Iranian pop culture

Time Out looks outside Dubai and explores the latest in Iranian modern art with Khosrow Hassanzadeh.

The Iranian singer Googoosh has been put into a sacred box. Around her, red fairy lights flash on and off, and the white feather boa around her neck glints with reflected chintz. In the next box along, another Iranian singer, Javed, seems to fly from his wooden housing. With his arms crossed, he appears to levitate forward, guru like, from the cosmic blue halo and plastic sunflowers behind him. His suit is very sharp. In Iran they would say, that suit is Javed.

Javed has now become synonymous with kitsch in the Farsi language. When Time Out met with Khosrow Hassanzadeh, as his latest show of works at B21 Gallery was about to open, he explained this idea. ‘You might say, “Oh Khosrow’s paintings are so Javed,”’ he says, drawing out ‘Javed’ in a saturated parody. ‘“This man’s car is so Javed. Look at him, he’s so Javed.” After the revolution, they wouldn’t let Javed sing, but he was still an icon. Not just in singing, but in that name. The same with Googoosh.’

Hassanzadeh has produced six kitsch laments for his personal icons; wooden boxes filled with flags, photographs, fake flowers and collected lights to frame his subjects. Beginning with his own image, crosslegged and garlanded in a lattice of white lights, Hassanzadeh then produced a box for his 90-year-old mother and his friend Reza, a former gymnast for the Iranian national team. Then he moved onto national popular icons like Googoosh and Javed.

The works reference the tiny boxes containing pictures of a martyr or a saint that are sold on the street in Tehran. It’s an obsession with the popular that drives the artist. ‘The people love kitsch, they live by kitsch. All of my ideas and projects have come from the people around me.’ The collection is titled Ready To Order: ‘If you go into the street [in Tehran], look in the newspaper, you see “ready to order”. A marriage, a funeral whatever you want they will do it.’

Each of these boxes is Hassanzadeh’s own ready-to-order creation, created in tribute to the figures around him. But they are also shaped and personalised through the funnel of his impressions. As we flick the overhead lights off, revealing the full flashing glare of each box, there’s suddenly something sad about each of these creations. The lights no longer appear garish in the darkness. They conjure instead the atmosphere of a tomb, of concealment, of something fundamentally sacred that Hassanzadeh is referencing by framing his subjects in these boxes.

We start to talk about loss and about what the disappearance of figures like Javad and Googoosh, post-revolution, have meant for the popular imagination in Iran. ‘If somebody dies in Iran and they were young or a martyr, then they make this huge display in the street for them,’ he explains. ‘There are loads of lights and I use these same lights in my boxes. It’s kind of a respect.’ Hassanzadeh suggests that these works are memoriams; they are expressions of loss – affirmations or reminders, like the tiny boxes seen in the tombs of the martyrs, of a passing icon of popular solidarity. ‘I wanted to make something to say goodbye to them, because they’re gone now,’ he says and points at Googoosh’s face as it flashes in the corner, who, like all solo female singers, has been banned from singing in Iran since the revolution.

Counterpointing the exhibition is a selection of silkscreen paintings, each featuring a troupe of Pehlvani wrestlers. Around them is a dancing, whirling calligraphy that repeats over and over, ‘Ali, Ali, Ali’. He tells us that the images came to him spontaneously as he worked on the boxes. ‘I love these people [the pehlvanis], I miss them. Ya Ali Madadi [a common blessing in Iran and the name of these works] is very important to Shi’a people. If they want to do anything… they always say “Ya Ali Madadi.”’ Again, this is Hassanzadeh exposing the common identifiers in Iranian cultural consciousness. But also the sacred within this. As he goes on to explain: ‘I wanted the letters that I painted around them to move like a dervish, to dance across the canvas. I found myself moving like a dervish in a circle as I was painting.’

Wrestlers, singers and close friends all meet to embody Hassanzadeh’s warm, yet wry, love of Iran’s conception of the popular. By moulding the popular and the personal (in the case of his mother and friends) around a sacred, deeply ingrained trope of respect – the box, usually reserved for martyrs or the dead – we can see Hassanzadeh reflecting on the sacred nature of the ordinary. ‘This idea isn’t very original,’ he admits.

‘You go into the tombs of the martyrs and you see them all over the wall. Each martyr has a little box, something to remind us of them.’ It’s pop art in the truest sense. Like Warhol, Hassanzadeh is fascinated by what captures and keeps the public imagination in an almost religious way. But there is something original in his sensitivity to what constitutes Iran’s popular makeup. He’s managed to contain it in a kitsch and charismatic way.

B21 Gallery (04 340 3965). Until December 11

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