“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 relations.
Even without the latest rounds of controversy, it would have been an oddity and a novelty for most Western audiences to see a young 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 a unique 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.
Through 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. >>> See
That's the point at which she feels the true quest began. She continued her work with her partners in the AbimGroup, she began participating in even more group and solo exhibitions, and won national and international recognition 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 and challenging 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 to the 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 such as film. Additional investments have been made in the arts since the election of Khatami, there has been an explosion in the contemporary art movement in Tehran 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 internationally.
That is all well and good; well deserved, fought for and something that no one would have thought possible a few years ago. Yet, 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 explains.
It's hard to accept the artist as anything but a romantic rule breaker who smashes cultural taboos. How can an artist know if the walls they encounter are cultural restrictions, personal obstacles or carefully constructed 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 a new 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 darker in tone through time, more nostalgic and internally focused.
The paintings mirror Bahar's experience in the U.S. She idolized the idea of the U.S., of being able to go to the museums and see the works of the pop artist that she had admired from afar, up close. 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 artist.”
You can almost see what she must have imagined: a Bohemian art world, more like the 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 art market.
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 will head back home. 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 if she is ready to represent Iranian women and speak on their behalf. “On behalf of all Iranian women?” She 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 doesn't intend 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 strong religious imagery and social commentary; or if she will retreat into a world of symbols like O'Keefe or if will she find an entirely new way of making the scream visible but for 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 Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20007. Call 202.625.7550 for hour or more information here.