Honar: Universal Resonance

In 2012, Blouin artinfo named Mohammed Afkhami one of the “50 most exciting collectors under 50.” Phaidon’s new text, Honar: The Afkhami Collection of Modern Contemporary Art is evidence of just this. Now based between Dubai, New York and Switerzland, the Managing Partner of MA Partners DMCC has accrued a wealth of vital pieces reflecting a vibrant country that is producing some of the world’s most insightful, impacting and aesthetically considered pieces of work. As Afkhami states, in Guardian’s ReframeIran series:There’s a rich tradition craftsmanship here that doesn’t go away with conflict. No matter what happens politically you can’t suppress the cultural roots of the country.”

Sewing together an extensive list of groundbreaking practitioners from the 1950s to the present day, this weighty and well-designed publication is a rich tapestry of expression, from well-publicised figures such as Parviz Tanavoli, Farhad Moshiri and Charles Hossein-Zenderoudi to the lesser-known sculptors, illustrators, photographers and innovators. Each of the 95 individuals mentioned within Honar have been personally selected, chosen for the diverse and important contributions that they have made to the artistic climate.

The text approaches a number of thematic constructs, iconographies and cross-connections. Script, for example, plays a vital role in many of the featured images. The written word is built upon as a source of visual expression in its own right, whether through reference to Islamic texts, or the abstracted forms of the Saqqakhaneh movement – of which introductory essayist Tanavoli is a prominent figure. This recurs a multitude of times throughout the pages, one of the most notable examples being the radical processes of Shirin Neshat.

Contemporariness comes to the fore, bringing a new kind of figurative representation to written languages, one in which calligraphic shapes act as a conceptual collage to black and white images. Layers are used as an avant-garde reflection on contemporary existence; history is still present but the future is being unravelled in the changing faces and landscapes of the 21st century. Whispers stands as an example of this; a picture mostly shrouded in full black from the cloth of a “chador.” For the remaining portion, a woman’s face is placed in front of her male companion, whose features are, in turn, also veiled – covered in ink inscriptions. This composition is just one of the groundbreaking photographs demonstrating Neshat’s seminal imagination; it is impregnated with important dialogues about gender roles and theoretical awareness.

Marrying tradition and modernity, Neshat is master of the in-between – an emotional space charged by the notion of femininity which is interpreted through Islamic coding. This is further shown in a captivating still from Rapture, a two-channel video installation which invites the viewer to stand in the middle of two opposing films. One screen depicts a crowd of men taking part in ritualesque, mundane tasks amongst an urban backdrop, whereas the other features anonymous, veiled women as they make their way across the desert towards the ocean.

These types of visual conversations are further developed in a number of other places, a short list of practitioners including Abbas Kowsari, Shadi Ghadirian, Farhad Moshiri, Mitra Tabrizian and Newsha Tavakolian, the last of whom is yet another pioneer who comments on the suppression of women. Dream CD Covers is evidence of this – an image showcasing the potential album artwork for female singers who, in reality, aren’t allowed to perform in public. Standing alone in the sea, staring directly at the camera, Tavakolian is a figure that merges the naturalistic with the digital and liberation with censorship. The words “Yadat hast ke khodat nisti” (“Your memory is here while you are not”) are printed onto the paper, floating in non-sequential order, as if they were an ethereal apparition of thought from a closed mouth.

Further to these politicised two-dimensional practices, Honar’s sculptural highlights call upon Timo Nasseri and Moni Shahroudy. Geometric motifs, freestanding structures, spiritual numerology and mathematics come into play in these occasions; patterns crystallised through mirrored installations and self-reflective objects communicated through cosmic-inspired zeniths. Additional to this, painting, ceramics, prints and dyed linens also pervade the body of the book – collectively an argument for the culture that has always been a vital and supportive back-bone to the country.

As Afkhami summarises: “Art has underpinned my life as long as I can remember. When the Islamic revolution erupted, the family was uprooted and our possessions confiscated, art was a stabilising and constant pillar.” Though the relevance of this text is summarised in the introduction, it is a point that cannot be understated; it resonates through the rest of the book and beyond, not just with Iranian practices but internationally. What becomes increasingly evident through the 277 pages is that creative expression is both a form of catharsis and a critical type of practice that has the capacity to affect every individual. The text is an unprecedented source of enrichment for readers – for those who have read widely on the topic or those looking to find out more about a country which has often been overshadowed by media-fuelled scrutiny.

Kate Simpson

Honar: The Afkhami Collection of Modern Contemporary Art is available now from Phaidon. For more information: www.phaidon.com

1. Newsha Tavakolian, Dream CD Covers. Courtesy Newsha Tavakolian.