"Seismic" is a good word to describe the enormous uncertainty in Iran right now. Not only does it resonate with a country that sits on one of the world's most restless fault lines - which reared its head recently with a devastating earthquake in the north-west of the country - but also sabre-rattling from Israel, obstinance on the part of Iran's top brass over its nuclear programme and a lot of hand-wringing in the West is being compounded into daily, nervous tremors.
Yet this fault line is plumbed in a more introspective way by the artist Pantea Rahmani in her solo show at the Salsali Private Museum from September 10, with three works drawn from the private collection of Ramin Salsali. She's titled the show Seismic Sanctuary and it includes works of both self and city analysis.
Rahmani last exhibited in Dubai in 2009 with her Expose series; self-portraits with every line and facial crease rendered with unabashed exactitude. On the unprimed reverse of a piece of canvas, the artist uses gesso and white paint to create monochromatic works of self-analysis.
The effect is often mistaken as pencil work, with its ashen inflections of light and the yellowed hue from working on unprimed canvas. Her work is an intensely laborious process: "For just a five-centimetre-by-five-centimetre section, I'm going over it again and again, maybe 100 or 50 times," says the artist, smiling and looking rather less fierce than she etches herself in portrait. "I do the priming, painting and drawing all at the same time. Working in gesso means that I need a surface that can absorb a … lot of liquid and the primed side of the canvas doesn't do that. The effect is that when you touch the canvas there's no texture - it's completely smooth. If you close your eyes you can't feel that it's a painting."
This, Rahmani says, is attractive for her as it allows the canvas to "inhale and exhale" the image that she's working into it.
Seismic Sanctuary includes a piece from the Expose series, which depicts the artist lying in the corner of a room and staring at the viewer from across the reflected surface of a mirror. Cradling her head slightly, her legs bent foetal-fashion, the vulnerability of her pose is offset by a stark fixedness in her eyes and a mesh of lines across her brow. The background is a tonal mingle of greys, with a darkening pitch to the right of the canvas that creates an almost enveloping, shielding effect around the subject.
The two other large-scale canvases here show views across Tehran towards the East and the West. It is a cacophony of concrete, flanked by grey hills and sheltered by a steely sky.
Rahmani explains that she takes the same process and approach whether she's creating landscapes of a city or one of her own body.
"When the revolution came I was 7 years old," she says. "When I was 9 the [Iran-Iraq] war came. By the time I was 17, the war finished but then we had fundamentalism coming and going in the government. Then, the next 10 years was fighting for this atomic stuff," says Rahmani. "Tehran is not supposed to be a peaceful place for me, but it's the only place I feel calm. There are lots of contradictions."
The city that much of the world knows of, but little about, is laboriously rendered: the brutalism of the blank-faced windows in the concrete high-rises, the constellations of street lights on the outlying hills.
"I use realism because I want people to believe in the picture that they're seeing, but I have a certain Tom and Jerry chase with realism. I make corrections, I include extra stuff," she says. Indeed, the more we study Rahmani's reflections of Tehran, the more playful it appears. As the city stretches off into the distance, its blocks lose their rigidity and they morph into a cuneiform alphabet of letters and swirls.
Then there's the ominous black mass that stalks through the city at street level. Everything else is so realistic that this creeping, almost sci-fi void is all the more unnerving.
"I started to connect the trees and plots of nature together," she says, referring to the blackness that looks like licks of flame. "To me, it's some sort of instability in Tehran."
She talks about it in a detached way, as something intuitive and unplanned. "I was afraid because, if I'm doing work like this, maybe something bad is happening to my town. People would say to me when they see it: 'What is all this? Is it an earthquake? Is it flames?'."
Ultimately, the labour of Rahmani's work - and a regimen of meditation - is anchorage for her life in Tehran. Just one of these large canvases can take a year to complete, but she is buoyant about the discipline and duration that each work requires.
The Expose series emerged at a time when the world was being presented with Iranian art that was, as she describes it, "fashionable to show women in hijab and their arms and face covered in Persian calligraphy".
"I thought: 'I'm going to show the world truly what a Persian woman is.' I'm in Tehran, I don't wear hijab or write calligraphy on my body. So this is the real woman, and this is the real city."
This, she says, has often kept her out of curated shows of Iranian art. "The works are a response to people who have their way of showing Persian art to the world; this is my truth. Those are not truths, they're fairy tales."
Seismic Sanctuary is at Salsali Private Museum from September 10 to November 28. Alserkal Avenue, Unit 14, Al Quoz 1, Street 8, Dubai. Open from Saturday to Thursday, from 10am to 7pm; closed Fridays. Visit www.salsalipm.com or call 04 380 9600.
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