Nov 13 2017

New Hunts: Profile of Reza Derakshani

by Brady Ng

Portrait of REZA DERAKSHANI. Photo by Ali Zanjani. Courtesy the artist and Sotheby’s Hong Kong.

Iranian-born artist Reza Derakshani was in Hong Kong for the first time in early November. His new, expressionistic paintings—all created in 2017—depicting horseback hunts inspired by Persian poetry were on show alongside sculptures by Lebanese artist Alfred Basbous (1924–2006) in the “Two Moderns from the Middle East” selling exhibition at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery.

Derakshani was born in Sangsar, in northeastern Iran, and “grew up in a black tent” on the Alborz Mountains, where the moonlight shining through the tent’s holes was the only source of illumination for the artist’s studies at night. At the age of nine, Derakshani began to make a living with a brush and calligraphy pen—“out of necessity,” as the artist tersely put it—by taking on commercial commissions, producing any illustration that his clients needed. He staged his first exhibition of illustrations and calligraphic works at the age of 19. This led him to study visual arts at Tehran University, where he was exposed to artistic styles from the West, and took a particular liking to the Minimalists of America and Europe while studying under Iranian-Armenian modern art pioneer Marcos Grigorian.

The completion of his education in Tehran wasn’t enough to sate his thirst for formal training, so Derakshani departed for Los Angeles to further his studies at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. It was at this time when the Islamic Revolution (1978–79) kicked off in Iran, placing the conservative ayatollahs in power after the Shah was overthrown. American sentiment toward ethnic Iranians turned sour, so the artist left, returning to the capital of the newly established Islamic Republic.

What came next was a whirlwind; it wasn’t long before Derakshani wanted to return Stateside, but visas for the artist and his family were difficult to obtain. They waited it out in Italy—without their own home—for a year, but eventually made their way to the American West Coast, then Italy again, and finally New York, where the artist remained for 16 years. The bills quickly piled up, and Derakshani turned to music as a creative outlet and extra source of income.

REZA DERAKSHANI, Gold Hunt, 2017, oil and gold paste on canvas, 183 × 219 cm. Courtesy the artist and Sotheby’s Hong Kong.
REZA DERAKSHANI, Gold Hunt, 2017, oil and gold paste on canvas, 183 × 219 cm. Courtesy the artist and Sotheby’s Hong Kong.

A chance meeting with John Densmore, the drummer of The Doors, led to a collaboration that resulted in an album—which the artist said he isn’t entirely satisfied with—and a two-month concert tour across North America. Derakshani played the tar, a long-necked string instrument that emanates a buzzy, springy resonance not unlike that of a sitar. He wailed on stage night after night, singing into a microphone that Jim Morrison had used, but in his hands was always a memento from home, plucked with techniques developed on the Persian Plateau.

As with many diaspora artists, the tug to reconnect with the artist’s heritage grew stronger as he spent more time away from his homeland. Derakshani’s career as a rock star was brief, but people were taking an interest in his art. Eventually, he could afford his own studio and his paintings would be exhibited at major institutions around the world, including the British Museum, MAXXI in Rome, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, the State Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Derakshani now splits his time between Dubai and Austin, Texas. Though he moved deeper into minimalist territory with the solid-colored canvases of the “Blank Pages” series (2016), the artist has since returned to the horse-riders who have featured in his work since the 1980s. His abstract, distorted renditions of horseback hunts are rooted in the Shahnameh—a 10th- or 11th-century epic at the heart of Persian culture, which preserved the Persian language even after Arabic became the lingua franca in West Asia and North Africa as Islam spread.

The riders and their stallions or mares in his latest paintings Gold Hunt, Silver Hunt, Pink Hunt and Purple Hunt, shown at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery, are elongated or stretched horizontally, reflecting the artist’s take on centuries-old miniature painting techniques used to create classical images that carry forward literary plots. Other canvases similarly call upon traditional Persian imagery. Shirin and Khosrow, for example, tells the love story of a Zoroastrian Persian king and an Armenian princess—a tale that hardliners in the Islamic Republic wish they could pave over. According to the artist, Rain Hunt started out as yet another hunting scene, but he decided to drag green, pink and white paint across the canvas and let it trickle down over the equestrians, drowning them in an unnatural torrent. “Destruction is part of my process too,” he said.

Derakshani returns to the same verse of the epic over and over again whenever he paints a new canvas for the ongoing “Hunting” series that he began in 2015. In every stroke, the artist remembers his roots where Caspian steeds roam in fields of wild flowers, white peaks pierce the horizon, and starlight seeps through skyward holes in a familiar black tent called home.

REZA DERAKSHANI, Silver Hunt, 2017, oil on canvas, 183 × 152 cm. Courtesy the artist and Sotheby’s Hong Kong.

Installation view of “Two Moderns from the Middle East” at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery, 2017. Courtesy Sotheby’s Hong Kong.

Reza Derakshani’s latest paintings are on view in “Two Moderns from the Middle East” at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery until November 17, 2017.

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