In literal dictionary terms, ‘desensitizing’ relates to the loss of shock or feeling that occurs over time through an overexposure to violent subject matter and imagery. In the case of artist Dr. Mohsen Keiany, he builds his own imagery based on war and violence in the context of Islamic history, past and present. Following his Sanat residency in 2015 titled ‘Unseen Shahnameh’, Iran-based artist Dr. Mohsen Keiany returns now in 2018 with new works, once again at Sanat, titled ‘The Desensitized Artist’.
In his previous body of work, Keiany’s sculptural and painting work was based on stories and descriptions of ancient warfare from Persian literature, specifically the Shahnameh. The sculptural material of scrap metal that he found in workshops across Karachi also specifically became a medium for contextualizing weapons of war in Persian history, as well as the deterioration of the past. Following off of his previous artistic methods, ‘The Desensitized Artist’ presents large metallic figurative paintings, as single canvases as well as in three and four panels. Once again sticking to a toned-down metallic colour-palette, his paintings consist of only specific hues of brown and grey-blue that match those of rusted metal.
Keiany’s work takes heavy influence from history and culture. While previously he dealt more with his Persian heritage, albeit still dealing with the context of war, he now takes influence from modern warfare and ‘Islamic Terrorism’. What can be seen as an intriguing transition from his previous work are the kind of minor, but still prominent, changes in the visuals. The horn-clad helmet wearing, sword-wielding bearded men are now accompanied with images of burkha-clad women holding grenades and vest bombs. What cannot be ignored here is the presence of ancient weapons of war alongside modern-day weapons of war in the imagery. An obvious influence in this change is the artist’s participation in the Iran-Iraq war as a teenager. Influences of religion are also more prominent, using iconography as that of crucifixion, turbans and the veil.
With Islamophobia becoming a global circumstance, through his work Keiany talks about the overexposure to the kind of excessive and politicized imagery depicted of Muslims, and war and conflict throughout the Middle East over the past several years by Western media. His use of metallic figures specifically represents an individual turning into a machine, also dealing with the desensitization occurring through this overexposure, creating a lack of empathy towards Muslims in general, hence also dehumanizing them.
What needs to be noticed here is the use of specific icons that have universally become associated with Islam. Juxtaposing icons of bearded men and veiled women alongside grenades and bombs may only aid further to the kind of stereotypical image created because of Islamophobia, treating violence and Islam as the same. This may also then act the same as what Keiany is criticizing the Western media of doing in the first place. However, in his artist statement Keiany mentions how Muslim artists often feel the need to emphasize only peaceful aspects of Islam as to not aid further to Islamophobia by avoiding the same kind of stereotypical imagery. He instead chooses to use those specific stereotypes on purpose to exaggerate and emphasize, not the negative aspects of Islam, but the negative aspects that come through the excessive polarization of Muslims in the general sense. It would appear that his work not only talks about the desensitization of violence and war, but also a desensitization which causes stereotypes and generalizations to go unnoticed and become normalized.