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Painting portraits of change
As revolutionary ardour fades, artist's subject is more likely to be detergent

By Sandro Contenta
The Toronto Star
December 26, 1999

Tehran -- ABBASS Barzegar Ganji's fervour for the Iranian revolution is on display all over this bustling capital.

Through the haze of car fumes that rises from one of the most polluted cities in the Middle East, Ganji's murals and billboards of the Islamic revolution are a striking part of Tehran's skyline.

About 60 of Ganji's paintings adorn buildings, and another 50 cover billboards. Some are gigantic portraits of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei - the spiritual leader who charted the Shi'ite revolution's hard-line Islamic course, and the successor facing winds of change. Others are of the ''martyrs'' who perished in the slaughterhouse of the Iran-Iraq war, or of the slogans and moments that defined the 20-year-old revolution.

''I feel that I am doing something for the revolution,'' says Ganji, 41, a father of four children. ''It is important to preserve the memory of the martyrs, and the values of the revolution.''

But Ganji looks at the streets and buildings of Tehran and fears those values are losing ground.

His type of revolutionary art now competes with commercial billboards that have mushroomed throughout the city. Giant pizza slices, household appliances and stylish jewelry take up more and more of the public space.

To Ganji, these commercial ads represent the Western, secular culture the revolution fought to shake off. But times are changing, and Ganji, reluctantly, is changing with them.

Ganji fought for the revolution's Islamic values on the front lines of the Iran-Iraq war, the killing fields that gave him his start as a painter. The war produced so much death that the government asked Ganji to put down his rifle and pick up a brush.

''I painted portraits of the martyrs for their families. I painted about 6, 000 of them,'' says Ganji, a mechanic by training who says he has never taken an art course.

Later, Ganji became a member of the Basije, the armed morality militias that roam the streets of Tehran ensuring that women are ''modestly'' dressed in hijabs, and with veils that cover their hair.

But veils are being pushed back and strands of hair are inching their way into public view. Lipstick smiles flash everywhere, fuelling a booming cosmetics industry, and stylish clothes are being revealed as hijabs are left unbuttoned.

These are social changes that mirror the political upheaval as Iran approaches parliamentary elections next February.

President Mohammad Khatami's surprise election victory two years ago ushered in reforms that have ended Iran's international isolation. He is working to implement greater freedoms and set up a civil society that ensures the rule of law.

The reforms are a breath of fresh air for many Iranians, and candidates who support Khatami seem poised to be a larger presence in the 270-seat parliament. But hardline factions are resisting - some violently.

Ganji won't talk about the political and social changes sweeping his country, at least not to a foreign journalist.

But he expresses a sense of nostalgia, a lament for the passing of a time when revolutionary and religious fervour ruled the day - and his work.

In the driveway to Ganji's studio, his 14 employees stand in the sun, their clothes splattered in paint, bowing in unison to a radio's call for noonday prayers.

Inside, the large part of a wall is taken up with a work in progress - the partly painted word, ''presence.'' It will be used on a billboard that publicizes a new book on Khomeini, who died in 1989.

Near the corner of the same wall, Ganji puts the finishing touches on a double portrait commissioned by the governments of Khomeini and his successor, Khamenei. Covering the three other walls are giant paintings of Barf brand detergents, from soaps to dishwashing liquids.

''I would prefer to do more of the religious portraits, because it has more to do with my way of thinking,'' Ganji says, almost apologizing.

''But we have 14 people working here, and to keep paying their salaries, we have to do more and more commercial work.

''I have this worry that the values of the Islamic revolution might lose their colour. I worry that certain values might pale in front of the cultural invasion from your part of the world,'' he tells me.

''God willing, I will never see the day when commercial ads take up all the space in Tehran. But with all the (TV) satellite dishes and all the cultural invasion, my personal view is that things are beginning to pale.''


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