Need to know
• The title of the exhibition is a play on the term ‘I Heart U’ – the letters I and U referring to Iran and the US. Curator and contributing artist Mamali Shafahi explains. ‘It’s like a Tom and Jerry series – yes, Iran and the US are always fighting, but they’re kind of secretly in love. You never really believe they’re truly trying to hurt each other.’
• The exhibition features the work of five Iranian artists – Mahmoud Bakshi, Shahab Fotouhi, Arash Hanaei, Mamali Shafahi and Vahid Sharifian – all of whom were born in the late 1970s.
• Many in the West (and in fact the East) expect art from Iran to be dour and weighed down with the heavy responsibility of originating in a politically charged state. Yes, all the artists in this exhibition are Iranian, and they all have things to say about Iran, but the aesthetic is surprisingly playful, as Shafahi explains. ‘The exhibition feels like a funfair because there’s so much colour and light. It shows how we all go to lengths to avoid the politics in our country. The works are like a game, rather than a serious manifestation of politics.’
• The exhibition features a range of each artist’s work across a variety of mediums – this is a rare opportunity to see the whole universe of five artists, rather than just brief moments of their careers.
Works to watch
‘Toward Salvation (in Commemoration of Epic 11 September)’ by Shahab Fotouhi
In this work, 112 brightly coloured dragonflies swarm around a neon light. It references the poet Rumi’s telling of a butterfly destroyed by a mesmerising candle flame, as well as the hopes of immigrants moving to the US. The stunning installation is childlike in its primary-coloured appearance. ‘The contrast is obvious,’ Fotouhi explains.
‘I.U.[Heart]’ by Mamali Shafahi
This lightbox installation takes fundamentally Islamic elements (the bright green hues, cut-out stars) and fuses them with American elements (the plastic of toys, the white of the stars).
‘Shoes Arrival’ by Arash Hanaei
The stark sketch is a clear reference to the Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoe at George W Bush in December 2008.
I.U.[Heart] continues at The Third Line until July 31. See www.thethirdline.com.
The artists’ history
Curator Mamali Shafahi’s only condition for the show was that all five artists were of the same generation, born after the 1979 Islamic revolution. This is the Iran in which they grew up.
Early childhood: Iran/Iraq War, 1980-1988
The long-running war cost more than 500,000 lives.
‘We didn’t really touch the war, because it was fought mostly in the south of Iran, but we felt the hardline censorship during this period. You couldn’t talk about anything because the answer was, ‘Shut up, we’re at war.’ Everyone was focused on the martyr phenomenon.’
Teen years and early adulthood: the Khatami period, 1997-2005
The presidency of Mohammad Khatami marked an attempt towards freedom of expression, although the conservative clergy blocked a lot of the reform.
‘This is why Iranians from my generation are more courageous: because our teenage years were the exact time that Iranians began questioning things. For example, this was when the art scene became more focused.’
Adult life: the Ahmadinejad period, 2005-present
The presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad marked a return to a conservative Iran and a reversal of reforms.
‘Everything stopped when Ahmadinejad came in – for instance, they changed the art museum’s director. I curated this show two years ago in Tehran, and we tried to show it in Tehran last year, but we couldn’t get permission. I also almost cancelled the exhibition after the election last year [the re-election of Ahmadinejad was hotly contested], because everything changed from being about Iran and the US to being about Iran itself. But instead I asked the artist to select recent artworks that were more about Iran than the US.’