Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large

Looking west from Iran

An show of apolitical art mounted in London displays the same energy that took protesters to the streets in Tehran.

For the past two weeks, Asia House in London has been home to Made in Iran, a group show of works by young Iranian artists. Although the exhibition has been planned for months, it's no coincidence that it opened at the same time as protesters were taking to the streets of Tehran. Eglantine de Ganay, who co-curated the show along with Arianne Levene, is anxious to emphasise that they deliberately included only apolitical works, but says that the art is driven by the same energy that informed the protests.

Rather than any didactic political message, the show throbbed with a kind of slick worry: aesthetically pleasing images, interwoven with or undermined by the constrictions of life in Iran. It practically punched you in the face in the gallery from the start in the form of Shirin Aliabadi's wall-sized photographs. Born in 1973 (making her the second-oldest of the seven artists in the show), Aliabadi chooses as her subjects women wearing hijabs yet slathered in make-up, flashing watches and licking lipstick-red lollies, the scars still showing from their new noses. (Tehran is apparently the rhinoplasty capital of the world.)

Women were a dominant subject in Made in Iran. But just as tangible was a fascination with western imagery and, simultaneously, a mockery of it. Some of the strongest works in this witty and emotionally charged, if slightly patchy, exhibition were by Behrouz Rae, whose mother had an opportunity to emigrate to the US when he was a child. She took it - and left him, too. His response, Gulliver, is a kind of diary series thrumming with what De Ganay candidly refers to as "issues of the mummy". In each work, Rae has digitally inserted himself into a western setting, many of them described by his mother in her letters: standing in the sand on a beach in California, loitering in the background at the Guggenheim in New York, waiting in his mother's Manhattan apartment for her to return from the shops. The pain of loss is moving; the works are obviously a form of therapy. But what they share in common with many of the other pieces in Made in Iran is that Rae could, at any time, decide to move back to the US, to reunite with his mother. He doesn't. He chooses to stay in Iran.

This conflict blurts also from Vahid Sharifian's jokey cookbook images of the American film star Sophia Loren. The young Sharifian, born in 1982 and influenced by the work of Jeff Koons, projects Loren on to holographic paper as a silly, westernised dream of his parents' generation - baking European cakes in the dream kitchen - and as a boyhood fantasy. The title makes the ironic joke clear enough: My Father Is a Democrat and Through His Chimney There Are Always Hearts Flying to the Sky.

"Running away but choosing to stay" is how De Ganay describes this paradoxical attitude: Iranians focused on the idealised version of western life, yet ultimately happiest in the country of their birth. All but one of the artists in this show have had the opportunity, like Rae, to leave Iran. They have all chosen not to, remaining to work in Tehran. This is a decision that Levene and De Ganay say they wanted to celebrate.

Levene runs an art consultancy advising collectors on contemporary art from the Middle East and Indian subcontinent, and De Ganay specialises in Chinese art. Both China and the Middle East have received high-profile group exhibitions in the past year at London's flashy new Saatchi gallery; both shows were praised and derided in largely equal measure for their glossy, catch-all approach to a vastly complicated culture. De Ganay jokes: "We thought after the Saatchi show there was room for something a bit more subtle."

Back to the top

More articles


Editor's Picks

 This comparison image shown on Reddit annotated the objects with vehicles from the movies.

What Star Wars fans say is going on in Abu Dhabi’s desert

We may still not know exactly what The National caught pictures of in the Abu Dhabi desert last week, but the online community has had plenty to say. Here are some of the best bits.

 Jennifer Grout will compete against seven other celebrities in Your Face Sounds Familiar. Joseph Eid / AFP

Jennifer Grout on competing in the new show Your Face Sounds Familiar and her rise to fame

Jennifer Grout is set to wow Arab audiences once again in the new MBC talent show Your Face Sounds Familiar. Saeed Saeed speaks to the American about her success story

 From left to right: Greg Churchouse, Roy Stride and Peter Ellard of Scouting For Girls. Ian Gavan / Getty Images

Sandance returns in May

Sandance is heading back to Dubai in May with a line-up that includes Arrested Development, Scouting for Girls, the Pet Shop Boys and Fatboy Slim, plus the Saudi DJ Omar Basaad and local acts.

 Jedi Master Yoda in 'Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith'. Lucasfilm / Twentieth Century Fox / AP

Star Wars shooting in Abu Dhabi rumours gain traction

What started out on Sunday as an optimistic rumour that Star Wars Episode 7 is set to shoot in Abu Dhabi is seemingly gathering traction as the week progresses.

 A boy waters plants in the yard of a restaurant in the Colombian village of Aracataca. Yellow butterflies make an apperance in the book. Eitan Abramovich / AFP photo

Mourning and memories in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s languid hometown

Mourning and memories in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s hometown of Aracataca, Columbia.

 Shah Rukh Khan plays a shot during a friendly match between the members of the support and administrative staff of Royal Challengers Bangalore and his Kolkata Knight Riders cricket team. Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP

When the worlds of Bollywood and cricket collide

With the first game of the Indian Premier League beginning today in the UAE, we explore the league’s Bollywood connections, which are as glitzy as they are controversial.

Events

To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National