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.
“One day these people will wake up to their own incompetence; they might not become better people [but] they shall be forced from this boot-licking even if to become a more pitiful nation. And I will make this happen.” That’s Mohasses speaking in a clip from the 1967 Iranian TV documentary The Eye That Hears, directed by Ahmad Faroughi. The clip is one of the many tools used by Farahani to sketch in the tale of a little-known master, much of whose work no longer exists. What the government didn’t destroy, he did by his own hand, and one of the most intriguing aspects of the film is trying to parse how his disdain for the world led him to “kill” so many of his own works. There’s something both suicidal and infanticidal in play there, and Mohassess refuses to provide clarity on his reasons. It also slowly becomes clear that despite all his hard-bitten cynicism, the still politically sharp and engaged artist has had his heart repeatedly shattered by humanity.
Fifi (taken from the name of one of his art pieces) is largely set in the hotel apartment where he resides, with still photos and documentary footage filling in a larger-than-life story that is riveting. Ever the control-freak, Mohasses can’t help but try to co-direct the film, but Farahani, while hugely respectful and clearly charmed by her subject, keeps a firm handle on the reins, even as she steps into the story she’s documenting. The film’s dramatic tension increases just past the mid-way point when two wealthy Iranian brothers now living in Dubai attempt to commission a new work from Mohassess. They want to make it the centerpiece of their dazzling art collection, already filled with hard-to-come by Mohasses pieces. The curmudgeonly old man thaws beneath the star-struck attention the brothers give him, but still proves a tough (but very fair) business negotiator.
Though the film begins with the acknowledgment that Bahman Mohasses died just as the film was wrapping, it’s still shocking for the viewer to actually have some of the great man’s last gasping moments actually captured on film. But for all the sobering, even disturbing aspects to being a witness in this way, it’s also very fitting that Mohasses would make the viewer uncomfortable as he makes his final exit.
Ernest Hardy is a Sundance Fellow whose music and film criticism have appeared in the New YorkTimes, the Village Voice, Vibe, Rolling Stone, LA Times, and LA Weekly. His collection of criticism, Blood Beats Vol. 1: Demos, Remixes and Extended Versions (2006) was a recipient of the 2007 PEN / Beyond Margins Award.