Sunday, 29 April 2012

Art commentator offers insight on Middle Eastern art scene

by , The National

Anthony Haden-Guest is to the world of art commentary what Hans Ulrich Obrist is to the world of curation. Both operate in fields traditionally excluded from the monographic series of art history, which prioritises an interest in the artist and the art over the distribution, dissemination and exhibition of these works. Both have pioneered interest in their relative areas; both are celebrated as prolific and engaging individuals.

As a writer, reporter and cartoonist, Haden-Guest has contributed to the world's most lauded publications; as a bon vivant and socialite, he has become part of the art world of which he writes. Rumoured to be the inspiration for the British expatriate journalist Peter Fallow in Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, he has documented his findings in, among other titles, True Colors: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.

Having written extensively on the art market, Haden-Guest is bound up in the global arts scene and has watched the growth of the Middle Eastern cultural movement with keenness. "I've been going to the Middle East for many years," he says. "I covered the Lebanese civil war and so I started going to the region extensively from 1980 onwards. I'd go and see the galleries there and was interested in the wealth and scope of the art on show."

For Haden-Guest, the clichéd view of Arab art as "white and gold and ornamental" doesn't ring true. "In reality, it is far more complex than that," he says. "For instance, identity plays a strong role, whether an artist is Egyptian or Lebanese, whether they have spent their working career in London or Paris and how those European influences factor into the work, how different cultures complicate it."

Friday, 27 April 2012


 A photographic tour of the Iran you’ve never seen

Ciphers: Tension with Tradition in Contemporary Iranian Photography at SAW Gallery. The exhibition will run until June 9, 2012.
Image courtesy of  SAW Gallery

by Peter Simpson, Ottawa Citizen Blogs

You can learn about Iran on most any newscast on any day, but what, really, do you know of Iranian people? Iranian culture? Iranian art?

We see anti-American protests in the streets of Tehran, or we see the president of Iran giving endless, hateful speeches that reliably ramble into incoherence. That’s about all we see of Iran, and of Iranians.

“What we think in North America of Iran is burdened by media images, by news stories that are all about politics and about very difficult things,” says Andrea Fitzpatrick, an assistant professor in the visual arts department at the University of Ottawa, and curator of a new exhibition of contemporary Iranian photographs and video at SAW Gallery. “In this exhibition you will not see those issues. It’s not that the exhibition is a clouding over or white-washing, but the art is . . . not about political issues.”

If that seems a political opportunity lost, consider the alternative value of seeing everyday Iranians doing the everyday things that consume most of their lives. This is the quotidian Iran, the real Iran, an insight into the private lives of the Iranian public.

It’s also a bridge, in that the photographic concepts, techniques and styles on display are universal, and therefore drive home the understanding — perhaps for some viewers the revelation  — that Iranians aren’t that much different from us in the west. Only the motifs and themes make the photographs and videos distinctly Iranian, and they are more easily digested by western viewers precisely because they are wrapped in familiar aesthetics.

“It’s basically,” Fitzpatrick says, “how artists are representing ancient Persian history or those traditions, some of which are pre-Islamic, using contemporary digital technology . . . in a way that is aesthetically sophisticated and could be understood by international art audiences.”

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Expressing the Inexpressible

Iranian master Mohammad-Reza Shajarian delivers more than a stunning voice 

by Chris Vitiello, The Independent Weekly

Amir Rezvani pauses a moment before he can talk about it. When Mohammad-Reza Shajarian sings "Bird of Dawn," he does this to people.

"At the end of every concert people start to clap and ask him to sing that song," Rezvani, a psychiatry professor at Duke University, finally starts. "And when he sings that song, people sing with him and get emotional and cry."

When Shajarian returns to the stage for his encore Saturday night at the Durham Performing Arts Center, "Bird of Dawn"—or "Morgh-e Sahar," as people shout—will undoubtedly be his choice. Through his power as an activist, and as perhaps the greatest Iranian performer today, the song has become the unofficial Iranian national anthem, representing a persistent hope for liberty in the face of tyranny.

The song isn't about guns and despots. Rather, it's a plea to a caged bird to escape and to summon the sunrise with its song. But the conceit is obvious: Night is any oppressive force, and the bird is the irrepressible spirit within each person. The sunrise is freedom.

Preferring to inspire marches rather than participate in them, Shajarian's politics are expressed through his art. You won't hear this song on state radio in Tehran. To protest the current regime's 2009 crackdown on voter demonstrations, Shajarian no longer allows his music to be played over those official airwaves.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Shakespeare's plays get multilingual treatment in London

The Comedy of Errors will be performed in Dari Persian by Roy-e-Sads as part of the Globe to Globe festival in London. Courtesy Kate Brooks

Ever imagined what Shakespeare's plays might sound like in Gujarati? How about Coriolanus in Japanese? Or The Merry Wives of Windsor in Swahili? Well, London's Globe Theatre is preparing to find out.

Starting this week, all 37 of Shakespeare's plays will be performed at the Globe as they have never been before, each one in a different language, as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad celebrations. The Globe to Globe season will last for just six weeks and promises to be a unique, multicultural and multilingual theatrical experience. Performances will include King Lear in Belarusian, Richard II in Palestinian Arabic, The Comedy of Errors in Persian and Love's Labour's Lost to be performed entirely in British sign language. The plays will be subtitled in English but with a translation synopsis of each scene, rather than each line.

"With the Olympics coming, we wanted to do something big, crazy and ambitious," says Tom Bird, the festival director for Globe to Globe. "We wanted to do something that reflected London, and its diversity, and that's where the idea of performing in the different languages that you hear being spoken in London came about. It's a huge celebration."

Bird says he hopes Globe to Globe will inspire people to connect with Shakespeare, but also with the diverse cultures that make London what it is. "Understanding Shakespeare is partly about understanding human nature, which is why it doesn't matter what language you speak. Some people might not normally choose to see a Shakespeare play, but we're hoping that once they see it's in their parents' language, for instance, that it will make them interested," he says. "But it's also really important to us that everyone who comes to see a play gets a chance to see the way in which people all over the world perform. It doesn't matter if you don't speak Arabic or don't speak French; you'll still see an amazing performance on stage."

Sunday, 22 April 2012


A current exhibition of contemporary Iranian art, curated by Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé, at Lʼespace Le Commun, Bâtiment d'Art Contemporain (BAC), Geneva, Switzerland. The exhibition will run until May 3rd 2012.

Choosing SURVIVAL as a theme for this exhibition, Mojgan Endjavi-Barbé has picked her artists from Iran's contemporary arts scene. Three generations of artists who, like their predecessors, have mastered the art of self-expression without getting involved in social or political trends. All belonging to the post-revolution generation, the artists have the art of survival through the thick and thin of life in Iran, as well as developing their very own unique styles.

In any turbulent social, political and geographical landscape, self-expression may have unwanted and costly consequences, and yet, through centuries, Iranian artists have carefully crafted their own unique multi-layered, indirect and sophisticated approach to self-expression.

Through war, conflict, confrontation, deprivation and constant upheaval, the signature behaviour of almost all Iranians may be the odd level of awareness they have of their surroundings. An indirect and sometimes passive-aggressive approach which doubles as a survival skill.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Sonic Solidarity

An interview with Iranian artist Shahrzad Arshadi
by Stefan Christoff, Art Threat
Portrait of artist Shahrzad Arshadi by Thien V (Montreal, March 2012).

It Is Only Sound That Remains is a sound theatre performance by artist Shahrzad Arshadi, meditating on the life and death of Ziba Kazemi, also known as Zahra Kazemi.

The story of Kazemi’s 2003 death in Iran, the ensuing Canada-Iran diplomatic fallout and the ongoing struggle for justice in the case, led by Kazemi’s son Stephan Hachemi, is relatively well known in Canada.

Kazemi was arrested for taking photographs at a student protest outside Evin Prison in Tehran, a major jail for political prisoners in Iran.

Students were protesting for political change in the country, highlighting issues such as freedom of the press, access to education and youth unemployment, and demanding the release of political prisoners. Protesters in Iran were facing serious state repression at the time; many were arrested without charge, often disappearing for days after being apprehended by state security forces.

Remembering the 2003 student protests in Iran is important because of the role they played in creating the political ground work for major protests against the presidential election in 2009, an election that many both inside and outside of Iran, including Amnesty International, criticize as undemocratic.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Selections from John Waters’ Library


Filmmaker/author John Waters — who guest curated the Walker’s Absentee Landlord exhibition — was recently invited to San Francisco where he extended his curatorial prowess to a new Reading Shop in the city’s Mission district.

The shop is part of Kadist SF (counterpart to Kadist Art Foundation based in Paris, France)—a mixed-use 1,400 square foot nonprofit art space on the corner of Folsom and 20th. Since last March when Kadist SF opened it quickly became popular in the local art scene for its flexible, laid-back, and definitely riveting program of exhibitions, events, artist/art magazine residencies, and, notably its reading room. The room would open Saturdays 11 am to 5 pm, inviting visitors to come by and check out more than 100 international art magazines not often available elsewhere. The visibility of these imports brought the public nearer to critical dialogues on art happening from Vancouver to Tel Aviv, and for the most part pretty far beyond the main distribution channels of arts discourse.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Iranian Comic-Book Artists Seek a Unique, Local Identity

by Marc Bennetts, The New York Times

From the grinning Statue of Liberty skull on the wall of the former U.S. Embassy to bloody scenes from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that cover entire sides of residential buildings, graphic art is everywhere in central Tehran.

But graphic arts, like most forms of expression in the Islamic Republic, are tightly controlled by the authorities, whose watchful eye extends even to Iran’s tiny but growing domestic comic book scene. Iranian graphic artists have won international acclaim but are still struggling for acceptance at home. 

A rare exhibition of comic book art was held in Tehran this spring. Amin Tavakoli, an illustrator in his 20s, participated. “We haven’t published much,” he said. “But we have great potential.” 

Many young Iranian artists admit to a passion for comic books from the United States and Europe. They can be purchased in Tehran, though they are expensive and often covered with the censors’ black ink. But local artists say they are trying to stamp their work with an Iranian identity. 

Life for them, though, is not easy because their creative aspirations are kept firmly in check by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, responsible for approving all publications in the country. 

“All our art has to conform to Islamic law,” said Mr. Tavakoli. “So our published art differs a lot from Western graphic novels. For example, women’s hair should not be visible, and all female characters have to be dressed in accordance with Islamic tradition.” 

And even then, their work can run into trouble.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Iran Before Islam: Challenging Stereotypes Through Art

A Smithsonian exhibition of ancient Iranian offers a different perspective on the country than what Westerners normally see.  

A hemispherical bowl from the Sasanian period, 7th or 8th century. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Americans are bombarded with media coverage of the three-decade-old Islamic Republic and its nuclear aspirations. But there's more to Iran than Ahmdainejad, as can be seen in the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler Galleries' new project, Feast Your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran, a new exhibition of pre-Islamic Iranian artifacts.

The Atlantic invited a panel of Iranian-American leaders to discuss the exhibit. Taking part in the dialogue are Azar Nafisi, the much-acclaimed Iranian-American author of long-standing New York Times bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran; Massumeh Farhad, chief curator and curator of Islamic Art Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery; and Mahnaz Afkhami, Iran's former minister of women's affairs and president of the Women's Learning Partnership.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

A New World of Art

Gallerists, artists and the curious public decamped this week from the United Arab Emirates as Art Dubai drew to a close. As was to be expected, not only art, but also political messages played a major role at the fair. Werner Bloch reports

'Ali, give us strength' by Khosrow Hassanzadeh (photo: Werner Bloch)

Berlin gallerist Matthias Arndt spends much of his time travelling the world, but he had never experienced anything like this before. On 21 March, the opening day of Art Dubai, police detectives suddenly appeared at his stand and demanded that he take down a picture by his premier artist within thirty seconds. The art experts in Dubai's police department had discovered at the show works by the Iranian painter Khosrow Hassanzadeh that the censors found objectionable.

What made the work so controversial were the words "Ali madat" ("Ali, give us strength"), which were written on the canvas. Invoking Ali is an everyday matter for Shias, but Sunni-dominated Dubai evidently mistook these words for a political battle cry. Especially now that tensions between Iran and the West are on the rise, the overcautious Emiratis thought that a line had been crossed.

At the latest with this incident, it is plain to see how eminently political Art Dubai – the most important art fair in the Arab world today – has become.

Artists crossing the line: Ultra-sensitive Emirati censors insisted that "Ali, give us strength" by Khosrow Hassanzadeh be removed from the stand of Berlin-based gallerist Matthias Arndt at the art fair Art Dubai  
Khosrow Hassanzadeh (photo: Werner Bloch)
Art looks at the Arab revolution

Mounted for the sixth time at a luxury hotel, framed by palm trees and one of Arabia's most beautiful beaches, Art Dubai is still the most elegant and luxurious fair in the world. And as there is – with the exception of Doha – not a single museum for Arab contemporary art in the Middle East, Art Dubai assumes this function as well. It is not merely a trade fair, but rather the showcase par excellence for Arab contemporary art.