Thursday, 26 February 2015

Tehran's answer to Banksy: Mehdi Ghadyanloo hits Britain

Flying cars, magic portals, levitating giraffes … street artist Mehdi Ghadyanloo’s eye-popping murals make Tehran smile – but his paintings also probe Iran’s turbulent past
Mehdi Ghadyanloo in front of his mural in Shoreditch, London. Courtesy The Guardian. 

On a wall in east London, two giant crows loom over two young women who are swinging a rope. As a child jumps over the skipping rope, he approaches a hole in the ceiling above him. But if he finally jumps high enough to rise above the confines of the concrete ceiling, he will become prey for the waiting birds.

This is a mural by Mehdi Ghadyanloo, an Iranian artist who is about to have his first exhibition in Britain. It is an unexpected addition to the walls of Shoreditch; the neighbourhood famous for its street art rarely sees anything as subtle as this. As if to make the point, a car park nearby is plastered with ugly, third-rate graffiti. Ghadyanloo, by contrast, makes use of trompe l’oeil, the technique invented in the Renaissance of using perspective to create eye-fooling illusions. It is eerily arresting and poetic.

Ghadyanloo has more in common with the metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico than he does with Banksy. Yet in terms of success as a street artist, he is undoubtedly the Banksy of Tehran. Astonishingly, there are over 100 walls in Iran’s capital decorated by Ghadyanloo. His murals are so popular, he tells me, that there are even imitation Ghadyanloos: “Sometimes districts order my works to be painted by other people. There are many copies of my work in Tehran.”

His paintings are not illegal. On the contrary, he was commissioned by the city government to paint them. Nine years ago – in 2006, or by the Iranian calendar, 1384 – “the municipality published a call for artists”. Fresh out of an art course at Tehran University, he applied.

Tehran is a city of blank walls, he explains. “I heard Tehran still has 5,000 blank walls to be painted. They said: ‘You can find your wall and suggest your idea.’ The Beautification Organisation liked my works ...”

No wonder. Ghadyanloo’s murals in Tehran open windows in the sky. He sees them as a utopian protest against the city’s pollution and smog. “Sometimes you have only grey skies. I wanted to paint clear skies. I would like Tehran to be like my works.”

Using his mastery of trompe l’oeil, he paints huge walls with what he calls suggestive moments from unwritten short stories. His scenes are dream-like, ambiguous. Cars fly in space in a science-fiction city. Holes open to reveal blue skies. Fairies peep through the portals. People walk on roofs. “I want to give a smiling moment,” he says.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Cars, drugs and virginity tests dominate Iranian film festival

Tehran’s Fajr film festival, which marks the anniversary of the Islamic revolution, has ditched weighty themes in favour of populist blockbusters
Mahtab Keramati stars in ‘Ice Age’, a thriller infused with betrayal, drugs and luxury cars. Photograph: Promotional. Courtesy The Guardian. 
by Tehran Bureau correspondent, The Guardian

Divorce, abortion and infidelity – set amid villas with blue pools and lavish gardens – were the themes dominating this year’s Fajr film festival, which ran 1-12 February in Tehran. But it was one of the weakest line-ups in recent years.

The winning films were geared towards the box office, full of popular actors and story lines awash with deception, drugs and betrayal. One wonders if such films even belong in an arts festival.

Gone were the heavyweight names predominant in last year’s festival and many of the featured film-makers were relative unknowns. Abolhassan Davoodi’s Mad Rook, which took home the most Fajr trophies (five, including best director and best film), was a standard teen thriller on the perils of social networking. A group of youngsters meet through Facebook and the wealthiest girl dares the boy from south Tehran to enter (what she thinks is) a deserted home. Chaos ensues.

Alireza Raeesian’s A Time for Love, featuring Leila Hatami, was another story of adultery and unwanted pregnancy, but lacked substance. The much talked-about The Girl’s House had a story line based on virginity tests. Ice Age was yet another thriller infused with betrayal, drugs and luxury cars. None was what we expect of Fajr, the home of Farhadi, Mirkarimi and Banietemad.

The symbol of Fajr has long been the simorgh, the mythical bird living in the heart of the symbolic Qaf mountain. The festival has added a new aspect to the simorgh’s character as the bird bringing Iran’s stories to the big screen through Fajr’s exploration of the deep layers of Iranian society. This year, those stories were replaced by expensive automobiles.

Adding to the jarring nature of the films were long advertisements for the festival’s two main sponsors, RighTel, the Iranian mobile network operator, and ZTE, the Chinese multinational telecoms company. Never before had audiences been exposed to so many adverts. As well, multiple RighTel stands were seen in every Fajr cinema, and in the festival’s closing ceremony, all winners were handed a gift bag from RighTel along with their trophy.

Cartoonist Mana Neyestani speaks on his Iran imprisonment

In his first graphic novel, the Iranian-born Mana Neyestani tells the story of his three-month imprisonment for allegedly inciting political arrest with a cartoon. The book is poignant, funny and surreal -- capturing the terror and boredom of being imprisoned. Courtesy Mana Neyestani / Uncivilized Books and LA Times.

by Carolina A. Miranda, LA Times

In 2006, the Iranian artist Mana Neyestani sat down to draw a children's cartoon for a weekly magazine called Iran Jome. The image showed a 10-year-old boy named Soheil trying to have a conversation with a cockroach in a nonsensical cockroach language. The insect didn't understand the boy and responded, "Namana?" — which means, "What?"

That little cartoon landed Neyestani in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison for three months, and forced the artist to flee the country shortly after his release.

"An Iranian Metamorphosis" is executed in a dense, crosshatch style, which gives his images the feeling of being caught in a shadow -- the ideal aesthetic for a book that is about authoritarianism, free speech and escape. (Courtesy Mana Neyestani / Uncivilized Books and LA Times.

"I was never tortured physically," Neyestani writes via email from Paris, where he is now based. But, he adds, "it was a stressful nightmare, stuck between four walls with fluorescent lights on 24 hours a day [with] no clear idea about your future and the time they [will] keep you in arrest."

The story of Neyestani's imprisonment is now the subject of his first graphic novel, "An Iranian Metamorphosis," which was recently published in English by the Minneapolis-based Uncivilized Books.

"An Iranian Metamorphosis" is a masterful work: the straightforward tale of the artist's detention — and that of his editor Mehrdad Ghasemfar — woven together by moments of humor, tragedy and surreal Kafkaesque absurdity. (In one scene, Neyestani's prison guard asks the beleaguered cartoonist for a portrait, yet only reveals a portion of his face to him.)

Neyestani, now 42, studied architectural engineering in college, but has spent his adult life working as a cartoonist — first in Iran, now in France (where he contributes to sites such as Iran Wire and Tavaana). Interestingly, he has had a front-row perch from which to observe the fallout from the Charlie Hebdo assassinations.

"I felt huge sadness," he says of the murders of the satirical weekly's staff members by Islamist extremists early last month. "I got angry."

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

An incredible feeling of warmth and humanity

Berlinale 2015: Golden Bear for Jafar Panahi's film "Taxi"
Jafar Panahi's "Taxi" truly deserves the Golden Bear it won at the Berlinale. For Jochen Kurten, the film's victory is more than just a political statement because "Taxi" takes the viewer on a journey through the Iranian capital and is full of warmth and humanity. The whole experience moved him deeply
Iranian cinema already has an established tradition of scenes filmed from a moving car. Abbas Kiarostami, who made Iranian cinema famous around the world, has often set his protagonists in cars. Just like the driver, the filmgoer could see the world passing by. Viewers saw what the actor in the film was seeing; they saw cities and landscapes, noticed little episodes in passing, saw people and their lives passing by. The car and the eyes of the viewers became one, a large moving camera. The film director shared his observations and his thoughts with the viewers.
Jafar Panahi applied a similar technique in his new film "Taxi", although the decision to do so was not entirely voluntary. Anyone who has followed Panahi's story in recent years knows why this is so: Panahi is not allowed to make films and certainly not allowed to travel abroad. Although sentenced to a term in prison, his prison sentence was stayed as a result of pressure from abroad. However, he has chosen to disregard the work ban imposed on him. Two years ago, Panahi's film "Closed Curtain" was shown at the Berlinale and won a Silver Bear for its screenplay.
This time, however, Panahi took the Golden Bear. His film is a tremendously courageous act of resistance against the work ban imposed on him by the Iranian authorities. The director plays the taxi driver in his own film, making conversation with his numerous passengers as he drives them around Tehran. Some of these passengers, for instance a critical female lawyer, address Iran's democratic abuses very directly. This is courageous. In this respect, "Taxi" is a politically committed film.
On the other hand, "Taxi" is quite simply a great film. Just like Kiarostami, Panahi uses the principle of movement, which is one of the fundamental pillars of the film medium. Whether it is the camera that moves, the actor, or both, Panahi offers a filmic journey through the heart of Tehran.
Beyond the form, the content also addresses artistic reflections as well, as the taxi driver and his passengers often talk about cinema. The resulting conversations are very insightful. In this way, "Taxi" is also a clever take on current events.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Focusing attention on hidden realities

Art and performance project "The Forgotten"

Once upon a time in a land far away, there existed a storytelling tradition known as "naghali". Iranian artist Golnar Tabibzadeh was inspired by this tradition to combine art and storytelling for her project "The Forgotten", which tells some of the heart-rending personal stories behind the daily news.
Breaking with media constructs and traditional conventions: the stories told in "The Forgotten" are set in today's world. These modern tales have roots documenting current realities. In this way, the project tries to show that heroes and villains, good and evil aren't as clear-cut in the real world as they are in fairy tales. And yet there are people whose struggles in life and whose ultimate survival are much more heroic than anything we could imagine. Courtesy Qantara.
by Marian Brehmer, Qantara
Young Samir loved telling stories. A good story let him pretend to be one of his favourite characters. He liked playing within the high walls of the ancient citadel in his hometown of Aleppo, imagining himself to be a hero in his castle, until one day missiles struck his home and his mother ran out onto the street, her dress on fire. That was the day he stopped talking.

The audience has gone absolutely silent. The speaker, dressed all in black, recounts Samir's fate in a loud, accentuated voice. Then an Arabic melody wafts out of the darkness. First softly, then growing louder and louder, until an emphatic voice dominates the entire theatre.

Like a woman wailing in grief, the Syrian soprano Dima Orsho sings her heart out. The music and narration are supported by five artworks that stand side by side on the stage. All of the characters in the stories being told are depicted on the canvases in vibrant colours.

If we didn't know how dramatic these stories were, Golnar Tabibzadeh's pictures might make an almost cheerful impression. The brightly coloured and loosely painted motifs, which sensitively illustrate the tales being related, look like fairy-tale images. The author of the piece, entitled "The Forgotten", which was performed at the Morgenland Festival Osnabruck 2014, is a spirited and lively young artist. But when she tells of the intention behind her project, Golnar Tabibzadeh is very serious indeed.