x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Pixel rainbow sequences: Iranian artist Setareh Shahbazi

In its block colours and striking imagery, the work of Setareh Shahbazi blends techniques of pop art and industrial design with a bold sense of theatricality.

Setareh Shahbazi - self-portrait.
Setareh Shahbazi - self-portrait.

Setareh Shahbazi's fifth-floor studio overlooks a graveyard of old buses and offers a bird's-eye view of B018, the Beirut nightclub designed by Bernard Khoury to look and feel like a bunker. From Shahbazi's vantage point, however, B018 appears more like a strange sunken spaceship, which is fitting, given the ways in which the artist appropriates images of architecture and fuses them into the super-flat surfaces of her work.

Shahbazi, 32, is best known for her stylised digital compositions, in which she uses a mouse rather than a graphics pad or drawing tablet to mess around with the most basic tools of Photoshop. The effect is smooth, and the visual impact of Shahbazi's work lies somewhere between pop art, a children's colouring book, industrial design and an advertising campaign. The results are arranged on a wall in series or installed like spatially construed stage sets.

The loose and associative elements of her visual language include rocks, trees, flowers, birds, a lion, a plastic chair, a woman in an elaborate feathered headpiece and a chorus of infants, children and young adults alongside fairly recognisable architectural structures, such as the Shams Building (in Raouché, designed by the Lebanese modernist Joseph Philippe Karam), the dome-shaped concrete theatre from the International Fair complex in Tripoli (designed by the Brazilian modernist Oscar Niemeyer) and a much loved, much maligned and many times vandalised public sculpture of stacking concrete cubes by the Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair. Even the Pyramids of Giza make an appearance in Shahbazi's work, albeit as three streamlined, minimalist forms rendered in different gradations of gunmetal grey.

You might never know by looking at her work, but all of those elements are taken straight from photographs, and so perhaps it makes sense that the entire surface of a corner table in Shahbazi's studio is covered with neatly organised piles of prints. What seems entirely incongruous, however, is that almost all of those photographs are intensely personal. Most have been culled from family albums, capturing fleeting glimpses of the artist, her sisters and her parents in Tehran, where Shahbazi was born in 1978, before abruptly leaving Iran in 1985. Those pictures are not stacked on the table as reminders of her childhood but rather, explicitly, as source materials for a new work in progress.

Shahbazi's Reverse Diary (The Secret of Atmospheric Pictures III) is her first autobiographical endeavour. Delving into her own story has not interested her until now. She has produced a handful of self-portraits, including one of her reading a book, hand cupped to her cheek, with an owl perched on her shoulder. But she has avoided her family history - a complicated tangle of narratives involving revolution, expulsion, asylum, dislocation and an unsettling sense of limbo that lasted for 25 years - in part because, as a young artist living in Germany at a time when contemporary art from the Middle East was fast becoming fashionable in the West, it all seemed too ripe and too likely to be sensationalised. Cool and elusive, her work has always been almost defiantly impersonal. But then a number of things happened more or less at once.

In 2003, Shahbazi won a scholarship that brought her to Beirut for a year. She was loosely affiliated with the Arab Image Foundation, and appropriated images from its collection as graphic elements in a sequence of digital paintings entitled Oh, No, No ? The Crystal Series, which playfully pushed at the boundaries of how such photographs could be used. "I really abuse photography," she says. "I even take pictures but I never show them as photographs. For me it's a way of seeing and extracting things, and putting them together in a different or theatrical way."

In Beirut, she met a slew of artists and friends who thought there was nothing really extraordinary about her family history at all. "Here it's normal," she says. "It's just war or whatever." Far from home, she was on familiar territory. Then, in 2005, after a stint in Berlin, she moved to Cairo for a residency with the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art. A few months later, a car crash in the Sinai desert crushed her shoulder and her knee, cracked three of her ribs and broke five bones in her foot. It took five hours to reach a hospital in Sharm el Sheikh, where she was stitched up before being flown to Cairo and then to Germany five days later. Her memory, already patchy, has only got worse since then.

The following year her father decided to return to Iran. He had been involved in the revolution of 1979, but fell on the wrong side of the political spectrum in its aftermath and left the country under considerable duress six years later. While Shahbazi, her mother and her sisters simply boarded a flight for Germany, getting out of Iran proved more complicated for her father. "In the end he rode over the border to Pakistan on a donkey," she says. (Actually, according to Shahbazi's father it was a camel, and the border crossing was totally legal.)

The family settled in Stuttgart for what was meant to be a brief stay. But the process of seeking political asylum took Shahbazi's father five years, and by then, the three sisters (all artists) were in school. Five years stretched into 25. "He always wanted to go back but he was scared," says Shahbazi. "It took him a long time to prepare. From imagining the possibility to booking the flight took him three years." His timing was inauspicious.

He planned to travel a week after last summer's elections. Shahbazi went ahead to meet him, but when the street protests began, her father postponed. Shahbazi ended up in Tehran on her own. Before making the trip, she had conceptualised an artwork as a book of collected family photographs, letters and home videos and had begun locating the albums. But while she scanned many of these last summer, she did so half-heartedly.

"You don't really think about an artwork in a situation like that. It was crazy." A year later, she says, "I can look back and say it was just a trip." Back in Beirut, Shahbazi has picked up her project again and conquered her resistance to doing personal work. She will soon present Reverse Diary as a work in progress at the 98 Weeks Project Space, but has no idea how the installation will look. "Usually I sit and think and have pains in my stomach and then I have a very clear vision of what I want to do and I execute it quickly. To do this in Beirut is a challenge," she adds, "but it's also a totally different conversation. In Europe, you have to explain everything from scratch. Here you can just begin talking from where you are."

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a staff writer for The Review in Beirut.