28 Jun, 2009

Made in Iran unveiled at London gallery

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

From sub-cultures to cityscapes, young Tehrani artists explore the everyday realities of modern Iran in a surreal and witty new exhibition

A 5ft painting of a desperately melancholic face, heavily made up with lipstick bloodily smeared across her mouth, hangs against the Daz-white backdrop of a gallery wall. The work, by Simin Keramati and part of a group showcase of new Iranian art, isn’t particularly subtle. Using the metaphorical notion of “war paint” to lament female power and identity, it torpedoes the viewer between the eyes. But its unnerving frankness establishes a theme for the show.

Made in Iran, a small exhibition composed solely of artists living and working in Tehran, couldn’t have arrived at a more poignant and timely moment. Its curators, Arianne Levene and Églantine de Ganay, insist “it isn’t supposed to be political”, but they also claim that none of the work they’ve chosen is obvious or mimetic, preferring to view the art as “loosely connected” in “presenting the lesser-known reality of everyday Iran”.

The picture of Iran currently dominating headlines is obviously, and deeply, politically charged, teetering between rigid defiance and precipitous tumult. The Iran seeping through the work exhibited here is no less complex – but a touch more nuanced. Fashion, food and cityscapes preoccupy these seven artists. Like most big group shows – particularly those lumped together by geography rather than theme – the works are hit and miss, but they unravel intriguing contradictions in Iranian society.

Shirin Aliabadi’s photography, for one, pops with colour and a whisper of subversive cheek. Her hypersexualised portraits of Iranian women straddle western constructs of beauty – all dyed-blond hair, blue contact lenses, surgically miniatured noses; with Islamic codes of social propriety, through dress and pose. Faintly cartoonish, they poke fun at a sub-culture of young Tehrani women who cover their bodies but emphasise their faces. Like Shadi Ghadirian, a photographer recently included in the major Saatchi Gallery staging of Middle-Eastern art – Aliabadi’s series, Hybrid Girls, questions the traditional role of women, albeit a little less loudly.

Levene, who spent 18 months researching and putting the exhibition together with de Ganay, explains that they wanted to find and give a platform to lesser-known Iranian artists. “We deliberately set out not to choose work from the established galleries and visited countless studios in Tehran,” she said. “There’s a real sense of camaraderie amongst these artists, it’s a close-knit community”.

Levene and de Ganay won’t be drawn into the political statement the show makes. However, for Keramati, it’s impossible for artists based in Iran not to be influenced by the politics of the country. “An artist here has something very different to say than someone from Europe – it’s obvious and it’s what the audiences are looking for.” She adds: “Society here is very complicated, and so the works that come out are very complicated too. This lie we hear from the government and the reality: these two sides always directly affect the works and the minds of the artists.”

Arash Hanaei, an artist whose cool graphic lines depict Tehrani towers and high-rises, is less candid: “I am a photographer, and I am interested in social documentation.” Hanaei graduated in Photography from the Azad University of Art in 2002, having been taught by photojournalist Kaveh Golestan – Iran’s equivalent to Don McCullin – and simply says his aim is “to present my work in a neutral manner and let the audience draw its own conclusions”.

Hanaei’s Capital series neatly captures Iranian society’s push-and-pull tussle between western capitalism and religious conservatism. His monochrome digital drawings depict giant city billboards, brashly advertising electrical goods, flanked by buildings painted with tower-high murals of the country’s religious martyrs. It’s a quirky quip, rather than a pointed criticism, reconfiguring what Tehranis see, but don’t actively observe, in the city’s streets every day.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, food is the focus. It might be the closest parallel one can draw between Iranian art and American pop culture’s fascination with the white picket fence: the disturbed hysteria lurking beyond its border, subverting an everyday cultural norm like the Iranian dinner table into the sinister “other”.

Vahid Sharifian’s Pop Art series of eerie holographic prints reinterprets images of a pouty Sophia Loren from a 70s cookbook (giant forks and spoons abound in a Koons-esque fashion), while Behrouz Rae superimposes himself on to a print, gorging at an empty dinner table. The overall effect is lightly surreal, but witty and compelling.

It is often, of course, all too easy to objectify non-western artists in shows like this, stripping them of individuality and treating them as a collective mouthpiece for their nation. Levene and de Ganay are aware of Orientalist cliches and the dangers of stereotyping, which is partly why they’re keen to promote the exhibition as one of contemporary new work, rather than one representing the state of the nation in the wake of its presidential election. “I’m as opportunistic as the next person,” says de Ganay, “but it would have been impossible to predict that this would happen at the same time as us putting together an exhibition … the work of these artists isn’t that obvious, or that political. It stands on its own.”

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