Persian culture.”
In the sixties the lock became one of the iconographies central to a new movement co-founded by Tanavoli, termed Saqqakhneh, the Farsi word for water house. Dubbed spiritual “pop art”, Saqqakhneh sought to incorporate Shia symbols into art and often you will see padlocks on the body of Tanavoli’s sculptures and in the work of the young artists that joined the movement.
Another concept central to Tanavoli’s work is the principle of “Heech”, Farsi for “nothing”. Like the lock, the word Heech has been moulded by the artist and incorporated into the anatomy of his sculptures numerous times. It began in 1965, he says, in protest to the popularisation of calligraphy that at the time became fashionable and was exhibited in nearly every gallery. “I gave calligraphy up and only used one word,” he says.
Tanavoli describes the shape of Heech as malleable and soft, a word that can be put in a cage or on the walls. “I found there is so much in the Heech, that Heech is not nothing, Heech is something. Then later, as time went on, I realised that there is so much meaning behind it and so many poets prior to me, from centuries ago, have paid attention to this word and have used it and that is how it began.”
The early poets, Rumi, Khayyam and Hafez, wrote a lot about Heech, points out Tanavoli, and posed the question of whether existence is nothing or whether non-existence is existence. “They wanted people to think about that – don’t underestimate the nothingness. As important as existence and thing are, no thing or nothing is important too.”
Work that features the Heech is the most popular and sought after of Tanavoli’s art. He says this is because people can relate to it and find something in the concept they can connect to. “It’s a simple shape, it’s abstract, and it’s very meaningful. It has a sculptural body different than other known sculptural figures,” he reflects. “I think there are many reasons it became popular.”
In 2008 Tanavoli’s The Wall (Oh Persepolis), a two metre bronze sculpture etched with hieroglyphics, made a record sale when Christie’s auction house sold it for $2.84 million, the highest ever paid for a piece of artwork from the Middle East. Despite this, Tanavoli says that commercial success has not compromised his work. “I didn’t follow the market or market requests, in fact I turned it down in many instances and I followed my path. I continued doing my thing and opted out. I haven’t changed, I haven’t really commercialised any of my art.”
Though Tanavoli would not describe himself as “political”, there is certainly a political element to some of his work. Most artists, he says, are somehow involved in the politics of their time. “All the artists I know somehow are, but they may not reflect it directly, they might be very indirect. Somehow artists stay away from it especially in the area that we live. It’s not very safe to be political.”
Heech in a Cage – literally a Heech coming out of a silver cage – was made in protest of Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, a facility set up to imprison and interrogate suspects in the “war on terror”. The prison has attracted worldwide controversy for its use of water-boarding, the force-feeding of prisoners on hunger strike and detention without trial.
“I was very bothered when they put all these people in jail without giving them a fair trial. The torture and the way they were kept. I always felt that even if there are innocent among them, this is damaging American democracy. I decided to make a monument to the innocents of the Guantanamo.”
The monument was intended to be an enlarged version of Heech in a Cage which would then be donated to the people of Afghanistan; Afghanis were once the largest nationality represented in Guantanamo. However, Tanavoli couldn’t find a sponsor or a location in Afghanistan willing to take it, and so the project was never realised.
Closer to home Tanavoli has been involved in a drawn out conflict with the local government. In 2002 the artist’s house was turned into a museum by request of the city of Tehran with the backing of then Mayor Mohammad-Hassan Malekmadani who was keen on art and culture. But when Ahmadinejad became mayor he closed the museum declaring “it wasn’t part of our culture it was foreign culture,” recounts Tanavoli.
The artist went to court and fought for six years to get his house back but by this time much of his artwork had been taken. Last March he retrieved 13 pieces through a court order, but a few days later people from the municipality hired trucks and cranes, came back, broke the door down and took everything again.
“They don’t like my work, they’re not even interested,” he says. “But now they have realised that it is worth some money and that’s all they’re interested in. I wish they had even taken care of it. Several of my works are broken, some are damaged, some kept in very bad conditions and not handled professionally and so they are going into a state of decay. I want to get them back. I don’t know if I will or not, I still haven’t given up.”
Tanavoli says that wide-spread censorship on art and culture is more relaxed than it was in the Ahmedinejad years, under whom hundreds of books were censored, publishing permits were denied, films were banned and theatres shut down. “It was the worst period of all these eight years,” he reiterates. “Things are loosening now, they are better and of course more books are published, films are shown and theatres are again going back to their lives. So it goes up and down.”
Though he has a studio and a house in Tehran, Tanavoli and his family moved to Canada in 1989 and now lives and works between the two countries. “I couldn’t sell my sculptures there. I wasn’t even allowed to sell my sculptures there,” he says, explaining why his family moved. “Our children had to go to college for higher schooling and they didn’t have any chances, especially the girls. We have two daughters, so we decided to move to Canada for the sake of the children and then also to re-start my life. It wasn’t easy but of course things are better now.”
A decade before his move Tanavoli retired as head of the sculpture department at Tehran University, at the time of the Islamic Revolution.
Tanavoli’s work can be found in private and public collections from the British Museum in London to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art in New York. At the beginning of February a retrospective of Tanavoli’s work will go on display at the Davis Museum, Wellesley College in the US where over 175 of his pieces will be exhibited. Tanavoli says it will be a good opportunity for Americans to experience Iranian culture which often gets lost in news reporting from such a volatile region.
“I am very happy this is happening, especially in the States, because of this embargo and lack of communication,” says Tanavoli. The US placed sanctions on Iran following the US embassy seizure in 1979 and has maintained them, and broadened them, for most of the period following this.
“I think this might open the door. Americans have the right to see the other side of our culture; I mean the cultural part not just all this bad news. Of course the embargo has stopped all of this for a long time. So this is a good time, a good period, and I’m very much looking forward that there is going to be communication through art and Americans can see a taste of the art of Iran and myself and that part of the world.”
Stationed above a busy corner on Canal Street, the studio of the Iranian filmmaker and artist Shirin Neshat whirred with several working film editors and assistants upon our arrival. Neshat is best known for her black-and-white cinematic films addressing gender issues within Islamic culture. She shares the space with her partner Shoja Azari*, a fellow filmmaker and frequent collaborator. Conversations in Farsi and Italian were shooting back and forth among the crew. “We are very lucky because our studio is like a community. We’re all close friends and we’re together all the time basically,” said Neshat.
Corner of Neshat’s studio that is dedicated to her photographic and calligraphic work.
Most of the studio was dedicated to editing except for Neshat’s photographic and calligraphic work area, which took over a corner of the room. Handwriting sheathed many of the figures in the photographs. Neshat has been busy with plans for three major museum exhibitions — the first opened in Doha this past November at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art; a forthcoming exhibit will open at the Hirshhorn Museum this May; and in March 2015, she will show a site-specific photographic installation in Baku, Azerbaijan, inaugurating the first contemporary art museum to open there.
Poster of the Iranian singer Oum Kalthoum, Neshat’s subject for her upcoming feature-length film. * (see image 2)
On top of her loaded exhibition schedule, Neshat has been working for four years on a feature-length film that she plans to shoot in 2015. The work is about the iconic Middle Eastern singer of the 20th century Oum Kalthoum, who died in 1975 yet continues to have a profound influence over the region. “Her music affected literally millions of people from Israel to Saudia Arabia to Algeria to Egypt to Iran to all kinds of places in the way that she sang, her poetry, and how she threw people into a state of ecstasy. But she is also known to be a nationalist and a symbol of peace. A very important symbol particularly for Egyptians today. The story is from the perspective of an Iranian artist making a film about an Egyptian female artist. It’s not really a biopic, but a very personal kind of perspective and my way of looking at the importance of this woman and her impact on other women in the region.”
Neshat pulled out a poster of another heroine, Forugh Farrokhzad, a beloved Persian poet. “Both who she was and her poetry has been a huge influence on my work and many other women. Here she is when she was young.”
Literature strongly impacts Neshat’s work, such as for her moving and highly acclaimed 2009 feature-length film Women Without Men, an adaptation of Shahrnush Parsipur’s novel of the same title about four female characters and their struggle to escape oppression. “When I shot Women Without Men, there were Iranians, Moroccans, Americans, Germans, French, Belgians, Austrians. We were making a period film about Iran in the 1950s with this kind of community of people, and at times it was a real challenge, because when you make a film, all the birds have to fly in the same direction, so to speak. But we all had a different system of working. We had different habits. Like, for example, when to break, how many hours to work. Different languages. It means we have to dance around each other’s characteristics and nature of working.”
Neshat’s vintage copy of the Book of Kings ( see image 4) with iconography that she references in her work.
“This is a book I’ve used in a big way,” she said, opening the pages of a large vintage book. “The Book of Kings series from the 10th century. It’s an epic book of poems, mythological, about Persia before the Islamic conquest, and there were all these people getting beheaded, wars, and people who are patriotic — heroes. I used a lot of it on this new series that’s all about patriots of contemporary time. About how their lives are always in that place of violence, atrocity, and death.” She pointed to a photograph of a man. “Visually, I borrowed a lot of the illustrations that you see on his body. I bought this book at auction and someone had gone [in], a child, and put these red marks where there’s blood. The series I’m working on is 80 photographs, and it’s named after this ancient book.”
Neshat’s copy of her grandparents’s Koran (see image 5).
The second half of our interview took place in her home located around the corner, where more of her influential objects resided. “I have the Koran here. This is a very precious thing. All original calligraphy — all by hand — that I inherited from my parents. It belonged to my grandparents. It’s the only one I know of that has Arabic and Farsi. Usually the Koran is only written in Arabic. I’m using this a little bit for the work that I’m doing at the studio. I have a feeling this was maybe my grandmother studying the Koran, and this was maybe her homework. Sometimes she uses red, sometimes black. And that’s exactly what I do in my work. This is the only thing I inherited from my grandparents.” Born in Iran, Neshat’s family left the country for the U.S. around the time of the Iranian Revolution.
A view of Neshat’s collection of tribal jewelry (see image 6).
“I’m very interested in books that feed me a certain inspiration and films that constantly open my mind in terms of the subject matter or the style of the film — the form. I’m a nomad. I’m a traveler. I tend to pick up things here and there. I’m particularly interested in tribal jewelry. Things that are handmade by people and somehow are very ancient. To me they’re a work of art. I find them fascinating, how they speak to you about their history, and they’re also really beautiful. I’m also very affected by images. Photographs that I pick up here and there that speak to me and somehow eventually find a way into my work.”
Neshat’s collection of charms (see image 7).
She located a stack of etched metal plates. “I bought these in Iran a long time ago. They are very rare. This is where I got my ideas in terms of writing calligraphy on the bodies. These are charms. When you make a wish. Every one means something. I’m not even sure what the meaning of the symbols are. As you know in Islamic cultures, it was taboo to replicate images, for example, of the prophets, but it was allowed to draw outlines of bodies and just fill it in with words. So here, I think, is a very sexual piece of a man and a woman. He’s touching her and then there’s a fish below, which has to be about fertility. This could be a charm for someone who wants to get pregnant. Some of the writing is in Arabic and some of it is in Farsi, but I haven’t been able to make out what it means.”
I asked Neshat about her working habits and what she does to prepare for shoots. “As you can imagine, any time you start a big project, there is a lot of anxiety. You can be as prepared and scripted as you want to be, but you always wish this magic will be out there waiting for you that will help you achieve something that you’ve been really dreaming of, but you’re not really sure that that magic will be there when you get there. I think what I’ve learned is that I always arrive — whether it’s a photo shoot one day or a film that takes eight weeks — I just try to go with the flow and to be very prepared but just be expecting the most unpredictable things. Also, because we often work with non-professionals actors, the human dimension of it — you can’t really predict what type of people you will be dealing with. I just came from a week of shooting in Azerbaijan of men and women who didn’t speak the same language and had never been exposed to art. I’ve learned that tremendous bonding happens as long as you are really open to that possibility. With film, of course, it’s just like — economy. You have to be really fast, and you have to be super-prepared, but I collaborate with people who have the skills and the expertise to help me when you’re sort of stuck. Usually when you go like that it’s hardly possible you will fail entirely. Sometimes I’ll work four years on a script, shooting, and then when we edit it, it’s completely different story!” she laughed. “You have to keep an open mind.”
Listen to Neshat talk about her favorite directors, from Fellini to Linklater: https://soundcloud.com/vulturedotcom/shirin-neshat-on-her-favorite-directors