A look at the works of 13 artists presented by Bavan Gallery at London's Cromwell Place | Takin Aghdashloo and how to select these works
The exhibition 'Event: Iranian Contemporary Art and Shifting Realities' was held in London.
ArtDayME: Bavan Gallery organized the group exhibition 'Event: Iranian Contemporary Art and Shifting Realities' with the participation of 13 Iranian artists from October 19 to 30 at Cromwell Place, London. This exhibition was curated by Takin Aghdashloo.
Inspired by the concept of 'Event', theorized by the French philosopher Alain Badiou, the exhibition featured generations of Iranian contemporary artists who become subjects of change, standing steadfast in their commitment to capturing the essence of truth. Their works transcend local boundaries, resonating universally, and fostering dialogue beyond the nation's borders.
You can read the Curatorial Statement written by Takin Aghdashloo below:
"In the philosophy of contemporary French philosopher Alain Badiou, the concept of Event holds a central and transformative role. An Event, according to Badiou, is a sudden and rare occurrence that introduces something genuinely new into a situation. It disrupts the existing order, breaks with the established norms, and opens up new possibilities for change and truth. It can be an occurrence such as a radical political rupture, a transformation of reality, or the rise of a new art form.
In this regard, the 2022 protest movement in Iran was a moment in history that falls under the Badiou’s definition of Event. The shifting attitudes in the psyche of the Iranian society, resulted in a transformative reframing of reality, and one of the biggest feminist uprisings in history.
An Event is an effect that seems to exceed the sum of its particular causes, so it is not grounded in sufficient reasons, making its re-enactment impossible. However, it is possible to retrospectively examine an Event, and this exhibition aims to look at the conditions that lead to the 2022 Iranian social movement, through the lens of art.
The exhibition unfolds a tapestry of fidelity as 13 Iranian artists of multiple generations become subjects of change, standing steadfast in their commitment to capturing the essence of truth. Their works transcend local boundaries, resonating universally, and foster dialogue beyond the nation's borders."
Takin Aghdashloo (b. 1982, Tehran, Iran) is an independent curator and writer based in Tehran. He received his BFA in New Media Art from Ryerson University in Toronto in 2011, after switching his major from Computer Science to visual arts. He has written extensively on contemporary art and has edited several volumes including monographs. Aghdashloo has also translated works related to art into Persian, most notably Hans Ulrich Obrist’s A Brief History of Curating. He has been curating exhibitions since 2012.
About the artists
Who are the 13 Iranian artists participating in the exhibition and what works did they present? These 13 artists are introduced below:
Mehrdad Afsari’s art practice is largely grounded in themes of existentialism, tyranny, and the indifference of nature. Through photography, he captures mystical landscapes through a lens imbued with allegorical and poetic vision. In his series, Continuous Past, Afsari crafts representations of seemingly commonplace urban scenery, yet these images signify the struggles of the Iranian people throughout their recent history. This troubling past reverberates into the present, manifesting a continuous cycle of historical events. The photograph, as hinted by its title, alludes to the pinnacle of Iranian design and creativity embodied in Persian gardens, a glory now only retained in memory, lying in overgrown ruins, forsaken and forgotten.
In the context of French philosopher Alain Badiou’s theory, the emergence of an Event grants the capacity to retrospectively analyze the past, discerning the correct paths only in the wake of wrong choices. Drawing upon the philosophy of Henri Bergson, it is understood that while one cannot alter the tangible reality of the past, there exists the potential to reshape its virtual dimension. This transformation occurs when something radically new emerges – in this instance, the acquisition of social freedoms through force and protests. The “new” retrospectively manifests its own possibilities, its own conditions and causes. This is akin to the transformative power of falling in love, which seemingly alters the past, nurturing a sentiment that feels as if the love was predestined, a force that existed long before the lovers met.
In her series Hidden, photographer Atoosa Alebouyeh constructs dream-like scenes through carefully arranged self-portraits fostering a discourse centered on feminism, the female body, and reticence. Though shot in colour, she diligently choses every detail to create an image looking devoid of colour at a first glance. Alebouyeh reflects, “My mind harbors various thoughts, beliefs, and emotions that I fear expressing, compelling me to conceal them. These internal fears materialize in my dreams, recurring and profoundly influencing my waking reality. This may stem from societal and environmental factors; from the prohibitions and restrictions that surround me.” Alebouyeh’s photograph depicts an enigmatic scene where a female figure appears to be in search of something, possibly her own identity. The presence of a strand of hair lying beside her on the floor intensifies the clairvoyant quality of this image.
French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who contemplated historical and generational injustices, describes them as “my wound existed before me, I was born to embody it,” Alebouyeh’s work resonates with a sense of pre-existing pain and struggle. When an Event transpires, it retroactively establishes its necessity, creating a preceding chain that renders it seemingly inevitable.
Navid Azimi Sajadi
Navid Azimi-Sajadi’s practice is deeply entrenched in a rich tapestry of histories and mythologies, incorporating iconography from both Eastern and Western traditions. A recurring theme in his work is the nuanced exploration of gender dynamics, particularly focusing on the oppression of women within fundamentalist and patriarchal social structures. This oppression is often depicted through enigmatic figures and shapes, reminiscent of ancient artifacts, evoking a powerful sense of continuity with the past. Azimi-Sajadi frequently employs ceramics in his work, perpetuating a millennia-old form of artistic expression. The plate featured in this exhibition draws inspiration from the women’s rights movement in Iran.
Intersecting with this, Walter Benjamin’s insights in his Arcades Project resonate with Azimi-Sajadi’s approach to art. Benjamin cites French historian André Monglond, stating, “The past has left images of itself in literary texts, images comparable to those imprinted by light on a photosensitive plate. Only the future holds developers potent enough to scan such surfaces perfectly.” Benjamin believed that revolutionary acts function as a retroactive redemption of past failed endeavors, forming a secret pact between past generations and the present one, united in the quest for emancipation.
Drawing inspiration from Iran’s rich artistic heritage and mythology, Mohsen Fouladpour’s ceramic sculptures grapple with complex notions of power, gender, and violence. The piece in focus features a tall, topless female figure, assertively encircled by two shorter, mythical black demons brandishing daggers in a menacing stance. This artwork resonates profoundly with the upheavals of 2022 in Iran, ignited by the tragic death of Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the Morality Police — a harrowing event that rattled the foundations of the established patriarchal system, further highlighting the organized oppression of women in Iran.
This profound moment finds resonance in the words of the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. He scrutinizes the authenticity of a political Event, identifying it as a radical turning point that demands collective responsivity to safeguard the advancements garnered through it: “in politics, a contingent upheaval (revolt) is an Event when it gives rise to a commitment of the collective subject to new universal emancipatory project, and thereby sets in motions the patient work of restructuring society.”
In Amir Kamand’s wood sculptures, figures and characters inspired by pop culture frequently emerge, set against a backdrop of power dynamics cleverly veiled by a unique sense of humor. Kamand's work draws upon universal themes and narratives, infused with the particular urban sensibilities of his hometown Tehran. The two sculptures showcased here portray a male and a female boxer, each bearing potent symbolism. The male figure clutches the ancient national emblem of Iran, the Lion and Sun — a representation officially restricted in the country since 1979. The other piece reveals a defiant female boxer scrutinizing a diminutive male opponent through a microscope, encapsulating a moment of both empowerment and scrutiny.
This narrative of defiance is mirrored in the philosophy of Slavoj Žižek, who likens the evolving dynamics between a weakening political system and the growing defiance of its populace to a classic cartoon scenario. He describes: “the cat reaches a precipice but goes on walking, oblivious to the fact that there is no ground under its feet; it starts to fall only when it looks down and notices the abyss. When apolitical regime loses its authority, it is like the cat above the precipice.”
Shohreh Mehran’s photorealist paintings meticulously capture the evolving tapestry of daily life in urban Tehran and its surrounding areas. These two pieces from her School Girls series eloquently narrate the swift social transformations impacting women's liberties in Iran, vividly capturing the zeitgeist before and after the pivotal 2022 protest movement. The first piece portrays a young girl immersed in a book while seated on the pavement, clad in her school uniform which adheres to the mandatory hijab dress code imposed on all females above the age of nine. In stark contrast, the second artwork, crafted in 2023, unveils a groundbreaking scene where two school girls confidently display their unveiled heads in public, a sight unfathomable just a year prior.
For German philosopher Martin Heidegger, Event (Ereignis) has nothing to do with processes that go on out there in reality – the social universe of established customs and opinions in which we dwell. Event designates a new epochal disclosure of Being, the emergence of a new “world” – a horizon of meaning within which all entities appear
Multidisciplinary artist Parsa Mostaghim tackles intricate concepts of conflict and tyranny through his visual narratives. In the showcased video, he melds motifs found in ancient Persian kilims (carpets) with figures emblematic of modern instruments of state warfare and oppression. A notable focal point is the representation of the oil wells, a stark nod to the geopolitical intricacies of the Middle East region. Central to the piece is the malevolent ruler from Persian mythology, Zahhak, a figure marked by the grotesque emergence of two snakes from his shoulders, a curse inflicted upon him through a kiss by the devil. Zahhak finds himself ensnared in a vicious cycle of appeasing the snakes’ voracious appetite for human brains daily, an allegory mirroring the relentless demands of tyranny.
This narrative finds a poignant echo in an interaction involving Romanian writer Panait Istrati during his visit to the Soviet Union in the late 1920s. As Istrati witnessed the unfolding wave of purges and show trials, a Soviet advocate sought to justify the necessity of violence against perceived enemies, citing the proverb, “You can't make an omelette without breaking any eggs.” To which Istrati sharply replied, “All right. I can see the broken eggs. Where's this omelette of yours?” This exchange encapsulates a pervasive disillusionment and skepticism towards the brutal sacrifices demanded by oppressive regimes.
Nicky Nodjoumi’s work resonates profoundly in the contemporary art landscape, marked by its politically charged paintings that skillfully explore the dynamics of power, oppression, and social discourse. His pieces are suffused with a certain element of ambiguity, fostering a rich, multi-layered tapestry of meanings rather than prescribing direct stances. This calculated ambiguity invites viewers to venture deep into interpretative realms, unraveling complex narratives within each artwork.
Living in exile for over four decades, Nodjoumi has cultivated a prolific practice, steeped in poignant critiques of both Iranian and international political scenarios. His painting, titled Push and Pull in This Place, exemplifies this, featuring a male figure grappling with a frame as another arm attempts to restrain him. This intense interplay of forces can be seen as a metaphorical representation of the multifaceted tensions that characterize contemporary socio political landscapes.
To fully grasp the depth of Nodjoumi’s work, one must delve into the theory of Event, which seeks to unravel the complex interrelationships between reality, perception, and experience. At its core, the theory posits that an Event transcends mere occurrences within the world. Instead, it signifies a radical transformation of the very lens through which we perceive and engage with the world, prompting individuals to question, reinterpret, and redefine established narratives.
Farah Ossouli is a pioneering figure in the modern evolution of Persian miniature painting. Renowned for melding contemporary subjects and age-old narratives, her work reshapes traditional art forms with renewed urgency and perspective. She delves deep into critical themes such as violence, oppression, and romanticism, weaving them with modern narratives and feminist perspectives in her work.
The showcased pieces from her Still Life series in this exhibition are a testament to her innovative approach. The title itself carries a powerful double entendre, alluding to the decapitated heads in the paintings. Ossouli had replaced the customary ornate borders of Persian miniatures for ones fraught with bullets and bombs, a stark commentary on the turbulent times we live in. To complement the powerful visuals, each piece is adorned with a poignant verse from the modernist Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlou, adding a resonant poetic layer to her narrative.
Her art can be seen as a vivid portrayal of an Event, a term defining a sudden, traumatic encounter that disrupts and redefines existing realities. Drawing parallels to Plato's philosophical discussions on love, this concept encapsulates the radical transformation and reactions evoked by profound experiences, such as powerful emotions invoked by love. This whirlwind of emotional upheaval is succinctly captured in the Basque phrase maitemindu, which translates to “being injured by love”, indicating the deep impact and transformative power that such encounters can hold.
Elham Pourkhani’s art seamlessly blends the grand traditions of classic Persian miniature painting with modern sensibilities, creating a dynamic work that echoes both the past and the present. Her profound literary background significantly influences her visual storytelling approach, employing the canvas to narrate intricate tales that resonate deeply with the viewer.
In the featured painting, we see a jubilant congregation of women gathered around a fire, their joyous dance illustrated in a variety of clothes that span from traditional to contemporary. Viewed in the context of Iranian society, this is a defiant act as all forms of dancing by women in public is banned in the country. A special aspect of the painting is the shadows cast by these figures, which form a harmonious circle inspired by Henri Matisse's renowned 1910 masterpiece, Dance. This detail serves as an exquisite homage to the famed French artist. Adding depth to her narrative, Pourkhani employs inverted sections she aptly refers to as “parallel universes,” showcasing her exploration of the concept of coexistence within her works.
Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard writes: “Love believes everything, and yet is never to be deceived. Mistrust, however, believes nothing and is nevertheless thoroughly deceived.” This mirrors the transformative nature of an Event, where not only do elements shift, but the very criteria by which change is assessed alters, signifying a pivotal moment that reshapes the entire arena where facts and transformations unfold.
Ali Akbar Sadeghi
As one of the most celebrated contemporary painters of Iran, Ali-Akbar Sadeghi is renowned for his distinct and vivid style, which often draws upon Persian mythology, folklore, and classical literature to craft visually rich narratives. His work has also been notably influenced by Surrealism, creating a unique blend of traditional and modern artistic elements. In his series Holy Demon, he challenges the concepts of moral dichotomies: good versus evil, justice versus injustice, and beauty versus ugliness. The painting showcased here is titled INRI, a Latin acronym traditionally referring to Jesus Christ, believed to have been inscribed on the cross during His crucifixion. However, the subject being crucified in the artwork is an angelic female figure, who appears elevated above the head of a demon.
German philosopher Hegel introduces the concept of “absolute knowing,” where he discusses the journey to discover the truth about a subject. He suggests that truth requires time to evolve through illusions - such as fiction or fantasies - and form itself. In the pursuit of truth, one must initially navigate through erroneous choices; the final truth can only be reached through a path laden with mistakes. These errors are not merely discarded but preserved within the ultimate truth. According to Hegel, this process illustrates precisely how history self-corrects. Consequently, to reach an Evental moment, there isn’t a “right time” to act. Truth emerges from misrecognition, urging individuals to attempt and embrace risk. The vivid and surreal narratives depicted in Sadeghi’s paintings seem to emerge from a space where the lines between moral absolutes are blurred, giving way to a richer, more complex understanding of these concepts.
The vibrant and colourful works of Soraya Sharghi are rich with fantastical tales and narratives imagined by the artist. Drawing upon a diverse array of influences including Persian mythology and Western literature, Sharghi crafts stories revolving around potent themes such as power and feminism. Through a harmonious fusion of Eastern and Western techniques and materials – such as screen printing, gold leaf, velvet, and Persian khatam – Sharghi manifests a unique painting style that encapsulates the complex intricacies of these narratives. The work presented here is influenced by the intricate designs of Persian carpets, with floral patterns merging together to construct a nude female figure.
In the field of psychoanalysis, French theorist Jacques Lacan introduced the concept of “traversing the fantasy,” a theory denoting a deep and transformative engagement with one's unconscious structures of desire and belief. This engagement signifies a potential point of transformation and liberation within the analytic process. It suggests a deeper immersion in one's fantasies than ever before, fostering an intimate relationship with the core of these fantasies. Through this process, individuals come face-to-face with the constructed nature of their desires and the fantasies that stem from them, confronting the central void that embodies these structures. This is a realization of how desires are sculpted by external forces, and it represents a journey towards moving beyond these embedded influences. In a way, Sharghi’s artworks resonate with this concept of traversing the fantasy, inviting viewers to delve deeper into the woven tales, perhaps recognizing and confronting the intricate layers of desire and belief that reside within.
Mahsa Tehrani breathes new life into traditional landscape paintings, transforming them into energetic scenes brimming with narrative. Her canvases, often filled with thriving green terrains, become a meeting ground for people, animals, and objects, all converging in playful harmony. This interplay gives rise to a nearly utopian world, momentarily disrupted by subtle traces of violence that fracture the euphoria – a delicate balance between tranquillity and turmoil. Tehrani frequently finds inspiration in cinema, crafting large canvases that have an immersive characteristic. Here, she explores complex themes of liberty, feminism, and romanticism. A striking aspect of this piece is the prominent nude female figure nestled within a serene backdrop, a scene disrupted by the presence of a broken vase and a lifeless bird, hinting at an uncertain past.
French philosopher Alain Badiou describes the concept of an Event as a transformative experience that evolves from a mere contingency to a necessary, defining moment. Such events spark a universal principle that demands unwavering fidelity and steadfast effort to fully realize its implications. An individual who has borne witness to an Event becomes a beacon of its truth, working tirelessly to embody its potentialities and repercussions. However, without a dedicated commitment, the profound impact of an Event can easily unravel, losing its potency and transformative power. For instance, an erotic encounter escalates to the Event of love only when it orchestrates a sea change in the lovers' lives, aligning their existence around the shared endeavour of building a united life.
About Bavan Gallery
Located in downtown Tehran, Bavan Gallery was established in 2018 by Ava Ayoubi, opening with its first site specific exhibition titled “Revision at the House on Abdeh St”. After a year of planning, researching, and renovations, the gallery officially opened its doors to the public in December 2019 for collaborating with artists at all stages of their careers so that various historical lineages can enter into dialogue with one another. Bavan has sought to support its artists and share their visionary works with audiences worldwide.
Bavan's artistic vision is based on new experiences in contemporary art, focusing on presenting the evolving landscape in art stemming from the growing influence of new media. Bavan aims to act as a bridge between the vibrant Iranian contemporary art and international scene. We aim to give sound to artists whose works can make creative changes in the art scene as well as market and public culture.