Rajesh Punj on ‘New Players, New Roles’

Writer Rajesh Punj’s piece on the current show, ending June 16th 2013 at Hundred Years Gallery, London.

New Players, New Roles

The title New Players, New Roles, inspired by John Berger who in his book Ways of Seeing states that Rembrandt‘s self-portrait with new wife Saskia, is not made in the style of a new performer in a new role as intended. It is instead no more than the style of a new performer playing a traditional role’. Fari Bradley

Role Play

What is it to belong and be associated to a country defined by its politics and supposed tyrannous social structure? Countries such as Syria, Iraq, Libya and Iran that have recently been upturned by social revolution, are countries that western media agencies have us believe are part of the axis of evil, that is most likely to promote and provoke terrorist activity across the world; they are perceived as countries as far removed from the liberty of western democracy as is possible. Yet such rudimentary provocations, inundating our imaginations with grave negativity, can be the making of a creative counter culture; as the capital cities such as Iran’s Tehran, prosper on a wave of aesthetic ambition that has gathered great momentum and taken the art out of the country and onto a global platform. Where does one begin to understand the relationship of art to such social and cultural circumstances? Given to considering such circumstances are those in Tehran where artists of all disciplines are working in opposition to what is perceived as socially appropriate. Does the heightened cultural and political collision of creativity over clamp-down, give rise to something substantial that has its protagonist’s successfully managing to make and produce art, theatre, film, performance and literature, in spite of the uncompromising social circumstances? And in turn what are we to make of the those associated to Iran; by birth, ancestry; and altering geographies; consider Iranians who up and left for European shores since the early 1980’s after the Iranian revolution, and the second and third generation British, European and American Iranians now working independently of such heritage in favor of a more post-modern position, in which they are more American than they are Iranian, or more Iranian and less British? Slipping in and out of a cultural straight jacket, they seek to assimilate or aggravate both the cultural and identity apparatus that hold them in place, inside and outside of Iran.

Rembrandt. Self-portrait with Saskia - 1635

Rembrandt. Self-portrait with Saskia – 1635

Regarding such heightened associations, are we, the onlooker, prone to foolishly look for the politics in the work? Or is there something much more sophisticated taking place that has European and American Iranians shifting the emphasis away from fundamentalism to one’s ability to adopt and invest in multiple strategies for coping with belonging to one group and sitting outside another.

John Berger refers to Dutch master painter Rembrandt van Rijn, at a specific moment in his career, having adopted a traditional style in the guise of a new role. Curatorially is such a reference suggestive of the exhibiting artists acting out against cultural stereotypes for something more akin to multiple channels, in which multiple ideas and voices effectively overlap, and the audience take from the work what they will. 

For New Players, New Roles such a reference to Berger’s point asks how exhibiting artists might be individually manoeuvring between their multiple identities and associations to Iran, and delivering something new, that might eventually lead them to sacrifice identity, or tradition in this case, away? Rembrandt’s relationship to Iran is not immediately obvious but such a maverick cultural collision openly begs the question as to what commonality there is among this choice of artists. Curator Fari Bradley propositions as to whether it is enough to act collectively by virtue of one’s identity, or are the participating artists countering such an idea of commonality by suggesting something else entirely; that they are individual but by virtue of their experiences and cultural backgrounds, but that they will inevitably come together on common ground, overlapping one another; to expose stories of oppression and of a lack of self-determination for Iranians; As we are all individuals but we are all Iranians.


Curator Fari Bradley has brought together works by six Iranian artists, all living and working in the UK, to engage with notions of self-identity and role play to gratifying effect.

Maral Pourkazemi is an Iranian born in Germany, based in Britain. Dealing in surveillance style imagery, Pourkazemi’s work appeared entrenched in the codeal data that holds us in and out of place. Playfully employing decorative strategies to remonstrate with the censorship of the internet in Iran, she appears to look over the patterns that are more associated with decorative furnishings, specifically Persian carpets, and applies the intimate geometry of such domestic patterns to her own blue-print boundaries of Iran as akin to a global map. Map of Tehran 2013 appears as a collision of definitive lines, overlapping one another, coming to rise over the central axis, with the outer lines reaching out to the dotted parameter; which is all suggestive of a technically laboured drawing that has been executed without sentiment, association to or political bias for the country depicted. Iran appears flat, calculated and cut facetiously into pieces. Its stark simplicity appears as a terse and rather haunting work of immense beauty.

The Iranian Internet Between Freedom and Isolation 2013 is another of her works that clinically and very clearly appears as another decorative blueprint, of a visually engaging work that at first has no clear bearing on the title. Like an analytical chart or satellite map, of configurations one over another, Pourkazemi exhibits decorative design further advanced. The series of visual templates that run the length of the canvas appear as tiles or wallpaper patterns that are as harmless and unobstructive as colour charts. Yet for the artist these laboured patterns appear as the symbols for something else entirely. Sealing her sentiments in the title of the work, Pourkazemi sees artistic enterprise and beauty as belonging to freedom, in which creativity be allowed to flourish.

Koushna Navabi’s works appear as playful conundrums that are sobering for their decorative directness. Whether instruction or by invitation, Navabi introduces an element of subversive anxiety to what it might be to be in one place over another; living one life here and not occupying another somewhere else entirely. Her decorative and wilful abandon of the social taboos around displacement, make for works that are initially enchanting, prove engaging and then becoming unsettling. Can You Go Back, How Long Have You Been Here, Do You Want To Go Home 2013 appear as slogans in print and acrylic colour over decorative and very delicate patterned fabric. The intrusion of one upon the other, suggests something of the confrontation of verbal angst and insensitivity over the cultural dress codes of those who are displaced, relocated, or resettling from one climate and country to another. Like Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry, who has deliberately charted his insecurities through ceramics and boldly coloured tapestry, Navabi painstakingly uses softer, subtler materials; embroidery, knitting, and carpet weave, to challenge the status-quo; all in an attempt to address notions of gender and identity. In a decorative call to arms, Navabi appears energized by the tools laid out in front of her; materials and mediums less associated with the power of display, and more akin to the intricate daily patterns of our lives.

Another of her works, Lullaby 2013 is a highly accomplished decorative sculpture of substantial size and weight; in which subtle nuances of human and material form appear to have come together, in a disturbing yet visually rewarding morphed object. Anything initially unsettling about this work is positively subverted by Navabi’s deliberate and delicious use of the decorative; camouflaging what might appear to be disturbing about this work. Child like arms and legs sprout out of the uniform mannequin shape, as paisley styled fabric, the traditional Persian table cloth, wraps these two forms together, upon an erect and upright coat hanger. Another Bucket 2012 is an embroidered work on cloth, reads like a piece of childish humour, in which Navabi’s naked figure is elevated and upturned on her head, resting on what appears to be an erect and emptied burka. The black fabric skin that is required to cover the body is here laid abandoned, as the artist’s figure is left utterly exposed in reverse. Beside her is a small empty bucket with pools of water surrounding it; drinking water or collected tears the element of blue thread warms this monotone work.

Squeezing the Nipple 2012 is in a similar vein to Bucket, in which Navabi embroiders a small drawing of two fingers pressing an erect nipple, with the words ‘squeezing the nipple’ beneath it. It has the overtones of the work of British artist Tracey Emin, for all of its caricatured humour and intentional abandon; and like Emin, Navabi is as conformable with confrontational slogan style works, as she with subversive sketches. Mother and Child 2013, is a baffling work in which the artist has altered entirely the purpose and material feel of the burqa. Stood erect these two burqa skins take the posture of a female figure standing many feet tall, and she has attached to them proud and protruding black coloured velvet antlers, that devilishly sprout from the head of the sculptural form as though they overnight become a third gender, between animal and human. For all of the initial puzzlement at the work, there is a wonderful decorative quality about this coming together of two very different object forms; yet here in this context, of the same colour they appear wholly bound in aesthetic matrimony.

Andrew Khosravani employs a board range of materials and mediums to cleverly and very effectively examine the experience of human existence in and outside of ourselves, and our wider physical geographies. Khosravani is born is London, with Iranian and Brazilian heritage, that positively influences a much more sophisticated approach to his image building and interactive animations. Yet as much as he heralds new ideas with new information and media techniques, Khosravani surprisingly still reverts back to traditional mediums, such as print and linocut, to demonstrate a different aspect of his professional practice. For all of the technological advances of discussing human models, animated scenarios, and advanced thinking, Khosravani’s moving and heart-felt linocuts appear beautifully rendered.

Your Open Door 2013 is an almost rudimentary illustration of the wall of a cabin, in which a small window and wooden door have been lovingly rendered in print. The door is intentionally left wide open with very little other detail, as everything is in the title. An open door is effectively Khosravani’s bold sign-post to a sense of space, place and access – could it be for a certain freedom? Another work Junior’s Place 2013 appears to be another illustrative protest against the limitations of music and of the imaginative anarchy of unsolicited thought through sound; and like German expressionists Oscar Kokoschka and George Grosz before him, Khosravani’s caricatured forms, whether technological or more primitive in appearance, are utterly engrossing. Maciek’s Suit 2013 is another accomplished work, the only colour photograph he has ever taken yet appearing as a binary coloured lithograph print on paper. Studies for the figure of Maciek in detail show four morphing figures, who appear as alien and they are human, in an act of what appears to be slow self-destruction; melting or dripping away all of their human features for an all-encompassing skin that envelopes them entirely; the human form eventually becoming something resembling an inanimate tree trunk. The print on show however shows Maciek sitting, staring straight into the camera, in an everyday setting and in jeans. More sci-fi than anything serious, Khosravani like many of the artists in New Players, New Roles use narratives of modernity to explore his own and a wider cultural identity very effectively.

From the Back 2013 is a work on paper, in which Khosravani appears to have rendered the outline of a lone figure with his back turned, in a series of small postures and positions all alluding to the subtle nuances of human movement; and like a forensic pattern of human behaviour the work might well refer to the antagonist element of surveillance that has us all under the spotlight. Whether a government controlling its subjects, or a man walking through a western boulevard, Khosravani might have us believe we are all subject to degrees of imposed regulation that have has all recorded and re-recorded each time we venture outside.

Neda Dana-Haeri is an artist who has curatorial as well creative interests, having worked with a number of leading Iranian artists previously. Dana-Haeri’s practice is steeped in Persian philosophy and Oriental theosophy; leading to works that appear visually reductive and almost utterly minimal. Orchestrated by colour and gestural mark making, Dana-Haeri’s canvases reside in reality but are of another world. Fragments 2013 is a haunting acrylic canvas of blossoming colours that has pockets of illuminated forms at regular intervals; in which Dana-Haeri’s use of colour are as positive as they are provocative. For beneath the canvas’s skin she propositions the notion of another realm of an outer world in which philosophical fables are the touchstone for all visual experience; and in so doing Dana-Haeri has effectively become preoccupied with the possibilities of colour and formal decoration to such ends.

At Any Time 2013 is a slightly less decorative work, in which the artist uses a darker palette, of a clay-coloured background upon which these broken and disturbed threads of darker colour line the small canvas, as the entire work appears as a closed boundary, or fence. Forgotten Desire 2013 is a work that is made beautiful for its minimal imposition upon our being. Dana-Haeri’s use of colour, washes of blue and white create a ghost-like skin upon which there is evidence of something likely to happen, or equally our waiting for any form of incident, might tell us a great deal about our own sense of expectation. Might it be that philosophically such reductiveness or the rendering of nothing is ultimately proof of everything that has gone before?

Nooshin Farhid is an Iranian artist living in London. Her accomplished use of film, mean she has exhibited extensively both here in the UK and internationally as well as teaching MA Fine Art at Central St Martins. In the series Fear and Fervor for the exhibition New Player, New Roles, Farhid focuses on the mourning of Muharram; in which Shi’a Muslims across the Middle East, aggressively flagellate themselves in order to commemorate the martyrdom of a significant Imam. In an intense act of Matam or mourning, the male and female participants congregate in a public space in order they be allowed to display their collective grief. Matam is a more basic form a self flagellation, while Zanjeer-zani incorporates knives or razors attached to chains that are repeatedly swung about oneself in an act of greater and greater intensity. The narrative for such public violence upon oneself reads like a piece of biblical history.

Making less sense to a western audience and worked on to a great extent by Farhid, her graphic print film stills have a mix of beguiling beauty and unremitting tragedy about them that makes for a compelling sense of helplessness for the participants seeking to express their anguish at the loss of a religious deity and for the audience given over to witnessing the repeated action of self flagellation. A violent act captured on photographic paper, the curiosity and candour of Farhid’s work is compelling for its disturbing climax; and for how the choreographed barbarism of grief appears to be defined by one’s religious devotion. Dressed entirely in black, these mild mannered men congregate in near darkness to parade their grief, and the repeated slogans and thrashing of oneself that makes for a work that is utterly absorbing; as each figure tears the heard silence apart with an imagined demonstration of personal grief that collectively makes for a compelling act of defiance. Farhid’s visual imagery alludes highly effectively to the cacophony of sounds that lie beneath these film-stills; of the anguish and anger that affects them all.

Established artist Alinah Azadeh, like Koushna Navabi, makes use of unusual materials to create objects of playful beauty. British Iranian Azadeh appears to use textiles and technology to great effect, having exhibited all over the UK and as far afield as China. Specifically Silent Statements, Final Moments 2012 is an amusing work of fabric and forms that have been bound together to create an object resembling iconic computer gaming attachments or toys; the joystick, the toy gun, the helicopter and unknown soldier, are all the motifs of modern warfare. Yet it is the playful element of war that Azadeh critiques, because as innocent as these objects might appear, they are the selected symbols of the instruments of war. Echoing the work of British artist Yinka Shonibare, who argues that culture is an artificial construct that is effectively demonstrated through his perceived use of authentic materials that prove to be cross-bred hybrid fabrics; Azadeh’s use of Moroccan fabric is a deliberate negotiation between what is being shown and the medium of choice. Silent Statement: Listen 2012 is another work in which the artist has laboured to create something that recalls another thing entirely. Soft material, wood and plaster are Azadeh’s choice of materials from which she constructs a soft radio with attached aerial and headphones. Begging the question, are such playful instruments of recreation, such as a radio signal, really so innocuous? Because by virtue these constructed objects are the creative tools of a free society. The radio allowing the audience to listen to multiple narratives all at once, while the gun, the joy-stick and helicopter encourages us all to ape the mechanics of war from our own living rooms.

Rajesh Punj. June 2013

Rajesh Punj is a London based art critic, correspondent and curator, with a specialist interest in China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and the Middle East. With an academic background in European and American Art History and Curating, he currently interviews artists and writes extensively on the emerging markets.

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