Aesthetically compelling and content-rich exhibits are a rare treat. Rebel, Buffoon, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians features 23 artists from the collection of Mohammed Afkhami, a Swiss-born Iranian financier and philanthropist based between Dubai, Switzerland, and London. Curated by Fereshteh Daftari, the exhibition was originally hosted by the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, then traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, before being installed at the Asia Society in New York, where it is currently presented.
Afkhami’s collection was essentially born out of nostalgia, a longing for a homeland he never knew intimately. Although he spent most of his childhood in Iran, his mother left the country with him after losing the family fortune in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Driven by a yearning to combat the pervasive Western perception of Iran as a hostile war zone, Afkhami began collecting works by Iranian artists to showcase the country’s rich cultural output. Of the artists in the exhibition, all but one were born in Iran and more than a third still live there. While most viewers are probably familiar with Shirin Neshat, Abbas Kiarostami and Monir Farmanfarmaian, the show features a plethora of fascinating artists that I myself have never met before.
Spanning a variety of media, including painting, sculpture, photography, installation, and film, the artworks travel in many formal directions, but carry similar political overtones. One of the most immediately captivating pieces, Afruz Amighi’s installation “Angels in Combat I” (2010), beautifully illustrates what seems to be a common thread linking many artists: the appropriation of traditional Iranian decorative strategies for convey political metaphors. A stenciled canvas of woven polyethylene, a material used by the UN to build tents in refugee camps, hangs from the ceiling like a tulle curtain. As light is cast across the canvas, its intricate floral composition casts a magnified shadow on the wall, allowing the viewer to study the details more closely and discover something not immediately apparent. visible: along the edges of the composition are angels carrying machine guns. Cleverly concealed in the canvas, this imagery suggests that tradition can serve as a mask for violence.
Meticulous attention to detail and ornamentation is also apparent in Alireza Dayani’s “Untitled (Metamorphosis Series)” (2009). The youngest artist in the exhibition, Dayani owns a home aquarium, which he obviously draws inspiration from. A large, meticulously executed ink drawing on cotton rag paper depicts a fantastical world of aquatic life, proposing nature as a source of creation superior to any God. (The wall text notes that the artist wants to convey “alternative stories of the origins of life” and offer narratives “contradicting the creation myth of Adam and Eve.)
Although somewhat disappointed by the lack of readable references to queer identity (making me wonder what Afkhami thinks of this subject), I was delighted to discover several works that explore themes around women, gender and sexuality in general. In Shirin Aliabadi’s striking photograph “Miss Hybrid 3” (2008), a woman with bleached hair and blue contact lenses confidently blows a bubble with her bright pink gum, which covers the lower part of her face. The bandage on her nose suggests plastic surgery, while a scarf around her head asserts its futility by not covering anything. Challenging the strict rules imposed on women’s appearance, Aliabadi, who died at 45, called the work a “cultural rebellion meets Christina Aguilera”.
Parastou Forouhar aligns himself with this cultural rebellion in what is perhaps the most visually provocative work in this exhibition. Referencing the day of rest and prayer, “Friday” (2003) consists of a four-panel image of dark, flower-patterned curtains. Emerging from behind the curtains like a protagonist entering the scene, a clenched hand grasps the fabric between thumb and forefinger, creating a shape that strongly evokes vaginal and anal connotations, while emphasizing the hand’s potential for sexual pleasure.
At first glance, Ali Banisadr’s large painting “We Haven’t Landed on Earth Yet” (2012), which also serves as the cover image of the exhibition catalogue, presents the most literal representation of the war. Hundreds of characters seem to be entangled in battle and chaos; As a child, the artist witnessed the Iraqi bombardments of Tehran in the 1980s. Approaching, however, the forms turn out to be totally abstract. The sense of movement and swirling brushstrokes strongly evoke those of Italian Futurist artists, such as Umberto Boccioni.
The ghosts that no doubt haunt Banisadr, and any artist who lived through the wars in Iran, are poignantly captured in Hamed Sahihi’s three-minute film “Sundown.” (2007) — a piece that stayed with me long after visiting the exhibition. Shot at a seaside resort on the Caspian Sea, the hazy scene shows figures leisurely wandering and flying kites on the beach at dusk, as the soothing sound of the waves fades away. Just as you are about to revel in the serenity of the moment, the silhouette of a lifeless body appears on screen and rises into the sky. This appearance of a seemingly young person who died by hanging goes unnoticed by the other characters, who carry on as they were. As Susan Sontag once wrote in Regarding the pain of others: “It is because a war, any war, seems unstoppable that people become less sensitive to horrors. Compassion is an unstable emotion.
An undeniably stimulating and enriching exhibition, Rebel, Buffoon, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians has only one flaw: its title. The four terms did not particularly resonate with me, nor did I feel that they were indicative of the works presented. However, it was the subtitle that confused me the most. As the curator explains, “Contemporary Persians” was chosen as a conscious effort not just to reference the country’s history, but to denationalize the artists, as many Iranians prefer to identify as Persians abroad. to avoid prejudice. Yet this decision appears to negate the exhibition’s goal of creating a representative image of contemporary Iran and the Iran-specific issues to which the artists respond. Perhaps, however, the title works like many works on display – the surface hides something more provocative.
Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians—The Mohammed Afkhami Collection ccontinues at the Asia Society Museum (725 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 8, 2022. The exhibit was curated by Fereshteh Daftari.