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Unveiled in Thunder and Lightning

Two shows on contemporary Middle East Art: Saatchi in London and Thaddeus Ropac in Paris


Is it a coincidence or after all giving a broad hint on an upcome hype? Just opened, Saatchi Gallery London clelbrates "Unveiled" shocking and provocating images made by artists from the Middle East. And Thaddeus Ropac in his Paris location has just launched "Raad o Bargh - 17 Artists from Iran", meaning nothing less than "thunder and lightning". by Irmgard Berner


Shadi Ghadirian

London, Paris, February 2009. Is it again the purpose to put artists and their work in certain categories, such as Chinese, Indian, New British, as we have had it, reinforced by Saatchi himself from the early 90s. The Middle East as a Label could bring profit since it is not yet hackneyed.

There have been attempts a several times in the past years to establish something like Middle East art category, but even the artists themselves were not convinced by this kind of a labelling. To much of a levelling, of an equalization where there is too much difference was the argument. What does a Syrian artist have in common with an Iranian one?


And still they have some culture in common. In its second show since moving to the King's Road, the Saatchi Gallery offers a major survey of recent Middle Eastern painting, sculpture and installation. Nineteen artists are represented, most of them in their twenties and thirties, from Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Syria and Algeria, and their works reveal something of the range of their experiences and of the cultural and historical traditions of their homelands.

Young artists inthe diverse nations of the region are graduating from art school, travelling abroad, building perspectives on their own experiences, and turning out art works that speak of what they have grown up with. Some treat their subject matter obliquely, others choose to meet the brutal suffering and the dispiriting politics head on, producing works that are as direct and brutal as the head of an axe. 

The 11 Iranian artists include Shirin Fakhim, whose grotesque figures made from everyday objects like rope, wigs and an abacus are inspired by the prostitutes of Tehran. Wafa Hourani, who lives and works in Ramallah in the West Bank, takes an unflinching look at the realities of Palestinian life, with one work imagining life in a Palestinian refugee camp in 2067.

This is a large show of almost 90 works, mostly large-scale paintings, with a selection of sculptures and installations. It is noticeable that the installations avoid the tricks and high-tech gimmicks beloved of Western artists. Perhaps their message is too urgent for them to be messing around with strobe lights and computer-generated stuff. Perhaps they cannot get hold of these things, but the poverty of their materials contributes to the direct hit of their concepts.


One of the most arresting pieces is Ghost by Kader Attia, a French Algerian living in an immigrant neighbourhood on the outskirts of Paris. Ghost is a room full of supplicant Muslim women wrapped in silver garments, row upon row of figures kneeling in devotion, 240 of them filling the room to the extent that there is only just space enough to pick your way along one side and get to the front. You expect to hear the murmur, the gentle susurration of prayer, but as you turn at the end of the room you see that these women are hollow figures, vacant shells of tin foil, each with a gaping black hole where the face should be swathed in the veil. Attia's image of emptiness is heavily political, the shrouded, veiled, yet empty, figure of Muslim women presented as the symbol of divergent struggles over decolonisation, nationalism, revolution, Westernisation and anti-Westernisation.

Rokni Haerizadeh, an Iranian from Tehran, paints epic tableaux so vibrant with colour, movement and energy that you expect them to give off their own high-intensity noise and heat. In Typical Iranian Funeral he depicts the scene of the burial with crowds of hired mourners wailing extravagantly and corpses on full display; this is contrasted with the funeral feast, shared between close family and friends, divisively seated at separate tables. In his Typical Iranian Wedding diptych, he describes the business of getting hitched, Iranian style: the men in one room eating, drinking and carousing with abandon, and the women on the other side of a curtain, dressed to the nines for each other but barely eating or drinking.


Haerizadeh's brush is brutal and his satire sharp, but his treatment of his flawed world is broadly sympathetic. Ahmed Alsoudani, on the other hand is more bitterly direct about his life's experience. An Iraqi from Baghdad, he fled to Syria before claiming asylum in America, and now lives in Berlin. His contemporary history paintings come directly from his experiences as a child, depicting the turbulence and the bitter confusion of the atrocities that have taken place in his country. Informed by the works of Goya and George Grosz, these large war canvases are raw and aggressive in their depiction of suicide bombers, of the horrors of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, the carnage and destruction, as well as the fractured nature of daily life in Baghdad.

One of the most deliberately controversial bodies of work is that by Haerizadeh's brother, Ramin, who has also been embraced by Saatchi, and has produced a series of manipulated photographs of two semi-naked men entitled Men of Allah. Based on photographs of the artist, they show two bearded and heavily hirsute men cavorting in fleshy and highly sensuous poses. The images undoubtedly transgress religious, political and gender boundaries and one might fear for the reactions of fundamentalists to the pouting lips and ballooning buttocks of these overtly homosexual images.


Shirin Fakhim, an Iranian living and working in Tehran, is similarly provocative with her series of humorous makeshift sculptures of Tehran prostitutes fashioned from everyday objects and items of clothing. She makes her life-size figures from footballs, torn and patched stockings, exaggeratedly plumped brassieres and cheap market-stall items shoved down stockings, each one finished off with a wig on top and a pair of trademark stiletto boots down below. With their badly stitched-up crotches and wayward hanks of rope revealing pre-op transsexuals, these prostitute dolls become rude jokes, provoking thoughts of cross dressing and the sordid reality of poverty, domestic violence and human trafficking.

I would be prepared to bet that Hayv Kahraman, another Iraqi from Baghdad, has studied early Chinese art and the masterpieces of Renaissance Florence, as well as Islamic miniatures, because her depictions, particularly the diptych, Carrying on Shoulder 1 & Carrying on Shoulder 2 are influenced by the serenity, delicacy and angelic beauty of these periods of explosive artistic riches. ImageAll her paintings depict the fable of the sacrifice of the lamb, recorded both in the Koran and the Bible, but she recasts the legend with women taking the men's role. Her exquisite women are depicted two dimensionally on bare canvas, their elongated necks and delicate features cast like angels, and their swaying bodies clothed in loosely flowing fabric beautifully wrought with designs both traditional and contemporary.

There are so many powerful, authoritative and insightful works in this show that I cannot mention them all; but I have at least briefly to include Shadi Ghadirian, whose work has been seen in the UK as part of the Veiling, Representation and Contemporary Art show that toured in 2003. Her humorous photographs take on the subject of women and the veil, her Like Everyday Series showing brightly coloured veils with kitchen utensils held in place of the face. A colander represents a woman who is all mouth, a broom huddles demurely beneath the veil, and a meat cleaver brings to mind the “hatchet face”.

This is a richly fascinating survey and anyone with an interest in the region, at any level, would do well to take a look at these revelatory views from the inside.

(quotations from , January 27, 2009)

If you are not yet sick of names and you have not been able to visit the Paris exhibition in Gallery Thaddeus Ropas, we at least give you the press release - which of course is no substitute, but gives a survey of the 17 artists in the show:


Opening in the presence of the artists on Thursday February 19th from 7pm to 9pm
Shirin Aliabadi - Maryam Amini - Ali Banisadr - Mahmoud Bakhshi Moakhar - Ala Dehghan
Shirin Fakhim - Bita Fayyazi - Shahab Fotouhi - Ghazel - Ramin Haerizadeh - Rokni Haerizadeh Y.Z. Kami - Avish Khebrehzadeh - Laleh Khorramian - Farhad Moshiri - Behrouz Rae - Vahid Sharifian

Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac  brings together works by seventeen Iranian born artists, some of whom are working abroad.

Raad o Bargh - literally meaning “thunder and lightning”

presents an overview of the rich practices, expressed across different media in a poetic, pop, political, humorous or satirical manner, showing that there is a varied and non-homogenous trend among current Iranian artists.

Avish Khebrehzadeh makes delicate drawings, with a dream-like quality as well as paintings onto which she projects hand-drawn animations. On view, Falling Horse in Battle (2008) is a
synchronized video animation projected onto a diptych painting. Whilst immersing us in a folkloric universe, the artist addresses issues such as human vulnerability, alienation, melancholy and sentimentality, often expressed through the relationship between man and animals or man and his environment. Similarly working in different media, Laleh Khorramian often uses the monoprint technique to depict abstract and picturesque landscapes, which stem from recurrent dreams and childhood memories and assign a magical and theatre-like quality to her work.
Working in a very personal realm, Ala Dehghan will exhibit a series of small drawings
documenting her everyday experience of the things that affect her mind and her life. Maryam Aminiʼs sensual drawings depict a universe in which eroticism and femininity coexist with an underlying menace, rendered in a soft and buoyant manner and punctuated by vibrant colours. Behrouz Rae uses both drawings and photographs to articulate autobiographical intimacies. Bimester (In Bimester we Trust) focuses on the subjects of psychological dissociation and the alter ego. Rae uses his art as a means of self-emancipation, of therapeutic release, through which he can express the trauma of a turbulent childhood, of living with autism and anorexia.
Y.Z. Kamiʼs interest manifests itself primarily in the field of portraiture and the relationship between the individualʼs spiritual journey and the physical self. His portraits in oil are executed on a monumental scale in low-key tones. Despite their size his subjects are paradoxical in their contemplative state. His philosophical inclination is emphasised by the transcendental nature of these portraits, which appear to go beyond an attempt to capture the sitterʼs likeness, towards studying the fundamental nature of human existence. His prayer spirals configured in concentric circles are symbolic of the allegedly cleansing whirling action of the dervishes who prescribe to Sufism.
Ali Banisadr emphasises the impact photography can have on the recollection of events. He prefers to avoid the medium, as it potentially limits the possibility of an all-inclusive sensorial account and instead paints his own fleeting childhood experiences of the Iraq war to encompass sounds and smells. He makes references to Persian miniature painting combined with stylistic features inspired by occidental art. Rokni Haerizadeh has an amazing ability to submerge himself in the past; in memory, literature and tradition whilst being informed by modern pop culture. His upbringing in the Islamic Republic has led him to continually reassess his environment resulting in work that largely articulates social dissatisfaction amongst Iranians. Rokni Haerizadeh refers back to Persian History and literature to find material that he uses allegorically, making comparisons to the contemporary world. He will be showing an illustrative painting, the narrative for a poem by Ahmad Shamlou, a contemporary Iranian poet.
Farhad Moshiri has developed a pop work of art that is at once ironic, provocative and humorous, often embedded with cynicism and sarcasm. He incorporates embroidery and found materials to his paintings and installation works, that are often inspired by the ornamental, the decorative, the bazaar and that play with ideas of marketing and commodification.
Working in the footsteps of Pop Art and Dadaism, Vahid Sharifian has coined his art “Papaʼism”, which is to be read as a critic of both movements. Even so, he plays with their language to create quirky works, such as his new series of small sculptures Last Part that will be hung on the walls, suspended to the ceiling and placed on pedestals.
Shirin Aliabadi who is most known for her photographs of young veiled girls in cars and her Miss Hybrid series - depicting young Iranian chador-clad women adopting a trendy look with bleached blond hear, colored contact lenses, make-up and surgical nose tape - will be exhibiting a new body of work entitled, Eyes Only. In the same vein as the Miss Hybrid series, Aliabadiʼs new body of work on paper similarly shows how Iranian women subvert the confines of the conservative Islamic rules by adopting western codes of beauty. Often working with manipulated digital photographs and collage, Ramin Haerizadeh creates a world of contradictions and absurdities. In his recent series of collage, Todayʼs Woman, composed of found images and self-portraits, the artist casts a burlesque satirical look on the current political and social situation in Iran.
Bita Fayyazi is showing an autobiographical installation piece entitled Goliʼs Dowry; a
collection of seven traditionally crafted interlocking wooden chests, with the exception of the smallest trunk, which contains a plaster penis infested with ceramic cockroaches. The chests are covered in silkscreen pictures of events that have had a profound influence on the artistʼs life.
Another of the chests holds a diary chronicling forty years of Goliʼs married life.
Using found materials to assemble her life-size sculptures, Shirin Fakhimʼs Tehran Prostitutes are grotesque, humorous and disturbing. They are a commentary on the hypocrisy surrounding the worldʼs oldest profession in a profoundly moralistic country, in which women are driven to prostitution as a result of escalating poverty and domestic abuse.
Ghazel is a performance and video artist, most known for her short sequences of “self-portrait” videos entitled Me. Since 1997 she has accumulated almost 700 scenes that show her doing simple everyday tasks or activities, such as sunbathing, waterskiing or smoking a cigarette, while dressed head to toe in a black chador. At once funny and absurd, they deal with important issues of identity, exile and integration. Her latest performance of this series will be shown as an animated framed painting, again featuring the artist. Equally using homemade documentary-like short videos as a mode of expression, Shahab Fotouhiʼs black and white video Direct Negotiation (2007) shows a cat tapping its paws on a closed windowpane, apparently trying to get the attention of whoever inhabits the dark room. It is both amusing and discouraging, and the title potentially alludes to Iranʼs (the cat) difficulty in talking with the international community and vice versa. In the installation Tulips Rise from the Blood of the Nationʼs Youth (2008), Mahmoud Bakhshi Moakhar addresses history by symbolically representing the martyrs of the Iranian Revolution as red neon tulips (which is also the crescent form in the centre of the current Iranian flag). They can be switched on and off by visitors, thus rendering a dramatic work playful through its interactivity.
A catalogue, with texts by Vali Mahlouji and Olivier Reneau, will be published to accompany the exhibition, in collaboration with the Éditions Jalou.

Paris: Gallery Thaddeus Ropac  RAAD O BARGH - 17 ARTISTS FROM IRAN  -  19 FEBRUARY – 27 MARCH 2009

London: Saatchi "Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East"  -  till: 6th of May, Duke of York's HQ, King's Road, London

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