The late Iranian artist Bahman Mohassess didn’t care about offering succor or touchy-feely platitudes to anyone. That was part of his greatness.
|Bahman Mohassess, Requiem Omnibus (Death of Martin Luther King) Piper, 1968, Mixed Media on Canvas, 100×150 cm. Courtesy CraveOnline.|
We’ve become so inundated with insipid TED-talk presentations (and by speakers who’ve taken their presentation cues from that template even when not speaking at actual TED events) that conversations on art and politics, particularly where the two intersect, have become exercises in facile uplift and affirmation. Artists who traffic in grittier, darker, more nuanced work or perspectives, those who don’t think the role of art is to be sure the consumer (because that’s what we’re reduced to in those settings) leaves the experience feeling good about themselves are hamstrung by current dictates on the roles and responsibilities of the artist.
What makes Mitra Farahani’s documentary Fifi Howls from Happiness so refreshing (on top of being simply a fantastic documentary) is that the film’s subject, the great, under-recognized Iranian visual artist Bahman Mohasses, truly does not give a fuck about offering succor or touchy-feely platitudes to anyone. He’s gruff, biting, cynical and utterly without faith in humanity. He’s also wickedly funny in his raspy garrulousness. His work – paintings, sculptures, theater design – was tough-minded, beautiful, and confrontational. It challenged those in power, but also took citizenry to task for their complacency, their “boot-licking” when resistance is what is called for.
Having fled Iran after the American-backed coup of 1953 overthrew the democratically elected government, the openly gay Mohasses settled in Italy. (His comments on contemporary gay culture are absolutely withering.) He’d return home some years later and start to divide his time between his birthplace and his second home. Eventually, disgusted by what has become of Iran, he returned to Italy permanently. By the time Farahani finds and films him in 2010, when he’s nearly eighty, few people outside art students and the most well-versed art collectors even know his name anymore, and most of them assume he is dead.