By Jyoti Kalsi
The central theme of Shahpour Pouyan's work is the connection that wealth and power have with aesthetics and culture. In his allegorical paintings and sculptures, the young Iranian artist juxtaposes various symbols of power with beautiful traditional Persian decoration to make a contemporary statement about domination and possession through the force of culture. In his first solo exhibition in Dubai, titled Full Metal Jacket, Pouyan is showcasing three series of artworks that explore the relationship between power, wealth and beauty.
The first series, titled Towers, looks at monuments as an expression of power and dominance. The series is inspired by Pouyan's travels around Iran. The artist took thousands of pictures of historic monuments, such as medieval tomb towers and minarets. The fictional monuments in his paintings are a blend of ancient and contemporary architecture and decoration. Like the ancient monuments, they are embellished with gold and silver and decorated with verses from the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings. But the artist has played with the words to create his own version of the Shahnameh, praising fictional kings from an imaginary era. The series is a wry comment on the fact that these imposing colossal towers that dominate and subjugate the surrounding landscape are an expression of power concealed beneath a veneer of culture.
"These monuments usually served no other purpose other than being a memorial and a historic record of the person who commissioned them. The beautifully decorated structures reflect the desire of these powerful people to defy mortality. And the same is true of contemporary art and architecture, because ultimately the creation of all art is driven by the desire of the artists and patrons to be remembered for ever," Pouyan says.
The symbolism in the second series, titled Hooves, dates back to pre-Islamic times. These ink drawings and paintings feature severed hooves depicted in great detail. But each hoof is crowned with a helmet inlaid with gold and silver and beautifully decorated with intricate traditional patterns reminiscent of Persian miniature paintings. The hooves allude to the mystical Golden Bull, revered by the ancient cultures of Sumer, Babylon and Iran and still worshipped in India. They are symbols of strength and virility and also have undertones of sacrifice and ritual slaughter performed by the wealthy and the powerful to display and further enhance their status. "By combining these gruesome hooves and the helmets with delicate, refined decoration, I wanted to create a contemporary symbol for the relationship between power, wealth and beauty," the artist says.
In his latest series, titled Full Metal Jacket, Pouyan has taken his exploration of this relationship further through three-dimensional sculptural installations, suspended from the ceiling. The metallic artworks, which the artist refers to as "projectiles", are inspired by medieval Persian armour and military helmets. They are made from chainmail and metal and the artist has worked closely with traditional armourers and metal smiths to create them. Each piece is beautifully decorated with traditional calligraphy and gold and silver inlays and has various fin-like projections adorned with etchings of birds, flowers and other classical Persian motifs.
While some of the pieces look like human figures, others resemble modern-day missiles and rockets. Once again, the artist has combined ancient and contemporary symbols of dominance and military might with elements of luxury, refinement and beauty, highlighting the influence of wealth and power on culture and civilisation.
"I find it fascinating that throughout the ages, Iranians have always tried to beautify every element of their lives ranging from armour and weapons to household knives and scissors. And I wanted to use this traditional ornamentation in my work to create something contemporary. I prefer to call these artworks ‘projectiles' because the term suggests ascendency and a scientific approach but leaves the pieces open to individual interpretation," the artist says. But he also points out that the phallic shapes of the projectiles, towers and hooves represent the patriarchal society and male domination of power and wealth in Iran and this region.
On another level, the projectiles also question the perception of the Western world about the East. "Westerners see us as exotic civilisations with a rich culture and artistic heritage but also as regressive and dangerous. My projectiles combine traditional craftsmanship with elements of latest scientific developments in weaponry. And they are suspended from the ceiling to suggest both instability and dynamism. Cocooned within the brutal and sinister-looking metal jacket is a historic civilisation and rich culture, making these projectiles the perfect metaphor for The Arabian Nights' Western perspective about Iran and the Eastern world. As an artist, I do not want to make any judgments. I just want to present this paradoxical situation and make people think about it," Pouyan says.
Full Metal Jacket will run at Lawrie Shabibi Gallery, Al Quoz, until June 8.