Kourosh Salehi‘s “Turquoise Letters” at the Idea Generation Gallery, London from 10 to 16 December 2009.
Salehi is part of a group of post-revolution Iranian Artists who have merged East-Western traditions and have invented a new language of exile, and in this regard is considered as one of the significant painters of his generation.
This exhibition, a collection of paintings and video art films, traces his most recent works.
His films, which are mostly shot in Iran, and in the past have led to his arrest by the authorities, are both intense and dreamlike. They each have a story to tell and in this sense are closer to narrative based films than conventional video art. Longing and reconciliation are a common theme in his films.
His paintings construct a narrative of an emotional severance from people, places and time. A personal journey which is patched together and re told, with passion and candour. His reconstructed images from the time of Qajar dynasty to early days of the Iranian revolution are digitally collaged and painted.
We are drawn into the canvases and try to read his personal letters written in obscured text. We witness his family albums and become an observer in the process where old photographs, along with precious letters have been exhumed from the tomb of a shoebox.
Collectively, these images highlight Salehi’s approach to painting, drawing on some filmic conventions to create an eerie but engaging narrative where like a long held silence in a melody the missing pages play a significant role within the plot. The story is not just about a journey, but how part of it was lost.
Kourosh Salehi in Conversation with Ramin Tork
RT: This exhibition shows a selection of your recent works. There seem to be a shift from your earlier exhibitions, which were perhaps less personal.
Your recent works seem to document your sense of Diaspora at a personal level whereas the earlier work showed your engagement with cultural icons. Would you consider this as a major shift in your work?
KS: This collection has taken over 5 years to complete, which is a long time for a single project. In this time I have evolved as a person and hope my work has evolved with me. It’s true that the work is much more reflective and personal, it could be that as we get older, we develop a heightened sense of time. A sense of mortality plays a part that as an artist you feel skirting around issues will no longer do, and almost like a summery or a conclusion paragraph to an essay you need to refer back to what has gone before and question them more openly.
RT: Let us talk about the significance of these personal letters and your relationship with your father who seemed to have been your mentor.
Why now? What has internally changed to make you open the allegorical under the bed shoebox and give homage to these letters?
KS: When I was a child, my father, himself a frustrated painter was the person who encouraged me the most. He was a humanist who believed that our immediate environment and our aesthetic sensibilities play a great role in making us who we are, and how we react to one another. The arts like music, cinema poetry as well as nature therefore, were being nurtured around us. This influenced me a great deal.
He passed away a few years ago just before the birth of my son. The Islamic revolution had a profoundly negative effect on his life and he, like many professional men of his generation, suddenly found himself surplice to requirement. I was affected by his death much more than I thought I would, and his memory, maybe in a constructive way has clearly coloured my outlook on life not just the arts.
RT: In the Qajar series you move from the very personal to non-personal by going back further in time. Why take the viewer on this journey? Did you deliberately avoid the Pahlavi dynasty at least in Royal family relationships?
KS: That’s a good question, to answer the second part first; in fact there are several Pahlavi family pieces which haven’t been included in this show. I think if we are searching for ourselves through whatever medium, art, therapy, travel, joining religious sect or whatever, the self in question would need to be put in to a context. This can be family and social environment but ultimately our shared history will also play a significant part in this farce or melodrama. I couldn’t look at me as a man and not talk about my family, or their social and historical identities.
RT: What is the significance of the women in your images. On one side we have your mother’s photograph that appears with the pre-revolution fashion, on the other we have fully veiled images of women in a sequence resembling a filmstrip and there is that surprising anatomical dictionary image that moves from Eastern traditions to the Western style nude accepted for the sake of Art and science.
KS: The collection is in three bits if you like, the personal which is family album mostly of my childhood, the historical which as you mentioned covers Qajar period and the post revolutions Iran. I’d left Iran before the Islamic state, and went back for the first time over twenty-two years later. What I recalled as a young teenager was very different to the country I went back to. Visually this manifested itself in the way people appeared in the streets. It was as if all of sudden colour had been drained from a society and replaced with dull shades of grey, individuality had been replaced by uniformity. The black Chador was what I found almost disturbing. It’s funny because before, I had such fondness for it because I remember my grandmother whom I loved very much wearing one, it smelled of rose water perfumes and for a child was a source of comfort.
RT: Being familiar with your earlier work I recall that you were one of the first of Iranian Artists who painted veiled women but kept away from what I would call the shock of self-imposed Orientalism. For some other Artists like Shirin Neshat’s earlier works the veil signified Disfranchisement but in your work the veils appeared as colour objects of beauty. How would you respond to such an interpretation.
KS: When I first painted women in chador like you say it was a gown that could be used by the wearer as a means of self-expression and identity. It wasn’t representative of a visual reality. It was a sexually charged garment that could conceal passion, femininity and ultimately a whole person. Perhaps that’s a male point of view whilst Shirin Neshat’s wonderful photography, approached it from a different dimension, a female angle, that felt gagged.
Whatever your perspective, visually the veil remains a powerful symbol, conveying layers of emotion and meaning, and can be a metaphor for containment of expectation, hope and life itself. This is a dark reality, which needs to be discussed with rigor.
RT: When I look at these images and engage emotionally with the young Salehi and his severance I also start to examine the work like an images of victims from a crime scene. If this was a crime and these are victims, who committed the crime?
KS: (Laughs) Not sure, it wasn’t me, honest.
RT: The interest in the Middle Eastern Art appear to be a new phenomenon, yet there have been many Iranian Artists who for the past thirty years have been active. Can you tell us something about the community of such Artists, the exchange of ideas and how the contemporary Iranian Artists might have influenced you?
KS: London as a big city has a vibrant ethnic mix, not just Iranian but many other cultures, which enrich and inform our senses every day. Also I’m lucky to be friends with many Iranian artists, actors, writers, poets etc. In terms of art that comes from Iran, the traditional music scene was inspiring in the eighties, where in the nineties the new wave of Iranian cinema was like a pin hole giving glimpses of artistic thinking and trends in Iran. Now the visual arts specially the graphic arts that come out of Iran are particularly interesting.
RT: You have a clear interest in filmmaking and story telling. Can we discuss how filmmaking impacts your painting and vise-versa? For instance do you see yourself moving towards the direction of filmmaking or painting?
KS: Filmmaking is a collaborative process, a team effort. As a team member you place a lot of trust in those around you, the outcome is nearly always not exactly what it started as. I find that very exciting. Painting is much more solitary, much more self-centred. They’re two different mediums that can influence one another and at the same time are very distinct. I like to carry on with both.
RT: How much influence does the New wave cinema have on your work? Do you envisage making a feature movie if so after your experience of being arrested would it be in Iran? In fact can you tell us a little bit about that arrest?
KS: The new wave Iranian cinema itself draws on many other influences, the Italian and French films in the fifties and sixties mainly. It is attracting a lot of attention at the moment because Iran herself remains an enigma, an unsolved equation.
Iranian landscape is very dramatic, and there are a lot of talented people who are eager to work on a film. There are many untold stories that need a voice. I would like to make a feature movie but still think I have a lot to say with vide art too.
As for my arrest, considering the horrific experiences that Iranians are living through on daily bases now, it would be insensitive to dwell on what in comparison was a minor incident. Suffice to say it was just being called in to the local station for questioning as we were filming on the outskirts of Isfahan and there were a mixed group of men and women, without a permit. It was resolved reasonably quickly.
RT: After this show where next?
KS: There are a couple of film ideas that we need to raise funds for; the music focus on these is quiet strong. Also we need to take this exhibition to some European cities, and hopefully to US. Have to see how things pan out.
RT: Kourosh, Thank you for your time.
KS: Thank you.
An exhibition of Kourosh Salehi’s Paintings and Film Installations, will be shown at the “Idea Generation Gallery” in the East End of London from 10 to 16 December 2009