`Widowhood at fifty years of age. Succeeded in raising her six children alone and under difficult circumstances, thanks to her deep religious beliefs.’ This is how Khosrow Hassanzadeh describes Nadjibeh Hassanzadeh, his 84-year-old mother. The description appears on a tag attached to one of the four, larger-than-life works that form the artist’s Terrorist series. There is emphasis on `religious belief’, for it is one theme that is played over in every tag. Reyhan Hassanzadeh, one of the artist’s two sisters portrayed in this series, ‘has been on several pilgrimages to Syria, Karbalah, and Mecca’, while Azimeh Hassanzadeh, ‘is known in her neighbourhood for her rigid adherence to religious customs’. The last work in the series is of Khosrow himself, most of whose ‘artwork makes use of religious motifs’.
It is clear that what the artist is doing in Terrorist is reclamation of an identity. He wants to take possession of the accusing gaze of the other. And the ‘other’ is none but the Western gaze, the only one whose valuation is important in the world of art. All artists working in non-Western countries have to position themselves in relation to this gaze. They will continue struggling over their identities as they develop their work and their ties to institutions that function like a life-support system.
Looking at Khosrow’s body of paintings one can see the course this enigmatic relationship has taken. Early Paintings (1988-1998) are peopled with his immediate relatives in their unassuming surroundings. While Nadjibeh is also present here, her background doesn’t form a tapestry of religious signs. A few years later, in the Terrorist series, she is large, supported by figures that appear like apparitions. She is placid, asking nothing of her viewers, neither sympathy nor antipathy. She remains inscrutable, her expressions giving nothing away, neither joy nor intransigence. Although her pose is not at all threatening to the viewer, her spectral seat — and perhaps the huge agate ring that she muscles — is. She sits on the floor, looking directly at the viewer and completely independent of his gaze.
There are other elements that make these paintings effective. Size: the viewer is dwarfed by the huge, two-piece works. Medium: silkscreen was used in propaganda art during the Iranian Revolution. Direct message: the tag is the convergence point of the neutral foreground and the spectral background. And the hidden messages: the image of the artist, contrary to that of female family members, is set outside of the house, almost suspended in midair. As opposed to his mother and sisters, he is holding earthly memorabilia. In the background there are scenes of nature, as a reference to the conceptual heavens against which would-be terrorists are pictured in websites run by terrorist organizations.
Terrorist is a critical phase in the artistic career of Khosrow Hassanzadeh. The process of self-transformation has brought him and his relationship to the world full circle. He is no longer looking in at his own society with a strictly incriminating eye (War, Prostitutes), nor is he looking out for signs of culture and identity (Chador, Pahlavan). Terrorist is a reclamation of the right to self-representation and a declaration of independence. It fails on both registers: ‘self-representation’ here is an appropriation of Western values, and the work can only become ‘independent’ if the artist’s intended viewer is Western. This very radical failure makes i,nique in the non-Western art scene.