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.
Many 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 summer.
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 of 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 exhibition: “Visual Lullabies” was so uplifting . Tucked in an alley off of Vali-Asr (formerly Pahlavi) Avenue. Atbin gallery is a small, well-lit gem 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 the poetry 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 to fill 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 painting itself but rather as decorative messages of love that embrace the flowers or vases.
His paintings do not scream out the fact that 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.
Vasefi's watercolours seem to reach out to a better place rather than dwell on the worldly anguish that permeates here. For that, for the fact 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 refreshed.