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Human vs Human is on display at Traffic gallery in Dubai until December 30.
Human vs Human is on display at Traffic gallery in Dubai until December 30.

Iranian artist displays highly politicised work at Dubai gallery

The Iranian artist Hesam Rahmanian, whose highly politicised work is on display at Dubai's Traffic gallery, regards the painting process as an act of mortal combat with the canvas

The Iranian artist Hesam Rahmanian paints politics and bloodsports. At times, he paints politics as bloodsport, and even comes to see the act of painting itself as a kind of mortal combat.

Rahmanian is a skilled portraitist whose work hovers on the verge of caricature. He possesses that rare gift, the ability to capture a likeness in a few deft strokes.

There's clearly ore in the common ground between sport, polemic and cartoon, and these 27 paintings came out of a four-month period in which he mined that territory intensively.

"My job is to criticise and provoke through my art," he says. "If I'm not doing that, I'm not doing my job. Otherwise I'm just a decorative artist."

All of Iranian society is politicised, he says. There's no escaping it. "When I started on this project, I was constantly listening to the new generation of underground music, and the satirical current affairs programmes being broadcast across Iran on Persian language shows for Voice of America - shows such as Statics, and Parazit.

"These are shows produced in exile, in which people talk freely about politics. For Iranians, pop culture and pop music lets people do that, and also have fun. They headbang. The regime hates it."

One series of paintings is set in the sporting arena. And it is not just sport, but extreme, ultimate sport: the brutal realm of fight-to-the-death, adversarial clashes typified by bullfighting, jousting or boxing.

Even in depictions of the boxing or bullfighting ring, that gladiatorial arena, one realises, is also the political stage. For his combatants go head to head in the very parliament building.

"Someone - an Iranian - said to me: 'I saw your boxing picture, and then I saw it was in the majlis. I had to laugh.' And that's what I'm after," says Rahmanian.

"I want to show how politics is a game, and a spectator sport. Someone else decides, and tomorrow we go to war."

Parliamentarians are seen as arbitrators, or power brokers positioning themselves at the sidelines. "One fighter or matador will vanquish, but meanwhile the authorities are all watching, guiding, even leading it on."

The titles, You fight so I can dance, say, or Hit me with your war tune, gain their resonance both from sporting and musical elements of pop culture. Elsewhere, the lexicon of Iran's leader is sent up, with the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's September 11 conspiracy theory of a "complicated intelligence scenario and act" - providing the title to another work.

Rahmanian has a gift for capturing a likeness, but he resists the temptation towards all-out caricature. "I get them out, the whole figure, in two touches," he says, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran's 1979 revolution, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, Iran's Supreme Leader, and Ahmedinejad, are all captured unmistakably. But the realisation is sparing; it's a glance in passing.

And yet, though it's never overdone, these figureheads are not spared.

Peace I depicts the body of a dove beneath Ahmedinejad's scrubbed-out visage. "I went in first with the face of Ahmedinejad, but it wasn't working out. So I took a piece of cardboard and wiped him out. And it looked good.

"I put it away for the week, and then came back and put the pigeon in. It was meant as sarcasm."

Monkeys are an abiding theme, with cartoons of chimps referring to Bush and other grandstanding politicians.

Much of Rahmanian's work is blatant and fairly crude. There are Pop Art posters of babies in gas masks - the $1,000 Baby series - on a backdrop of lurid pinks, azures and greens. These are a pointed reference to Iran's policy of birth incentives for less wealthy parents.

Even when the target is serious, the tone of delivery is scathing. An earnest tone would dignify the proceedings. There's the outlandish spirit of a graffiti artist such as Banksy, or Shepard Fairey, who painted the Obama Hope portrait, in his methods, he says.

"I try to paint fast, like a rebel. Graffiti artists work like that, so they don't get caught. I work while the paint's still wet. Like that, it begins to merge, and streak, and you get gradations of colour in one brush stroke."

He credits Andy Warhol's declared aim to recognise the 15 minutes of fame his subjects enjoyed. "I was heavily influenced by Andy Warhol's photos of car accidents, which are photographs of ordinary people. I want to give some permanence to the ephemeral."

But though he sees himself as a Pop artist, he's heavily influenced by the Expressionist, figural representations of British artists such as Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. David Hockney is a key influence, and his work perhaps occupies some of the middle ground between these movements.

"I grew up with Hockney. From Hockney I learned how to draw. If you look at his drawing, the body in a lot of work is made with just one line, without taking his hand off the paper."

When he says things like: "I grew up with Hockney," he's speaking literally. He has been a committed painter since he was 12. At that age, Iran's education system allows pupils to specialise. Rahmanian opted early for the fine art route and was taught by one of the masters of contemporary Iranian art, Ahmad Amin Nazir.

But it's with Bacon that the real contest gets under way, and it is Bacon who presents the most serious, challenging precedent for what he's attempting, particularly in terms of painterly technique. "Bacon paints his figures distorted and disfigured. Mine are not disfigured, but I really try to throw the paint on the canvas, which is what he did," he says.

It's here that the gloves come off, and the imagery becomes grotesque, bleeding, gruesome. Rahmanian sees his paintings as a kind of bare-knuckle dustup between himself and canvas, he says. Only one can win, and he cannot let it be the canvas.

"I fight with the canvas, and Bacon used to do that. If I can get a face out of that, then I've won. Sometimes I win, other times I scrub it out. But I keep fighting till I win."

It's a spirit of machismo akin to Hemmingway's love of the bullfight, or the passion for boxing you get in Damon Runyon, or Hunter S Thompson. And there's an appreciation of the art in that brutality, and a guileless relish in the contest, as dance.

"Your very first brushstroke, your first touch - this is your first expression," he says. "If you go over it again, you ruin it. I use fast-moving brushwork over the face, and aim for solid touches, like Bacon."

Sometimes, however, the artist must concede defeat. A series depicting women's legs, clad in shiny red high heels, and hanging from above, came during a prolonged effort to address the executions and hangings in Iran.

But the project demoralised him. "It was too disturbing, too depressing, dealing with these very dark stories, and the official denial that surrounds them," he says.

Many paintings actually started out as graphic images of hangings. The new work is painted over the old, so that the babies and monkeys are actually superimposed over the more gratuitous depictions of executions.

"A lot of these new paintings actually have hangings beneath the surface," he says. "They have these very dark stories behind them, literally."

The work is a mixed batch, and there's plenty of hit-and-miss going on. Some of the sporting illustrations are rather theatrical. This is an artist still finding his way, one feels, but there's an indisputable talent at work.


Hesam Rahmanian, Hit me with your war tune, Traffic gallery, Dubai, until December 30

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