'Self-expression over silence': Iranian artists share their perspectives in this revelatory exhibit

The world premiere of "Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet" at Toronto's Aga Khan Museum is sparking dialogue at a critical moment.

Toronto's Aga Khan Museum is sparking dialogue at a critical moment

Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet at the Aga Khan Museum. (Janet Kimber)

The new show on contemporary Iranian art at Toronto's Aga Khan Museum begins with an oil drum. Tehran-born, San Francisco-based artist Shiva Ahmadi has ornamented a recycled barrel with the intricate and lavish designs traditional to Persian miniature painting. But, looking closer, there are also bleeding wounds; there are animals that appear decapitated.

The disruption makes "a connection between the logic of war and the lust for oil," explains the nearby statement. In a lecture delivered on opening day, curator Fereshteh Daftari offered a further reading: the resource is both a blessing and a curse on the region. As suggested by the archway past which you enter Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet, Ahmadi's Oil Barrel #13, the exhibition contains more than introspection focused only on the Islamic Republic. It is about the place Iran and Iranians find themselves in the world. It is about the world.

Daftari has selected 27 post-revolutionary period artworks by 23 artists from the collection of British-Iranian financier Mohammed Afkhami, whose holdings have been recognized as a significant archive of contemporary Iranian art. The exhibit uses the four archetypal characters — the rebel, the jester, the mystic and the poet — to describe the array of attitudes and artistic strategies collected there on the Aga Khan's second floor.

Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet at the Aga Khan Museum. (Janet Kimber)

Opening almost simultaneous to Donald Trump's (now stayed) "Muslim ban" targeting Iran among six other Muslim-majority nations, and amidst discussions of the country's nuclear program that have stoked hostilities, the exhibit presents a wide survey of Iranian perspectives at a moment when such dialogue feels critical.

Painted in watercolour and acrylic, Rokni Haerizadeh — "the bad boy of Iranian art," Daftari calls him — depicts an animal (perhaps a donkey) whose body resembles a mosaic of people in the work titled "We Will Join Hands in Love and Rebuild Our Country". The creature is ridden by Mulla Nasreddin, a comic wise man character known across the Middle East who, lore says, rode his donkey backwards. The animal is pictured also balancing on a red balloon. A Western journalist photographs the spectacle before him — a metaphor for nation-building — which appears to the observer as a circus.

In the face of difficult subject matter, the show is often funny. "Humour is an incredibly prominent ingredient, not only in Iranian art, but in Iranian culture," Daftari says. "When there is a lot of pressure — sociopolitical pressure, for instance — humour is one way to let it out. To deal with adversity, you need humour. To transcend very difficult situations, humour can be of great help."

Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet at the Aga Khan Museum. (Janet Kimber)


Some works — like Ahmadi's oil barrel or Nazgol Ansarinia's "Pillars: Article 47", a resin architectural column referencing the extravagant building projects dubiously financed by a class of newly-rich Iranians — use beauty to deliver their barb.
The Trump visa ban, although very disturbing, is not new to me and my kind. The Western borders have always been closed to us Iranians for the past 40 years.- Khosrow   Hassanzadeh

Others present their rebellion more explicitly. In a candy-coloured silkscreen produced in 2004, just after George W. Bush had famously relegated Iran to the "axis of evil," Tehran-based Khosrow Hassanzadeh issued a self-portrait: the artist clutching flowers and a framed picture of his grandfather, flanked on either side by his son and daughter — an ordinary family. To the canvas, he's attached a tag that reads "Terrorist."

The artwork feels re-energized given the current climate, but, Hassanzadeh says, "The Trump visa ban, although very disturbing, is not new to me and my kind. The Western borders have always been closed to us Iranians for the past 40 years."

Parviz Tanavoli's Blue Heech. (The Aga Khan Museum)

Because of the executive order limiting travel and immigration, Shahpour Pouyan — a New York-based artist who has two pieces in the show — was unable to travel to Toronto for the opening. A green card holder, he wasn't certain he'd be allowed re-entry into the United States.

"You can imagine how that is affecting for an artist," he says. "You make the work and you want to see the work in a gallery. This is the energy coming back to you, the energy that you've put into the work for years." The majority of Pouyan's exhibitions happen internationally, and for the moment, he simply can't participate. He is stuck, he says.

Canadian-Iranian artist Parviz Tanavoli, one of Iran's best known contemporary artists — whose iconic Heech sculptures are not only represented in the exhibit, but also installed outside the museum — says it's an important moment for a show like Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet, inviting Western audiences to engage with contemporary Iranian culture via a broad range of concepts, thoughts and perspectives. "Artists don't have lobbyists," he says. "They can only express themselves through their art."

Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet at the Aga Khan Museum. (Janet Kimber)

Among the exhibit's final artworks is a three-screen video installation by one of the show's youngest artists, Morteza Ahmadvand. Encircling a large fibreglass ball, each display bears an emblem of the religions of the Abrahamic tradition: a cross, the Star of David and the Kaaba (Mecca's stone, cube-shaped building, considered the holiest site in Islam). Through a slow, barely perceptible process, the figures transform into the same sphere sitting before viewers at the centre of the installation.

"The shape of the Earth," Daftari says. She calls it a plea for unity.

Rebel, Jester, Mystic Poet: Contemporary Persians. Until June 4. The Aga Khan Museum, Toronto. www.agakhanmuseum.org​

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