The Graceful serenity of Mahmoud
By Akhtar Sayar
June 23, 2004
Life in Tehran is drab and depressing. The city, surrounded by
the tall and naked Alborz Mountains is over-crowded and claustrophobic
with soot-covered buildings holding up a thick roof of smog like
so many pillars. The traffic is so bad that going from one part
of town to another takes a strong will and much patience.
of us who are secular minded and live here have given up on having
any kind of public life. We rarely go to galleries or museums.
Many women who do not like to wear the hejab avoid going out
as much as possible -- especially in the 45-Celsius heat of the
The Islamic government shunned Art, until recently. Our greatest
talents have migrated or live in exile abroad, since the Islamic
revolution, as the result of one of the biggest brain drains in
history. With the exception of filmmakers most of the successful
Iranian artists live and work abroad. Even the popular music here
is largely imported from Los Angeles and is made by Iranian-Americans.
The heavy hands of censors loom above all works of art keeping
them from reflecting the society or the artist's own psyche
with ease. Rare is the artist who transcends both the censor's
and the market's watchful eye to produce a work that is honest.
There are some galleries and painting exhibitions mostly of works
that are at best like a college student's -- the hormones
or ego (depending on the age of the artist) bursting out in black
and white angst. Art that did not propagate Islam was shunned.
It is therefore not surprising that much that is out there is imitative
and lacks maturity. Art trends travel fast and
Iranians are great imitators -- mixed media installations and
video art are proliferating.
But not much of what I have seen,
since I came back two years ago, has been impressive. They
are either imitative or are trapped in this new Orientalist view
Iran that uses Iranian themes, symbols and caligraphy for its
own sake -- as exotic concoctions made to please the Western eye.
This is why going to see Mahmoud Vasefi's watercolours
Lullabies” was so uplifting [See
paintings]. Tucked in an
alley off of Vali-Asr (formerly Pahlavi) Avenue. Atbin gallery
is a small,
of a venue with a small courtyard shaded with ancient trees. Vasefi's
works, in glass frames with simple, natural wood borders, light
the room with the ephemeral quality of early spring colours.
His paintings, mostly of flowers in different kinds of vases,
suspended on white background or wrapped in newspaper covered with
of Farrokhzad, Rumi and Hafiz, bloom in colours that suggest
the optimism of spring.
The use of watercolor renders them light
and happy. His use of Iranian script to decorate the vases or
backgrounds gives his works a subtle Iranian identity. He does
not use them as post-modern caligraphy (so fashionable in New
York and London these days) that over power the subject of the
itself but rather as decorative messages of love that embrace
the flowers or vases.
His paintings do not scream out the fact
they are made by an Iranian living under an oppressive theocratic
regime. Instead, they whisper the inner serenity and generosity
that comes from their creator, Vasefi. They reflect
the best aspects of Iranian culture -- the bigness of heart and
grace of spirit that is the stuff of true Sufis.
The paintings have a calm, soft-spoken beauty reflected in the
fluidity of lines and colours that stands out against the backdrop
of this city, polluted by the constant noise of automobiles, motorcycles
and sirens. It is as though some angel descended from the heavens
just to blow on these creations a breath of heavenly colours.
watercolours seem to reach out to a better place rather than
dwell on the worldly anguish that permeates here. For that, for
that for a brief moment his exhibition takes one away from this
city to a place where tranquility and hope still exist, I was
grateful and stepped out into the noisy streets of Tehran feeling
goodbye to spam!