Iranian artist Afshin Pirhashemi's first solo show can currently be viewed in London. Camilla Greene speaks to a determined artist who is intent on revealing a side of Iran rarely seen by the public.
With the gothic glamour of the female leads of Kill Bill, Corpse Bride and Double Indemnity rolled into one, the women who dominate the work of Iranian artist Afshin Pirhashemi burst out of the canvas. His paintings are an explosion of black and white intensity. In Untitled (2013), a turbanned Iranian femme fatale stares squarely at the viewer. Mouth obscured by a black ink mark, above which Farsi writing is barely visible, the hands at her throat look like her own. Look closer and their strange angle suggests another protagonist. Look again and you can't see the palms at all. Though Untitled seems to be about censorship, it's hard to read into the circumstances of the woman.
This shape-shifting painting by Pirhashemi, 40, has cemented his reputation as a photorealist painter in his own country. It has also led to international acknowledgement and acclaim. He is currently presenting his first London solo show, Seduction, at Ayyam Gallery until May 24th.
The London show and his relationship with Ayyam are Pirhashemi’s proudest achievements: "I've had other exhibitions in Europe, but this has been the most important for me so far," he says. These latest triumphs come after Pirhashemi's commercial success at auction with Bonhams and Christie’s, Dubai. In 2010 Pirhashemi sold his Rapture series for over $500,000. And several other pieces, including a work titled Seduction, have achieved equally impressive prices - in many cases quadrupling their estimates.
Hisham Samawi, managing partner of Ayyam Gallery, is excited about what Pirhashemi's first London solo show represents: “It’s great we have artists from the region like Afshin showing in London throughout the year. This helps to educate the market. Most collectors used to wait for the big art fairs like Art Dubai to pick up Middle Eastern art. But Afshin is now one of the few Iranian emerging global artists on Western collectors' radars: I would talk about him in the same breath as people like Farhad Moshiri.”
Afshin Pirhashemi's subversive take on the role of women and identity reveals a side of Iran rarely accessed in the West. Yet he's in the company of a generation of artists - such as Shirin Aliabadi, Daryoush Gharazad, Gohar Dashti, Katayoun Karami, Samira Eskandarfar and Saeed Ahmadzadeh who are all inserting gender and social issues into their work.
The First-Timer, 2012
Though Pirhashemi’s almost exclusive focus on Iranian women may lead cynics to accuse him of orientalist stereotyping, Ali Bagherzadeh, co-founder of the Bagherzadeh Foundation, argues that Pirhashemi has a unique way of representing gender politics. Pirhashemi's women are instantly recognisable in that they're "usually angry or aggressive. These are no Mahatma Ghandis, no silent protestors.”
Dr Hamid Keshmirshekan, author of Contemporary Iranian Art: New Perspectives, also praises Pirhashemi’s use of ambiguity: "Neither clearly a feminist nor an anti-feminist, he is constantly layering his themes with more complexity, incorporating a wide range of interpretations and perspectives.”
Born in 1974 in Urmia, Afshin Pirhashemi was something of a child prodigy, He started painting in childhood, juggling his first exhibition at Tehran's Bamdad Gallery, aged 16, with a group exhibition at Seyhoon Gallery. Kicked out of high school for refusing to cut his long hair, he received a grant from the Italian Ambassador in Tehran to study at Rome Art Academy for two months, finally convincing his father to let him study for a Bachelor's degree in Art at Azad University, Tehran. Not satisfied with student fame, Pirhashemi managed to get his work into the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art before he graduated in 2007.
“During Mr. Khatami's presidency we had more liberty in the art scene. I'd never thought they would even hang my work on the wall of the Iranian Contemporary Art Museum, but it happened. Then they chose three pieces by me for the 2003 Tehran 6th International Art Biennial, which I won. After this, my works were sent to the 2004 Beijing Art Biennial and soon after that they went to auction houses. Since my works are dark and bitter, the auction houses wanted first to test them out,” Pirhashemi explains.
The auction houses need not have worried. Pirhashemi’s ability to tell Iranian stories in a global language has proved unfailingly commercial. According to Ali Bagherzadeh, Pirhashemi’s popularity is thanks to three key elements in his work: “Pirhashemi has succeeded not only in terms of conceptuality and aesthetics but also in commercial sales - proving he is not a one hit wonder. His art is both aesthetically appealing, as well as having a basis in thought and ideas. People also take comfort in investing in art which has had high price achievement in the past.”
Pirhashemi’s latest three paintings, unveiled for the first time for this show, demonstrate considerable development. Mothers (2013), Power (2013) and Competition (2014) all move away from the artist’s signature black and white portraits of tortured females to subtly coloured group tableaux, centred around themes of Iranian identity.
In Mothers, seven sword-bearing women stand centre-stage. The calligraphy below refers to the Battle of Karbala. Thundering on horseback behind them are pre-Islamic kings from Persian epic the Shahnameh. The women stand in defensive formation atop an enlarged astrolabe. Mothers turns Persia’s foundational myths and stories into something resembling a feminist narrative, rejecting the idea of Iranian women as spectators of history: "Women in my paintings are so clever and powerful, and the opposite. They all want to dictate their feelings to the audience," Pirhashemi says.
So what is next for Afshin Pirhashemi? More explorations of female power: ”The subject of women provides me with a vast field of work, which I look at, again and again, from different angles”, he says. " As I get older, my work becomes wiser and better."
Seduction continues at Ayyam Gallery in London until May 24th