Exhibitions that are aesthetically compelling and rich in content are a rare treat. Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians presents 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, and then traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, before being installed at the Asia Society in New York, where it is currently on view.
Afkhami’s collection was essentially born out of nostalgia, a longing for a motherland he never got to know intimately. Though he spent most of his childhood in Iran, his mother left the country with him after losing the family’s fortune in the 1979 Islamic revolution. Driven by an aspiration to fight the ubiquitous Western perception of Iran as a hostile war zone, Afkhami began collecting artworks by Iranian artists to highlight the richness of cultural production in the country. Of the artists in the exhibition, all but one were born in Iran, and over one third still live there. While most viewers will likely be familiar with Shirin Neshat, Abbas Kiarostami, and Monir Farmanfarmaian, the show features a plethora of fascinating artists that I myself had not encountered before in any depth.
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Spanning a variety of media, including painting, sculpture, photography, installation, and film, the artworks travel in many formal directions, yet carry similar political overtones. One of the most instantly captivating pieces, Afruz Amighi’s installation “Angels in Combat I” (2010), beautifully exemplifies what seems to be a central thread tying many of the artists together: the appropriation of traditional Iranian decorative strategies to convey political metaphors. A stenciled scrim made from woven polyethylene, a material the UN uses to construct tents in refugee camps, hangs from the ceiling like a tulle curtain. As light is projected onto the scrim, its intricate floral composition casts an enlarged shadow onto the wall, which allows the viewer to study the details more closely, and discover something not immediately visible: along the edges of the composition are angels carrying machine guns. Skillfully hidden in the scrim, this imagery suggests that tradition can function as a mask for violence.
A painstaking 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, from which he evidently draws inspiration. 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 the “alternative stories of life’s origins” and offer narratives “contradicting the Adam and Eve creation myth.)
Though somewhat disappointed by the lack of legible references to queer identity (making me wonder how Afkhami feels about this topic), I was pleased to discover several works that explore themes around women, gender, and sexuality at large. 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 actually covering anything. Challenging the strict rules imposed on women’s appearances, Aliabadi, who passed away at age 45, referred to this work as “cultural rebellion meets Christina Aguilera.”
Parastou Forouhar aligns herself 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 stage, a clenched hand grabs the fabric in between the thumb and index finger, creating a shape that strongly conjures vaginal and anal connotations, while also highlighting the hand’s potential for sexual pleasure.
Upon first glimpse, Ali Banisadr’s large painting “We Haven’t Landed on Earth Yet”(2012), which also serves as the exhibition catalogue’s cover image, presents the most literal depiction of warfare. Hundreds of figures seem to be entangled in battle and chaos; as a child the artist witnessed the 1980s Iraqi bombardments of Tehran. Stepping closer, however, the forms turn out to be fully abstract. The sweeping sense of movement and swirling brushstrokes strongly evoke those of Italian Futurist artists, such as Umberto Boccioni.
The ghosts that undoubtedly haunt Banisadr, and any artist who has experienced the wars in Iran firsthand, 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 resort by the Caspian Sea, the hazy scene shows silhouettes leisurely wandering and flying kites on the beach at dusk, as the soothing sound of waves fades in and out. Just as you’re about to revel in the serenity of the moment, a silhouette of a lifeless body appears on the screen, and ascends into the sky. This apparition of a seemingly young person who died by hanging remains unnoticed by the other figures, who carry on as they were. As Susan Sontag once wrote in Regarding the Pain of Others: “It is because a war, any war, doesn’t seem as if it can be stopped, that people become less responsive to the horrors. Compassion is an unstable emotion.”
An unquestionably thought-provoking and enriching exhibition, Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians has only one shortcoming: its title. The four terms did not particularly resonate with me, and I did not feel that they were indicative of the works presented. Yet it was the subtitle that most confused me. As the curator explains, “Contemporary Persians” was chosen as a conscious effort not only to reference the country’s history, but to de-nationalize the artists, as many people from Iran prefer to self-identify as Persian abroad to avoid prejudice. Yet this decision seems to negate the exhibition’s goal of creating a representative image of contemporary Iran, and the Iran-specific issues the artists are responding to. Perhaps, however, the title functions like many of the exhibited works — the surface hides something more provocative.
Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians—The Mohammed Afkhami Collection continues at the Asia Society Museum (725 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 8, 2022. The exhibition was curated by Fereshteh Daftari.