Zendegi: Life in Iran

series of photographs depicts colorful chadors, and instead of a female gaze, it is tea pots and pans staring right back at you. The audience seems confused, quietly deliberating whether to laugh or feel offended. Shadi Ghadirian’s series, “Like Everyday,” is just one of the thought-provoking works on show at the art exhibition “Zendegi: Twelve contemporary Iranian artists.”

“Zendegi,” meaning life in Persian, gives a glimpse of daily life and art in contemporary Iran. Curated and produced by Rose Issa Projects, the exhibition is currently running at the Beirut Exhibition Center (BEC) until May 30. Founder Rose Issa and co-director Omar Mazhar manage the London gallery from which they promote artists as well as organize and curate events in the Middle East.

The works on display can be divided into two categories: The older generation of Iranian artists attempts to revive traditional culture and crafts through Monir Farmanfarmaian’s mirror-mosaic panels and reverse glass paintings as well as Mohamed Ehsai’s poetic calligraphy. Meanwhile, the younger generation, including Farhad Ahrania, Mitra Trabrizian and Shadi Ghadirian, use photography to carefully construct narratives critiquing contemporary life in their homeland.

Other artists exhibiting their work at BEC are painter Maliheh Afnan, filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, sculptor Bita Ghezelayagh, Taraneh Hemami, multimedia artist Parastou Forouhar, painter Farhad Moshiri and photographer Najaf Shokri.

“The exhibition shows diversity, but there is an undertone of tension and struggle in all of our work,” Ahrania tells NOW Extra.

He manipulates digital images using needles to sow colorful threads and patches onto the canvas. Ahrania explains that he uses “threads as a way of making connections, and needles to navigate through an image.”

In his series, “Beautiful is the Silence of Ruins,” Ahrania juxtaposes images of American icons, such as James Dean, with images of traditional Iranian architecture. Colorful threads draw links between Western and Persian culture, seemingly unrelated. “My work is about the interplay and struggle between two ideologies,” he says.

Indeed, most of Ahrania’s work denotes the relationship between the US on the one hand, and the Middle East and Iran, on the other.

The “Miss Iraq” series intertwines photos of American beauty pageants with maps of Iraq. The picture of a Miss USA beauty queen, crying while receiving the crown in a red dress, is stitched and patched onto a backdrop of Iraq in the piece “Miss Iraq VIII.” The words USA and Iraq nearly overlap on the canvas. The effect is chilling as the image leave viewers almost quizzical.

But Ahrania explains that he is merely visualizing “the virtual US occupation of the land, body and mind of the Middle East… as the region is culturally occupied.”

The theme of struggle is also present in Mitra Tabrizian’s staged photographs.

“Tehran 2006” depicts a gloomy and tense image of the city. In a semi-deserted landscape, except for the cityscape and a political poster in the background, ordinary women and men walk around. They gaze in different directions, looking stern and aimless.

“Tehran is a modern city like any other, overpopulated and heavily congested. But I chose this particular spot [...] which looks as if it’s in the middle of nowhere with people that have nowhere to go,” explains Tabrizian.

The photograph puts on display ordinary characters, which are all struggling. “All the characters play themselves. The crowd is a mixture of people: a taxi driver, a factory worker, a builder, a cleaner and a caretaker,” she tells NOW Extra.

Through her tableaux, Mitra attempts to give a human dimension to wider events. “It will be these people, already living on the edge, who are hit most if the economic sanctions [imposed on Iran] continue or in the event of military action [from the West].”

But rather than setting a political agenda, the artworks reflect on the paradoxes and subtleties of reality.

Ghadirian’s photographs of anonymous forms composed of chadors and kitchen utensils do not aim to be offensive. According to the exhibition’s catalogue, the pictures are inspired by the artist’s personal experience. After receiving a degree in photography, Ghadirian finds herself overwhelmed with the domestic duties associated with marriage. “I was perplexed by the many weddings presents I received that were to do with housekeeping,” she writes.

Present at the opening night, Rose Issa defends the artwork with vigor. “[Ghadirian’s] work evokes stereotypes and clichés; it is about the choices women make.”

Although the exhibition deals with sensitive topics, most artists received positive feedback from the public. “Someone even told me he found my work humorous,” says Ahrania.

Lebanon, despite its political instability, remains one of the most liberal countries in the Middle East accepting to showcase to Iranian artists. Issa, herself a Lebanese-Iranian curator, explains why. “Few Arab countries are willing to give visibility to Iranian artists fearing it would be seen as propaganda in favor of the regime.”

She stresses on the importance of distinguishing a country’s culture from its government. “Regimes come and go, but the people stay,” she concludes. Giving voices to artists offers a fresh perspective from the usual political discourse concerning Iran.

Zendegi will run from April 15 until May 30, 2011


© All photos are copyrighted by Najaf Shokri.