‘Jahan-e-Digar’, an exhibition at Full Circle Gallery, sought to showcase Iranian art based upon the ustad–shagird (master-student) relationship, a practice that has also been prevalent in Pakistan historically, especially within the miniature movement. This relationship has evolved in contemporary times, in that many shagirds continue to be inspired by the ustad but also find their own voice in contemporary practices. To this end, the exhibition at Full Circle Gallery illustrated and explored the artistic relationship of Ameer Asadzadeh, an internationally known artist, and his students Azam Erfanmanesh, Rahele Erfanmanesh, Bahareh Vahib, Maliha Juhaili and Nafisah Panirian. According to the curator, Schehrezade Junejo, these students did not have any formal academic training and their artistic skills are purely acquired in their training with their mentor.
Iranian art today is a household name in many circles. Regular auctions in the Gulf and the West always place Iranian artists as amongst the most coveted and expensive, with artists such as Shirin Neshat and Farhat Moshiri achieving international renown, awards and movements. Interest in Iranian art remains very high and has been showcased by recent successful exhibitions at avenues such as Asia Society with a recent exhibition on modern art from Iran titled ‘Iran Modern’. In some ways, this has to do with Iran’s development trajectory vis-à-vis the Muslim world. Where the rest of the Middle East in the 1950s and 1960s was transitioning from colonial to postcolonial and the Gulf states did not yet have massive oil discoveries, the Iranian state was busy forging new modes of modernity and collecting art. Even today, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art holds the largest collection of such art outside of the West. Given the nature of Iranian art and its praise globally, it is exciting that Full Circle Gallery ahas chosen to go this route and showcase artists from the country. It must also be lauded that the works are not produced in the normal academic circles of universities, but are stemming from traditional student-teacher relationships.
Most of the work in the exhibition was inspired by Sufi and traditional themes of love, unity, universe and so on. Ameer Asadzadeh’s works Sokhan and Naseim Sobhagi show attention to detail and a rich color palette that created vivid images for the viewer and are evocative scenes that seem to tell a story right from the beginning to the end. This is completely in contrast with some of the other works, such as Emam Raza by Rahele Erfan Manesh and Zamenahoo by Maliha Julaili, which are inspired by traditional Islamic arts. Both works draw on the rich contributions of Islamic art to geometry, calligraphy and design. The works are perfectly symmetrical and speak to Sufi notions of unity and oneness through the themes of art. There are also works such as Andarz by Azam Erfan Manesh that borrow heavily from the tradition of miniature. The perfectly constructed and detailed imagery outlines a scene as if from the Shahnameh. The scene depicts an Imam or a leader on the minbar, surrounded by his devotees, with the backdrop of a beautiful rich geometrical surface. In this, each of the artists continue to go their separate ways in terms of their work, but share similar concerns in craft and imagery.
However, while the works were rich, highly crafted and an important showcase of miniature and craft traditions of Iran, the exhibition overall was rather disappointing. The works seemed very basic and simple, and rather than finished products it seemed that much were works the artists were producing in the process to get to final works. Many of the works were also disjointed from each other. While the overarching theme could be the ustad–shaagird relationship, one was confused as to the thematic component of the work. Was it religious art? Was it miniature painting? Or was it contemporary themes enshrined in the two? Given the exciting art that is coming out of Iran recently, politically rich and sophisticated, and grappling with multiple issues within the Iranian state, these works seemed completely cut-off from those narratives. Pakistanis rarely get exposure to artists from around the world and in such cases it would be welcome to be able to engage more deeply with a variety of themes and mediums, than what might have already been seen in other shows and works. ♦
Aziz Sohail is Studio Director for Rashid Rana Studio and an independent curator and critic based between Karachi and Lahore.
All images courtesy of Full Circle Gallery.