BAKTASH SARANG JAVANBAKHTTower, 2015, Mixed media, 190 × 178 × 20 cm. Courtesy Total Arts at the Courtyard, Dubai.

Fearless: The Next Wave of Artists from Iran

Iran United Arab Emirates
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Little did Icarus know, as he flew toward the dazzling embrace of the sun, that every moment was bringing him closer to his fateful demise. In the classic Greek myth that tells of the dangers of hubris, the boy who sought to touch the sky instead fell to his death. He was not fearless, this one, but foolish. How many who have sought, in a similar manner, the blinding glare of fame have fallen with broken dreams instead? And what, moreover, does it mean to be truly fearless?

This was a pertinent question for recent visitors to Dubai’s Total Arts at Courtyard, particularly regarding three wax-covered figures that had hung from warped helicopter blades in the art space’s atrium for an exhibition in March. The life-size fiberglass models, created by Mohammad Hossein Gholamzadeh, are entwined in red sashes, appearing part acrobats, part protagonists of an enigmatic tableau. Story of Flight (2016) was a fitting introduction to “Fearless: The Next Wave of Artists from Iran,” which ran concurrently at Total Arts and three Tehran galleries—Aaran Projects, the Lajevardi Foundation and O Gallery—until late April.

Curated by artist Fereydoun Ave, “Fearless” presented recent works by a cross-generational selection of 33 artists, most of whom had never had solo shows outside of Iran. According to Ave, “None of these artists have had media or market attention, because of their obsession with work [instead of] personal hype.” With the age of the artists ranging from their mid-20s to 70-plus years, the exhibition was envisioned as an opportunity to show beyond the more internationally known names of the country’s art scene.

Gholamzadeh’s interpretation of Icarus found its counterpoint inside the gallery space proper, with Baktash Sarang Javanbakht’s supine ziggurat-inspired structure. The untitled, two-meter-long black sculpture from 2015, which resembles a fallen, steampunk chandelier, dominated the room. This bold work did, nonetheless, give way to works with a softer approach. From the delicate ink-on-canvas works of Nariman Farokhi, who has been deaf from birth and seeks to illustrate sound, to Afshan Daneshvar’s sculptural creations, there was much to ponder. The latter’s Origami Boat (2016) was a starburst-like collage of tiny paper folds converging together to represent rows of teeming refugee boats.

There was also a strong painterly quotient, such as the Matisse-like street scenes of Arsia Moghaddam, while additional sculptural elements included Sadegh Sadeghipour’s installation of paperback books in which their covers and pages have been cleverly cut into shapes. Nasser Bakhshi’s paintings and assemblages were a highlight of the exhibition, merging together backgammon cases with other curios to create portable sculptures. Ink, too, was presented in many forms, from the felt-tip-pen work of Tabriz-born tattoo artist Sepehr Mesri to the purple, Monty Pythonesque figures by Mehrdad Pournazarali.

Then there were the organic, abstract sculptures of Zahra Navaei, which, upon closer look, slowly reveal hidden details such as a sea of dolls’ eyes or pinecone seeds covering their surface. Under one is a hidden mirror mosaic, like an Aladdin’s cave. In fact, Navaei’s works served as a sort of metaphor for the entire show, urging visitors to look deeper and recalibrate their assumptions.

Ironically, “Fearless” would have merited from more comprehensive textual support, precisely for this reason. While Ave had compiled surprisingly on-point haiku poems for each artist, for a show introducing largely unknown names, more background information might have been beneficial for visitors. One could argue, however, that this allowed for the works to speak for themselves, in a presentation that was immersive yet not over-hung.

The artists who were shown have not yet been recognized in the international art world, in the traditional sense. But what does that even mean? And should that be a hindrance to creativity or personal success? Certainly not. So let’s revisit those freewheeling acrobats that one saw when first entering the exhibition. Maybe they are not actually trying to reach for the sun. Maybe this is what it truly means to be fearless—to have the courage to simply enjoy the flight, to be free, breathing in the air and creating. There are no fallen dreams here.