Deep-thinking 52-year-old Iranian artist Mehrdad Mohebali’s latest exhibition, ‘Mr Passive’, explores the nature of humankind from a voyeuristic-style viewpoint. Running at Gallery Etemad until February 18, the show captures subjects (including the artist himself) in various poses as they go about their day-to-day routines. Although several of his pieces have poignant undertones (many relay Mohebali’s own political leanings), his detailed works are also punctuated with subtle flashes of dry humour. Here, the artist reveals where to spot the jokes.
The Others What’s the main idea behind this work? The literal meaning could be the one per cent that rule and the 99 per cent that are ruled.
Your subjects are commonly seen reading books, but in some cases the pages are blank… In this case it is I, the artist, who is separated from the rest of the crowd. The other characters in the painting are reading blank pages, while the only person with a book that contains text is an older version of myself. This can be read symbolically as a process whereby you no longer need to force an action – it’s a way of letting go from the past.
How did you choose the characteristics for the people you’ve painted? A lot of the male figures are me, at different stages of my life and at different ages. The others are a broad spectrum of people I know and also people I pick out from a crowd.
The Classifieds What’s the main idea behind this work? This features my historical hero, Mohammad Mossadegh, prime minister of Iran (1951-1953), looking through classified pages for a job.
What are they searching for? I’ve taken a historical character and humanised him for a contemporary setting, where Mossadegh, now detached from politics, is looking for a menial job. Humour is an important ingredient and even my heroes are subject to my dry sense of humour. Mossadegh’s trousers are the colours of the Union Jack – I did this intentionally to represent Mossadegh’s Western education and the fact that Winston Churchill and an Anglo-Persian oil company, now British Petroleum, did all they could to overthrow him.
This painting seems to feature people from many walks of life. The women in the painting are both traditional and Western. Mossadegh is sitting between both. They all have diametrically opposing vistas and this can allude to anyone’s predicament in the Middle East. The dictionary on the table is the only item than can translate the two different lifestyles.
Surrender What’s the main idea behind this work? The elderly man is Mossadegh again. Sitting in a clinic, he is now separated from political life and is depicted as one of the patients. His gaze is downcast and he looks lonesome and contemplative. This also symbolises the period during 1940 and 1941 when the Shah of Iran placed Mossadegh under house arrest.
Hospitals and sickness are also a common theme in this series. Why is this? I use hospitals and sickness as a background, because a lot of society is sick. Even the nurses and doctors can be seen as sick.
The Last Supper 2 What’s the main idea behind this work? It’s based on a mythological event. In my painting, the original picture, painted be Leonardo da Vinci, is placed upside down. The people in the foreground are contemporary, but there is no meal being served. They are participating in an act where there is no food to eat and hence part of a fictional event.
Did you research body language when creating this piece? I research the physical characters, but I only decide upon their pose during the creative process of actually making the work.
Two of the subjects are aware of the artist’s presence… Yes, they are aware of the artist, but the artist is also present in the painting. I am actually participating in this ‘meal’, so I transcend the boundary between being on canvas and part of reality. ‘Mr Passive’ continues at Gallery Etemad until February 18.
The lowdown Exhibition: ‘Mr Passive’, until February 18 at Gallery Etemad, Al Serkal Avenue, Street 8, Al Quoz 1 (04 346 8649). Artist: Mehrdad Mohebali. Price range of works: Dhs44,080 to Dhs91,830.