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Iranian artists inspired by adversity

Despite restrictions in Iran, a new crop of artists creates works that blend ancient and modern history and ideas, winning acclaim at home and abroad.

March 27, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times
  • "Khosrow" by Khosrow Hassanzadeh, 2004. Silkscreen and acrylic on canvas, 200 x 320 cm.
"Khosrow" by Khosrow Hassanzadeh, 2004. Silkscreen and acrylic… (Tropenmuseum / Khosrow…)

Reporting from Tehran — — His pieces have been displayed at the British Museum in London and the World Bank headquarters in Washington, been fawned over at exhibits in Venice, Amsterdam and New York, and fetched tens of thousands of dollars in auctions held by Sotheby's and Christie's.

But artist Khosrow Hassanzadeh says he was never more delighted than when a barely literate carpenter arrived at his dingy former studio to make some repairs and stood, mouth agape, staring at one of his works. It was a garish, gigantic diorama of a famous Iranian professional wrestler, decorated with cheap trinkets, fake flowers and esoteric memorabilia comprehensible only to locals in the south Tehran neighborhood.

"I do art for my neighbor," says Hassanzadeh, whose perpetual smile softens a face of severe angles as eye-catching as his larger-than-life works, which incorporate the Islamic Republic's bombastic propaganda with street-level Iranian kitsch and the playful sensibilities of Andy Warhol.

Hassanzadeh, 46, is among the most successful of a new crop of artists in Iran who seamlessly meld East and West, even as they breezily blend Iran's traditions, both hokey and classical, religious and secular, and its recent history, especially the traumas of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, into the idioms of high art.

Although they've made a modest splash on the international circuit, they choose to remain in their homeland to feed off its ancient inspirations despite the challenges, including a new rule that requires artists to send photos of their works to the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance for clearance before sending them abroad. This work is being noticed; for instance, a show of new work by 30 Iranian artists recently opened at Los Angeles' Morono Kiang gallery and is running simultaneously with a show of the artists' work at Tehran's Aaran Gallery.

Unlike previous generations of contemporary artists, they don't hail from a specific Western-oriented elite.

They brush off the limitations, the censors, the glares of people who see their work as subversive.

"If you look at our history, at the poets, Rumi, Ferdowsi, Hafez, they were artists too," says Sadegh Tirafkan, 45, a photographer and videographer. "They were never given a chance to write about whatever they wanted. They had a lot of difficulties. Iranians just deal with that."


Hassanzadeh was a teenager when the revolution started. He dropped out of school and became a Basiji militiaman, joined the notorious neighborhood committees that searched for morality crimes, and when the war started against Iraq, he headed to the front.

But even his Basiji mentors quickly realized where his talents lay. Instead of carrying a gun, he was asked to paint giant primary-color portraits and posters around the country of the martyrs, the tens of thousands of young men and boys who lost their lives at the front, their sacrifices immortalized on the streets of Iran's cities.

After adjusting to normal life back home, he enrolled in art school. When he first walked into a classroom for formal art training, he was stunned to see male and female students mixed. And they were equally astonished by him. "The other students were shocked that a guy who looked like me had walked in," he said. "They thought I came to raid the place."

His rebellious instincts emerged immediately. The techniques and themes of his days as a martyr painter crept back into his work. His teachers told him to "draw small" so he could sell his works. He refused. He wanted to draw giant portraits that made people laugh out loud with delight. He eventually abandoned his studies, barely lasting a year at art school.

He's been described as a pop artist. He calls it "people's art." He finds inspiration in public events such as the Ashura ceremonies commemorating the 7th century martyrdom of the Imam Hussein or the colorful lights strung up around the city to commemorate the anniversary of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's 1979 return from exile. From Imam Hussein to the pop diva Googoosh, he took the basic elements of his south Tehran district and made them internationally known.

"I make the worthless valuable," he said. "I send the most worthless things to the museums."

Though the Islamic Republic creates hardships for artists, the revolution that forged it opened art up to people like him. "Based on my background," he said, "I should have been a bazaar merchant or a drug dealer."

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