Installation view of FEREYDOUN AVE’s “Shah Abbas and His Page Boy” at Rossi & Rossi, Hong Kong, 2017. Courtesy Rossi & Rossi.

Shah Abbas and His Page Boy

Fereydoun Ave

Rossi & Rossi
Iran Hong Kong

To explain why he used quilts and patchwork in his latest artworks shown at Rossi & Rossi in Hong Kong, Fereydoun Ave started by describing the traditional Iranian domestic scene: There are only mattresses and blankets in the center of the tent, comfortably surrounded by cushions. The tent itself is a huge blanket that shelters dwellers from harsh winters. One blanket—called the lahaf—is elevated above a brazier so that people can sit around it and keep warm. The pre-modern lahaf was not only the center of the tent, but was also the “social center where a lot of things happened,” as the artist put it. When nasty weather swept through, outdoor entertainment was replaced by cozy gatherings around the warm lahaf. Friends and families chatted above the blanket while they played footsie underneath the cover—“What happens on top of the quilt is the public, and what happens under the quilt is the private,” said Ave. The lahaf is a pliable boundary between the personal and the communal, and Ave explores this theme in his “Lahaf” series (2015–17).

Rossi & Rossi gallery exhibited nine of Ave’s lahafs in its Hong Kong space. Each is larger than one square meter, with some measuring three meters in length. There were also several of Ave’s collage and miniature works in a smaller exhibition room shown together with one work by Cy Twombly, the artist’s mentor. The name of the exhibition, “Shah Abbas and his Page Boy,” is derived from a 17th century Islamic miniature painting that is part of the Louvre’s collection, Shah Abbas I and his Page by Muhammad Qasim Musavvir, which provides a glimpse into the great Shah’s private life: Though Shah Abbas I gained notoriety for killing and mutilating his sons, and was considered a formidable conqueror, Musavvir’s painting reveals the Shah’s tender side as he lovingly enfolds his cup bearer in his arms. Ave pointed out that Islamic miniature paintings typically carry a monochrome background, though the characters’ costumes would always be depicted with extravagant details and scintillating colors. He appropriated this aesthetic, so his quilts feature large fields of plain fabrics with a collage of decorative patches emanating from the center. The theme of Ave’s “Lahaf” series—the pliable rift between public, national discourse and personal, private personas that can be rendered in a painting as well as on soft, supple lahafs—is thus encapsulated in the show’s borrowed title.

FEREYDOUN AVE, Lahaf 17, 2017, mixed media on patchwork of various fabrics, 160 × 290 cm. Courtesy Rossi & Rossi.

The three-meter-long Lahaf 17 (2017) was hung at the entrance of the gallery. Wide patches of scarlet velvet envelop the entire patchwork, cocooning a rectangular block of gray linen with a small tract of ivory white fabric sewn on top. Two jagged pieces of scarlet velvet—from the same bolt as the base—flank a small lemon-yellow cloth packed with grey dots and rings. The upper left and lower right corners of the yellow cloth are folded over—like dog-ears in a book—and fixed by white stiches that form fine square routes all over the lahaf. Three knitted hats punctuate the carmine parentheses, with a sky-blue and bright-yellow cap placed at the center and a black-and-red cap on each side. These patches are all from Fereydoun Ave’s collection of textiles, about which he said, “I love fabrics. I have collected fabrics for a long time.” The red velvet was taken from his grandmother’s chairs and the three hats were collected from bazaars in Iran.

That shade of red carried the viewer to Lahaf 18 (2017), where velvet from the chairs of Ave’s grandmother made an appearance over a pastel blue background. On the upper half of the three-meter lahaf, there is a golden floral cloth, on top of which is a white handkerchief and patches of scarlet velvet, capped by a round cushion cover. Below, a black square—almost the smallest of all layers in the same piece, contrasts with the colorful cluster. Embroidered silhouettes of light-pink flowers and emerald leaves run along the center line before traveling upward briefly, reaching the edges of linen grey background. “This is my grandmother’s cushion cover, and my mother made this [embroidery],” said Ave. “They are my security blankets, like what Linus has in Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic.” By stitching together old fabrics—some stained by coffee, tea or charcoal; some marked by paint; all taken from sources of previous usage—the artist gives new life to his materials without paving over their blemishes and signs of wear.

FEREYDOUN AVE, Lahaf 18, 2017, mixed media on patchwork of various fabrics, 300 × 180 cm. Courtesy Rossi & Rossi.

FEREYDOUN AVE, Lahaf 19, 2017, mixed media on patchwork of various fabrics, 183 × 320 cm. Courtesy Rossi & Rossi.

Another layer of meaning is encoded in collaged images of naked men stitched onto the patchwork. Just below the red cushion cover in Lahaf 18, there are two newspaper pictures of Iranian wrestlers wearing skin-tight leotards, the images stained by muted Naples yellow paint. Ave said that wresting is the national sport of Iran—usually performed on blankets or mats. During a wrestling match, one is expected to be barely clothed, but nudity is strictly censored off the mat. Curiously, in the center of Lahaf 19 (2017), there is a black-and-white image of a naked man, similar to an image cut from pornography judging by the black bar covering his nipples and white paint splashed over his genitalia. Even when it comes to pornography, blankets come into play: The artist said that after flipping through a magazine in which such a shot might appear, one needs to hide it beneath their blanket. By weaving together the exposure of skin in the culturally acceptable context of wrestling with censored pornographic pictures in the same artwork, the artist intimates a clash between the official narrative of Iran’s national image and private lives shielded by the lahaf.

Ave believes that artistic expression of political discontent is complex and delicate, as opposed to the directness and confrontation found in protest slogans. The resistance of the harsh public censorship is woven into the fabric of personal experience. Sewing naked pictures into the works of “Lahaf” shows the artist’s assertiveness in pursuing a freer public domain, expressed through patchworks of the artist’s remembrance of things past.

Installation view of FEREYDOUN AVE’s “Shah Abbas and his Page Boy” at Rossi & Rossi, Hong Kong, 2017. Courtesy Rossi & Rossi.

Fereydoun Ave’s “Shah Abbas and His Page Boy” is on view at Rossi & Rossi, Hong Kong, until July 29, 2017.

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