The accidental politician
Interview with Iranian artist Bahar Behbahani
By Termeh Rassi
June 25, 2003
"I think that I was not a child who was good at drawing
or who had shown any particular talent for painting." There
is nothing too radical about Bahar Behbahani when we first meet
and apparently nothing too boastful either. But it is a strange
place she finds herself in.
She is in the U.S. as part of an official cultural exchange
organized by Meridian International
Center, aptly titled "A
Breeze from the Garden of Persia".
She was invited
to join the tour in 2002 to represent and speak on behalf of herself
and the 53 other Iranian artists whose works are included in the
show. At the time of its launch in April of 2001, this first official
cultural exchange was seen as a new chapter in Iranian American
Even without the latest rounds of controversy, it would have
been an oddity and a novelty for most Western audiences to see
woman, a contemporary artist and a small business owner as the
representative for the works handpicked by the Tehran
Museum of Contemporary Art.
Fast-forward two years, and the tensions between
the two politically hostile countries are as high as ever. As a
result, Bahar has found that she is asked as often about her stance
on politics, religion and women's rights as she is asked
about her art.
She is in Washington for the opening of her solo exhibit, "My
Yesterdays" at the Anne C. Fisher Gallery, featuring a selection
of works she
has completed during her stay in the U.S. Sabi Behzadi, a local
PR and Artists' agent introduced the gallery's owner,
Anne Fisher to Bahar.
Bahar was in Boston at the time and after
the Sabi showed Anne some of Bahar's work it was quickly
decided that it would be the perfect match for the gallery. The
exhibits at the gallery are selected for their relation to the
personal journey or for their reflection and response to important
current social themes.
To Anne, who is a clinical psychologist
and dance therapist as well, Bahar represents everything that her
gallery stands for. "Honoring the personal journey and supporting
understanding of other countries and cultures by showing the works
of artists from less familiar places in the world are both of great
importance to me. Bahar's work encompasses both areas beautifully."
Anne realized that this was a unique artist. But again, this was
opportunity beyond a simple art show; an opportunity to create
a cultural dialogue and to that end, a series of events were organized
around the exhibit such as a recent Artists Talk featuring Bahar.
Not surprisingly the questions from the audience were mostly about
Bahar's life as an Iranian woman.
This is slowly something Bahar is getting used to but you can
tell it's been a hard pill to swallow for this young artist of
considerable accomplishment. "I was used to being criticized
for my art and as an artist but here I am first seen as a woman
and then as an Iranian and thirdly as an artist. It's a strange
place to be."
Strange place to be and an even stranger place to represent.
Bahar comes from a family of artists. "I was surrounded by
a world of literature and images and make belief when I was young.
This is what influenced me to study arts as a field -- there
was no choice."
Her uncle, Taha Behbahani, is the well-known
Iranian painter and her father was the famed television writer
behind some of the most popular shows on Iranian TV in the last
decade before the revolution -- very distant cousins of "Dallas"
and "Chico and the Man" -- but unsurpassed in their
ability to generate heated debates about the fate of beloved characters.
the years she was consumed by the world of her uncles images on
canvas and her father's characters on TV -- an imaginary
world, a world full of fantasy - that permeated her childhood.
Bahar is also part of the generation of Iranians
that will be always haunted by memories of a revolution and a war
that changed childhoods
forever. "The events that happened in my childhood, which
happened in the childhood of every Iranian, were strange events.
Growing up in a an environment with red alarms, growing up with
the fear of falling bombs and not just fearing for yourself but
fearing for your loved ones; I learned the meaning of loss much
earlier. I think I learned the meaning at the age of 6 or 7. I
learned the real meaning of fear -- not the imaginary fear
that most kids that age have but the real fear that comes with
having seen a gun, heard a bomb, been witnessed to arrests."
Another lesson from childhood -- there are so many shades
of gray in the world. "The conflicts existed everywhere - between
school and home. Becoming
familiar with the concept of Lying. You had to learn to lie because of the conflicts
that were going on around you even though at home you were taught not to lie.
Sometimes the very people who had told you not to lie; were telling you that
you had to lie under the circumstances." To this day loss, fear and ambiguity,
are themes that play a major role in Bahar's works.
Bahar cites Francis Bacon as one whose works influenced her greatly.
In his 1996 book on Francis Bacon, Wieland Schmeid refers to Bacon's
life long pursuit
to do one thing -- create a scream that is visible. After her father's death
three years ago, Bahar painted non-stop for a year, driven from the same primitive
place. That year resulted in a solo-exhibit in Tehran, where an art critique
wrote that she had tried to use the brush to stab the pain inside onto the
canvas with harsh colors.
That's the point at which she feels the true quest began. She
continued her work with her partners in the AbimGroup,
participating in even more group and solo exhibitions, and won national and
for her work; in the process establishing herself as one of the more commercially
successful contemporary artists in Iran.
Bahar carved a space for herself
in the emerging contemporary art movement in Iran that is changing
the traditional notions of art and self expression -- concepts that
culturally have been much more advanced and apparent in Persian literature
than visual arts.
The world of arts in post revolutionary Iran is a quagmire.
Simply existing in that world as an artist represents conflict.
It's a world where recently
a raging debate took place over the proposed sale of 10 works held in the
vaults of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary
Art deemed "not displayable
Iranian public" -- to the representatives from Christie's, City Bees
and Rozsa who had expressed interest in the collection that holds works from
artists such as Rene Magritte, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro. The proposal
was made by the museum and its' head Ali-Reza Samie-Azar. The bill
was defeated eventually.
On one hand, the Iranian government has made significant investment
in the arts in the past decade and has had great success in some areas
film. Additional investments have been made in the arts since the election
of Khatami, there has been an explosion in the contemporary art movement
and there is an ever-increasing participation of women in the arts as
professionals as demonstrated by the all women group of DENA with
whom Bahar has exhibited
That is all well and good; well deserved, fought for
and something that no one would have thought possible a few years
while the funding
has done much to create a viable art community, the crackdowns on writers,
journalists and bans on films raise serious questions about the freedom
that community has
to express itself.
One wonders how much of Bahar's expression is reflective of those
shades of gray learned all those years ago. To what degree can
an artist be
free to experiment, create and express in a society that is closed?
"The cultures of the East -- and the Iranian culture in particular
-- are all masked in their essence, hidden under layers. It's same
way with our
poetry. Look at Hafiz from 700 years ago for instance. There are
so many ambiguities. In the Iranian culture, you never get straight
to the point,
not in literature
nor in art, not today nor a thousand years ago. You always hint at
it. It's always very symbolic. In Hafiz -- you see a woman but
it could not be a woman
at all. You see love and wine, but then again all of these could
have a secondary meaning. In Western culture on the other hand,
you get to the heart of
the subject, very directly and fast. For us, this has nothing to
do with before or after
the revolution. This is a cultural issue. It is my cultural restrictions,
as an Iranian girl, which do not allow me to show certain things
in my art," she
It's hard to accept the artist as anything but a romantic rule
breaker who smashes cultural taboos. How can an artist know if
they encounter are cultural restrictions, personal obstacles or
walls built over the years within them by their government through
what they see
on T.V., what they read in school, what they hear on the radio.
"As an artist, no matter how visionary I am; I am a product
of my society. I can't run from it." She tells me. "I
may be able, as an artist, an intellectual, to analyze some societal
'truths,' to inspect them to see if I want to accept them or create
reality out of them. That's an artist's
job but it's wrong to think that the limitations in the expression
we see today in Iran are all due to this regime or that regime.
It's much deeper
than that. It goes back generations. I am a child of the revolution;
I have grown up with the veil. But this veil is not a physical
veil; it's an emotional
veil. This veil; this covering that I have in my mind is not something
that is a result of this regime but one that my grandmother taught
me. She didn't
tell me to cover my hair, but she told me to cover myself in other
ways. In the East, culturally, it's different for men and women.
No matter how modern
I become, how visionary of an artist; I am still the same woman's
granddaughter and there will be many things that I will never be.
Here on TV they talk about the most private moments in their lives.
Do you think, even if
there was no Islamic Republic of Iran, that I would, as an Iranian,
do something like that?"
"That's the interesting question. Where does the veil come from?"
"It's the soul's veil," she responds with great conviction.
"How long do you think it takes for it to come off?" I ask her.
"Maybe much less than you think."
"My Yesterdays" is an intensely personal exhibition, result of
Bahar's ability to gain perspective on her past and Iran
by being away
from it. It reflects
a newfound maturity and growth full of layers. Her paintings
are incredibly dense;
at times almost three-dimensional dominated by symbols of
womanhood; from the abstract to the literal. They get progressively
in tone through
more nostalgic and internally focused.
The paintings mirror
Bahar's experience in the U.S. She idolized the idea of the
being able to go to
the museums and see the works of the pop artist that she
had admired from afar,
What she found disappointed her. "The first thing you
notice here is that so many hands touch the art. It allowed
no private space between me and the
You can almost see what she must have imagined:
a Bohemian art world, more like
Left Bank at the turn of the century or Lower East Side in
the '50's littered with artists lofts and café's.
It's not that she doesn't understand making money, she owns
a business - it's the
blending of art and business that has been unexpected to
one coming from such an isolated
For now, she will be on hand to tour with "A Breeze From the
Garden of Persia", hopes to take "My Yesterdays" to more
cities and then
In the mean time, she will continue in her role as the reluctant
spokesperson and knows
that it will not get easier. The public embraces her art
and the politicians crucify her country on TV. I ask her
to represent Iranian
and speak on their behalf. "On behalf of all Iranian
chuckles. "You know they could have found someone better.
As far as being ready, I am ready for anything," she
says with a steely resolve.
It's clear that she is very proud
of where she comes from. She
to be a politician but she will defend it and her choices.
It is very tempting to wonder if one day Bahar will produce a painting
in line with Bacon's Figure Study II with its
imagery and social
commentary; or if she will retreat into a world of symbols
O'Keefe or if will she find an entirely new way of making
the scream visible
now I have just one more question.
"You know, I expected you
to be much more radical. Overcome with passion."
"Passion without wisdom gets you nowhere."
She is a
radical after all.
Bahar Behbahani's "My Yesterdays" will be on display at the
Anne C Fisher Gallery until July 31st; located at 2352 Wisconsin
NW, Washington, DC 20007. Call
202.625.7550 for hour or more
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