Arabesque: a brave new world of art

Contemporary art from the Middle East

Arabic contemporary art intro: Lara Baladi
Lara Baladi (detail)


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Despite the global downturn, Arabic and Persian art is hotter than ever. And yes - after a frenzied few years that saw China, India and Korea rise vertiginously in the contemporary stakes, sceptics could be forgiven for stifling a 'not again' yawn.

But the fact is, the closing decade of the 20th century and opening years of the 21st will be remembered by art historians as the first flourishings of a truly international visual language - one that is able to communicate across cultures, yet still retain the vitality of regional identities.

Islamic artists are not only able to draw upon one of the greatest artistic patrimonies, they also have plenty to say. The often fraught social and political climate of the Middle East is a consistent theme in their work, though equally insistent is the desire to address misunderstanding and stereotype. The effects, both positive and negative, of globalisation, internationalism and consumerism are yet another concern.

Many of the works featured here provide insights into the Islamic world that decades of western news media have failed to impart. the fact that a new generation of Arabic and Persian artists articulate such views with elegance, subtlety and wit is precisely why their practice demands attention - and is finally receiving it.


Farhad Moshiri (Iran)

Farhad Moshiri, contemporary Iranian art
© image copyright, Farhad Moshiri

Farhad Moshiri is not only one of the best known of a new generation of Middle Eastern artists, he also has the distinction of being the first to break the million dollar mark at auction.

Born in Shiraz, Iran, in 1963, Moshiri studied Art & Film at the California Institute of the Arts from 1981-1984 before returning to his homeland. He now lives and works in Teheran.

His practice includes painting, photography, sculpture and installation, and often combines reference to traditional Iranian arts with themes such as popular culture and the steady growth of consumerism.

His earliest paintings depict ancient earthenware urns decorated with calligraphic texts: lyrics from sentimental love songs, as well as descriptions of the good things the jars once contained such as sweetmeats, fruits and juices. In their evocation of history and loss, these works nostalgically ponder a disappearing way of life.


Farhad Moshiri, contemporary Iranian art
© image above and below,
copyright, Farhad Moshiri

The opulent kitsch of the 2002 installation Golden Love Super Deluxe (below) marked an abrupt change in style towards Koonsian hybrids of fine art, traditional craft and overblown Pop.

These works both reflect and comment on newly emerging tastes in which consumerism and ostentation meet traditional influence - a world apart from the humble utilitarianism of the urns. Inspiration, according to Moshiri, is drawn from "the mall, the bazaar, the decorative and ornamental, and wedding culture in Iran".

Farhad Moshiri, contemporary Middle Eastern art - Stereo Surround Sofa

Shirin Aliabadi (Iran)

An art history and archeology graduate of the University of Paris, Shirin Aliabadi is an interdisciplinary Tehran-based artist. Her practice again reflects the growing influence of popular culture and transculturalism, with particular focus on women.

Although Aliabadi is clearly aware of the difficulties inherent in highly defined, even circumscribed female roles, her critique extends to western perception of women in Islamic societies and uninformed assumptions regarding social realities.

 contemporary middle eastern art - Shirin Aliabadi
© Shirin Aliabadi

The 2007 Miss Hybrid series of photographs provide what is for many a surprising portrayal of young Iranian women.

Bleached hair, coloured contact lenses and even a strip of surgical tape across the nose are apparently fashionable trends in the Islamic Republic, and although represented here in exaggerated form, emphasise female expression.

Nevertheless, looks such as these certainly qualify as 'bad hijab' - dress that contravenes Islamic standards - making the hybrid not only visually unusual, but a politically charged clash of western and Islamic values.

Yet there is often something disturbing about the wish to radically change one's appearance, even if seen in the light of youthful expression and an embrace of multiculturalism. While the women depicted are certainly striking, the 'hybrid' look they adopt is also highly artificial.

More worrying still is the use of the nose tape and its allusions to cosmetic surgery.

In heavily consumerist societies the decision to physically change one's appearance is massively influenced by pressure to conform to relentlessly reinforced notions of beauty. Far from representing an act of free will, cosmetic surgery suggests enslavement to stereotypes and deeply questions assumptions of personal freedom.

The Miss Hybrid pictures resonate, therefore, with extreme ambiguity. While documenting - and to an extent, celebrating - an increasing challenge on Iranian convention, Aliabadi subtly questions its implications. How liberating, ultimately, is a wish to fundamentally change one's appearance?

Shirin Aliabadi, Girls in Cars, contemporary art

Outsiders' perceptions of Iranian women are once again addressed in the series Freedom Is Boring, Censorship Is Fun (left).

While Aliabadi's title fully acknowledges restrictions within the Islamic Republic, it also declares that unexpected pleasure can be found in such a status quo.

In keeping with this assertion, the photographs depict groups of women enjoying themselves on a quintessential 'girls' day out'. The images demonstrate a vibrant sense of female community and imply, moreover, that Iran's social realities can be negotiated at many levels.

Yet Aliabadi's ultimate stance again remains open to interpretation. While making conspicuous - and sincere - efforts to portray Iranian women in situations rarely seen by many viewers, the artist's finely tuned irony needs to be considered. Can freedom ever really be 'boring'? In the end, an unbiased viewpoint as to what really constitutes personal liberty is the only way this question can be answered.


Farhad Moshiri and Shirin Aliabadi (Iran)

Farhad Moshiri and Shirin Aliabadi are, in fact, partners, and have frequently collaborated in the production of works which very effectively meld their individual sensibilities and concerns.

Aliabadi contributes an emphasis on sociopolitical comment, while Moshiri's fascination with Pop, packaging and kitsch is likewise in evidence.

Contemporary Middle Eastern art
© Farhad Moshiri and Shirin Aliabadi

Perverted Collage, 2003 (above) effectively explores possible contradictions and paradoxes regarding censorship in Iran.

The collage gathers together a collection of family magazines, many of which feature young girls on their covers. Iran places no restrictions on female dress before the age of puberty, and magazines commonly use this as a kind of loophole enabling them to depict looks that are censored on adult female models.

Western audiences are increasingly sensitive regarding the use of children in contexts which might be seen as prematurely sexualised or exploitative. In Iran, the substitution of small girls for adult models does not pose any such moral dilemma.

The use of the term 'perverted' to describe this work should therefore be approached with extreme caution. While Moshiri and Aliabadi are certainly highlighting a contradiction which may seem unusual - even hypocritical - to some, its reading as somehow obscene is highly dependent on cultural interpretation.

A growing emphasis on 'protection' of children in western art and media is considered extreme by many, with images depicting children unclothed increasingly likely to face censorship, no matter their context - and despite their abundance in classical western art.

Balancing Iranian mores on the one hand with western sensibilities on the other, the artists force us to consider two very different cultures and the restrictions imposed by both.

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