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Tiara for tunes
by Muhammad Yusuf February 07, 2019
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Presented by 1x1 Art Gallery, Dubai, in association with Vida Heydari, ‘Khonyagar’ (Singers or Musicians), the solo show of Iranian artist Khosrow Hassanzadeh, opened doors on Jan.15 in gallery premises. It is scheduled to run till Feb. 28.

Hassanzadeh’s works often deal with issues considered sensitive in Iranian society. So he is frequently referred to as a “political” artist or “pop” artist. Political or pop, his creations are disquieting. They invariably call attention to little explored interstices of life, only more critical since they are often brushed under the carpet of societal subconscious.

Scholars have described his style as somewhere between dissident and regime art. The artist himself calls his work “people’s art” because it deals with social issues that affect everyday people.

As yet only fourteen years of age, he became acquainted with the technique of silkscreen printing while working in his textile printing shop. Thrilled about printing a Michael Jackson motif on his T-shirt, little did he know this technique would become an integral part of great bodies of artwork he would make later, as one of the most prominent artists of his country.

As someone brought up in a traditional environment, Hassanzadeh was drawn to Iranian traditional paintings and the Saqqakhaneh Movement (a school of neo-traditional modern art that is found in Iran rooted in a history of coffee-house paintings and Islamic visual elements). His belief in Islam and his passion for Persian poetry and calligraphy further influenced his work.

Historically in Islamic art, religious manuscripts and images are painted on ceramic tiles and placed on the walls and domes of mosques and religious venues. Hassanzadeh has chosen this traditional medium to give importance to his characters, stating that the impact of singers and musicians is as important as those of their religious counterparts.

In ‘Khonyagar’, he has their portraits put on glazed tiles, where they shimmer and shine. It is his way of honouring people, often considered fringe elements in a Muslim society, with the attention and importance he feels they deserve.

It is his first solo exhibition at 1x1 Art Gallery and this time, his oeuvre depicts some of the most prominent figures in the music history of Iran and the Arab world. All of them are icons in their genres and styles.

While his Arab Singers have the warm and inviting backdrop of palm trees and the mysterious ever-lasting Pyramids of Egypt, Hassanzadeh’s Iranian Khonyagars are set in exquisitely sensual backdrops of a banquet of miniature figures, singing, dancing and letting their hair down, with the Persian chandelier hung right in the centre with symmetrical curtains on both sides, depicting the poetry of celebrated Persian poets Hafez, Saadi as well as the Shahnameh.

In the main work of the exhibition, embellished with jewels, he has depicted a tiara-wearing Ghamar, the first Iranian female singer who sang without a veil, Mahvash, the first woman to sing and dance daringly in front of groups of men, highly celebrated singer Marzieh, diva Delkash, Tar player Darvish Khan, and many others.

In the Arab Singers section, a powerful image of Umm Kulthum, one of the most influential singers of the 20th century and Egypt, is singing centre stage, with Fairuz, the “Jewel of Lebanon”, holding flowers on the right.

Syria’s Farid Al Atrash known as the King of Oud and his beautiful sister singer Asmahan, as well as the internationally famous Algerian singer Khaled, are also present, amongst others.

“As always, his works are a combination of images, painting, collage, silkscreen and mixed media. Shimmering under the spotlight, they are beautifully kitsch, flamboyant and nostalgic, just like Hassanzadeh himself, who lights up the room with a kind of youthful and authentic verve unique to himself”, says curator Heydari.

The man and his music

“My attention was drawn to pop singers around in 2007-2008 when my ten year long obsession with Pahlavan wrestlers was drawing to a close”, says Hassanzadeh. “I became interested not only in our own famous Iranian pop-singers like Googoosh and Javad, but also in Arab and Middle Eastern pop-icons, including Umm Kulthum and Fairuz.

“Since then, I have produced numerous works focusing on individual divas, such as my singing Umm Kulthum light-box which I love, until eventually I started drawing all of them together in homage to “Lalezar” (“Field of Tulips”).

“Like Al-Hamra in Beirut, Lalezar in Tehran was a focal point in which pop-stars grew to prominence, where the cabarets and cafes were. It was a centre of popular culture, which since the Islamic Revolution, has been banished to the relics of distant memory”.

(Inspired by his first trip to Europe in 1873, Naser al-Din Shah Qajar,   King of Persia (1848 – 1896) built Lalezar, the first modern boulevard in Tehran. Shops, cafes and smart restaurants dotted both sides of the street, making it the hipster destination of its time. A popular film and theatre culture helped keep the neighbourhood thriving in the 1930s, 40s and 50s).

“In my most recent series which is on show, I attempt to preserve them and ensure they are remembered. I use tiles as traditionally in the Middle East we tend to commemorate sacred icons through embossing them on tiles. The pop singers project is a continuation of my fascination with celebrating popular icons”.

Hassanzadeh was born in 1963 in Tehran, where he lives and works. As a young man, he volunteered in the Iran-Iraq war, which left an indelible mark on him, prompting him to create his first internationally recognised series ‘War, Life and Art’.

Upon returning from the war, he studied painting at Mojtama-e-Honar University and Persian Literature at Azad University, both in Tehran. If one goes through the catalogues of his work in the past two decades, it is easy to see the evolution of his craft. ‘War’ (1999) with its bodies wrapped in white long cloth morphed into ‘Chador’ (2000), which is the long cloth Muslim women wear over their head that covers their entire bodies, leaving only their faces exposed. Next, he depicted women in ‘Ashura’ (2001), a revered religious ceremony.

In ‘Terrorist’ (2005), he portrayed himself and his family members as terrorists, questioning the concept of terrorism and how it is conveyed internationally. ‘Pahlavans’, or traditional Iranian wrestlers, became the focus of his work for over a decade after 2003, during which he introduced the medium of ceramic tiles into his work.

Besides numerous solo exhibitions in galleries in London, Tehran, Dubai, New York, Singapore, Berlin, Brussels, Beirut, Damascus and Phnom Penh, Hassanzadeh has presented a retrospective at The Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam in 2006.

Over the years, he has taken part in several group exhibitions, including In the Field of Empty Days, LACMA, Los Angeles 2018; Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet, Agha Khan Museum, Toronto 2017; East-West Divan: Contemporary Art from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, 53rd Venice Biennale, 2009; Jameel Prize 2009; Victoria and Albert Museum, London 2009; Iran Inside Out, Chelsea Art Museum, New York 2009; Iranian Art Today, Museum of Contemporary Art, Freiburg 2006; Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East, British Museum, London 2006, to name a few.

His works are part of numerous permanent public and private collections such as The British Museum, The Tropenmuseum, The World Bank, National Museum of Scotland and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among others.

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