Features DS 27/02/04
HassanZadeh: ‘I don’t believe in violent upheaval’
Iranian painter can’t escape label of ‘political’ artist
Special to The Daily Star
Beirut: Khosrow HassanZadeh is tall and lithe. His face is lined and tanned and his dark hair is cut close to his head, showing flecks of gray. He smiles a lot and carries his 41 years well. Meeting this very contemporary Iranian painter one morning in Beirut’s Janine Rubeiz Gallery, where his exhibit, Pahlavan, is showing, feels like breathing the air of modern day Tehran in the center of the Lebanese capital.
For HassanZadeh is a very particular artist, one who is wholly indicative of an Iranian arts scene that has come to flourish at home and abroad ¬ despite the ruling clerical regime. Like his contemporaries in film and photography ¬ people like film-maker Samira Makhmalbaf, who recently won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival, or the photographer for the Magnum Agency who is known simply as Abbas ¬ HassanZadeh is an Iranian artist who has been able to examine the tensions between Islamic culture and secular realities through his work and see it win acclaim abroad with exhibits in Paris, London and Washington. The British Museum and the World Bank, as well as the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and numerous private collectors, have bought his work.
Born in 1963 in Tehran, from an Azerbaijani family, HassanZadeh spent most of his youth in museums and cinemas, a refuge from the streets of the capital where he worked selling bananas to tourists. After fighting as a conscript in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, he chose to follow his heart and paint, attending Persian literature classes at Azad University and taking art classes with Aydeen Aghdashlou, a painter and former adviser to Queen Farah.
Like many of his fellow artists in Tehran, HassanZadeh has faced the disappointment of not being able to show some of his paintings, which have been exhibited in the West, at home. A series on his impressions of war as well as a series on Iranian prostitutes depicting the tragedy of their lives were both banned in Tehran.
But HassanZadeh does not think of himself as political painter, although in many ways he is.
“I feel my artwork should reflect a serious subject,” he says in a thick Persian accent. “I hate politics, but I have been branded a political painter, really, because in Iran everybody is a political painter. If you paint you must be political.
“In Iran I had shows about war, Ashoura (the bloody Shiite religious ceremony marking the death in battle in 680 of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed), the veil and prostitution, but I am not a political painter. I don’t like politics. I am famous for being a political painter because of my subjects, but really they are just about the reality we live.”
The artist who is part of a cultural movement in Tehran that grew from the easing of restrictions at the end of the Iraq war, and he follows in the footsteps of previous movements rich with artistic tradition.
In the 1960s Iran experienced a liberal artistic environment that reflected, swallowed up and rebelled against the scene in Britain and the United States through movements such as saqqakhaneh (spiritual pop art), where artists adapted popular imagery to comment on contemporary Iran. Sculpture, traditionally frowned upon by Islam, was popular, as was experimentation with the art of calligraphy. After the 1979 Islamic revolution limits were placed on artistic expression until a decade later when artists like HassanZadeh and Zohre Mehran began to emerge.
By the late 1980s these artists represented the frustrated youth of Iran who had seen over 1 million of their countrymen die in the war, and as a result of their disillusionment by that and the social, economic and artistic constraints placed upon them, they found a form of communication through photography, film and painting that was able to dodge the shadow of the censorship.
With the 1997 election of reformist President Mohammed Khatami, HassanZadeh and his contemporaries had even more opportunity to experiment with freedom of expression though all the while facing resistance from more conservative elements.
“We have some more freedom with Khatami for visual arts,” HassanZadeh says between puffs on a cigarette. “But we still have problems. They wouldn’t agree to show my story of the murder of prostitutes ¬ which was happening almost daily at one point ¬ in the Tehran Museum, because I made the show at the same time they were being killed by these extreme religious men. I made portraits of them using their pictures from the newspaper, and this was too provocative, I think.
“For me this is an important issue that should be shown in Iran, because people don’t know about it. It should be shown in Tehran not just abroad,” he says.
HassanZadeh adds that, though he is happy with the current quantity of art and ability of its purveyors in Iran, anything supported by government funds is worthless.
“In general I don’t believe the government supports art. And they never support me, though I will not ask for their support financially because obviously it would inhibit my freedom. I prefer to do it myself. Every time the government supports art it is (worthless) art, and they want other things in return.”
The painter’s outspoken criticism doesn’t prevent him from giving credit where it is due.
“I believe in Khatami and his approach to make change through referendum. I don’t believe in violent upheaval or revolution. I have seen it. It is bad,” he says, adding that he didn’t vote in last week’s Iranian elections because he was in Lebanon.
HassanZadeh is not a man afraid to speak his mind or express it in his work.
Like the prostitution paintings, which are moving and tragic and all the more full of impact for their size and dark vision, HassanZadeh’s reflections on war are equally dark in mood. In particular, his most haunting series, in black and white, depicts massive figures wrapped in white linen body bags. The series expresses the pathos of war and universal suffering. One, titled Do I Have To Sign? which is owned by the British Museum, shows HassanZadeh’s amazingly poised sweeping brush strokes with which he creates a scarily animate body bag, made all the more poignant by the inclusion of his letters from the front.
The artist’s current touring exhibition, first shown at the Silk Road Gallery in Tehran, was completed three years ago and is a series of unframed massive silk screen prints on canvas of century-old photographs of half-naked men known as the Pahlavans. HassanZadeh has painted, colored and tampered with the prints in what is clearly a departure in subject matter for him, but one that is equally close to his heart.
“My aim was to remind people that these old noble men of Iran existed,” he explains, “and my question is what happened to these people, why and what is society like without them? It is the first time I have painted men; always my human subjects have been women.
“The prostitution series had made me so depressed that I had to look at something that was once so noble in Iranian society,” he adds.
The paintings are somewhat satirical, showing these Pahlavans naked from the waist up, their bodies strong and supple, wrestling and posing.
“These were great men of nobility who were strong, religious, but humble, too. Much like Sufis they believed in being strong spiritually and physically, and using that strength to help people. The aim is that your body is strong but your mind stays humble. They had annual wrestling competitions and the winner would be given the Pahlavani armband. They were very popular characters in Iranian society.
“But they are gone now,” he adds. “The last one was known as Tachti the Famous Pahlavan. He won Olympic medals for his wrestling, but he was murdered by the shah’s secret police before the revolution ¬ he was a wrestler with political ambitions who was far more popular than the shah.”
It is powerful imagery displaying the simple but powerful talent of the painter.
But despite his protestations to the contrary, HassanZadeh can’t get away from politics for too long: “I would consider myself an unofficial ambassador for Iran abroad,” he says. “Everybody thinks we are terrorists in the Arab world, but clearly we have art here, too. This I hate, so I have made this joke. Look.”
He removes a dog tag from around his neck. Indented on it are the words: Khosrow HassanZadeh, 1963, Terrorist.
“This is my political statement. We are not terrorists.”
Pahlavan runs until March 18 at the Janine Rubeiz Gallery in Beirut
i try to send you some text about pahlavan.
You know some things about that; i say some word about used in culture:
Genorous ; hero , gymnasium , regarder poor people ;, the seven adventures ,
Lion of god , fable ; gladiator ; sufism ,armlot generoustic ,interior , competition , wrestle , disciple ….
So: pahlavans: they’re part of more famouse and popilar tradetional of iranian culture that they turn off around 50 years ago ;they’re hero and genorous men that help and regarder middel and poor people .the history foundation of SHAH NAME BOOKS-1000 year ago(writer Ferdousi; fmouse poem) about a guy ;his name Rostam; and then to religious way to disciple EMAM ALI (Lion of god)
So other way they’re a littel sufism too and must be make body and minds heart by the seven adventures inside and out side of body and mind.
And in sexuall they’re by sexuall and normaly they have sex with men too!!
Every year , more befor ; they must be wrestle to gether and then one of them choosed to number one and gave to him armlot generoustic prise!
Funy!! I think it’s not so bad text! Maybe the first time somebody write about them so reality and simple and perfect too!!