Innovation Through Tradition

It is perhaps a somewhat cliched statement to begin this introduction to the work of the internationally recognised Iranian artist Sadegh Tirafkan, by saying that he is very much a product of his circumstances, both on an international and an individual level, but this is clearly what informs his art. For Sadegh is the epitome of an Iranian artist whose innovative and utterly contemporary works are profoundly influenced by the legacy of his traditional Iranian heritage roots.

Born in 1965 in Iraq to Iranian parents, his family were forced to return to Iran by Saddam Hussein in 1971, and he, like his compatriots went on shortly thereafter to witness the overthrow of the Pahlavi Regime in the Revolution of 1979. Like vast numbers of young men in Iran at the time, he volunteered at the age of fourteen as a Basiji or paramilitary reservist, to fight against the Iraqis during the bloody eight year Iran-Iraq war. Here for three years, he experienced the brutality of a seemingly pointless struggle, fuelled by religious Shi’a fervour and a desperate desire by the nascent Islamic Republic to establish its legitimacy, resulting in great cost to life on both sides. Although Sadegh chooses not to speak about his experiences, they undoubtedly had a profound effect on his perception of the world thereafter.

Following his involvement in the war, and after finishing his schooling, in 1984 Sadegh decided to study photography at Tehran Fine Art University, thus pursuing his passion for cinematography, theatre and fine art. This in itself was an experience which brought him once again into conflict, although this time with, what for him, were the archaic views of his tutors for whom photography was merely a medium of landscape representation and journalistic documentation, not one of creativity.

By contrast, for Sadegh the art of his photography, as well as his video and installation work, was and is a conceptual process, which he uses to articulate his commentary on the complexities of contemporary Iranian society. Aware of the immense cultural tradition of his ancestors, which he sees being rapidly subsumed by the powerful duality of Western globalisation and Islamic dogmatism, Sadegh through his art sets out to challenge this threat to the continuity of his heritage.

Two main themes run throughout Sadegh’s works – those of masculinity and identity. Basing his work on well known literary, customary and religious antecedents ingrained in the Iranian psyche, Sadegh looks for his inspiration to the 10th Century, male dominated epic of the Shahnameh, wherein the legendary prowess of its main protagonist Rostam is played out in his heroic deeds. Similarly influential on Sadegh’s work and of equal importance in the macho stakes, and is the much earlier practices of pre-Islamic zurkhaneh or ‘house of strength’ in which, to this day, Iranian men perform wrestling and bodybuilding exercises, thereby emulating their ancestral heroes, the pahlavan.

Complimenting the male as hero in the legends of the Shahnameh, and the Zurkhaneh, Sadegh also draws his inspiration from the Shi’a traditional practices, stemming from the veneration of the martyred Imam Hussein, still in currency today, most notably in the powerful self-flagulating rituals of Moharram and performance of the popular religious Taaziye performances in which men play all the parts.

From the artistic perspective, Sadegh reinterprets these themes by the inclusion of his mostly bare torsoed, self portrait in the majority of his photographs and videos (which he explains are as a result of the taboo subject of the male nude in Islamic art). Firmly grounded in Iranian visual tradition, Sadegh’s images range from his early works shot on location in the pre-Islamic sites of Persepolis and Choga Zambil to juxtapositions of his torso against typical Safavid Shahnameh illustrations and tribal carpets. Referencing the bloody Ashura rituals, his latest works shot in the studio, depict men in combat framed by daggers against a background of wrestlers from the zurkhaneh.

I will leave it to Sadegh to talk about these in more detail. However, in order to understand the reasons for his choice of subject matter, it is important to explore the context from which his work developed.

Setting the context of Modern and Contemporary Iranian Art

From an historical point of view, the rise of Modern art in Iran (that is the break from the more traditional Persian arts) stems from the Constitutional Revolution in 1906. However, it is not until the 1940’s, when the Faculty of Fine Arts in the University of Tehran was formed and run by the French architect André Godard, that Iranian art developed its own recognisable identity. Artists were beginning to travel regularly, and to study in European institutions, consequently embracing the new ideologies of Post War Europe, but nevertheless struggling to develop a distinctly Iranian identity in their art.

This however was to change in the 1960’s, when an informal school developed in the 1960’s which became known as ‘Saqqa-khaneh’ or neo-traditionalist, spiritual pop movement. For the first time, Iranian artists began to reinterpret and deconstruct their own traditional art but in a completely innovative manner. Saqqa-khaneh meaning water fountain, refers to public fountains offering drinking water constructed in honour of Shi’i martyrs denied water at the decisive battle of Kerbala in AD 680 and alludes to the powerful traditions of Shi’a Islam. Proponents of the movement, include Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, Parviz Tanavoli and Faramarz Pilaram, each of whom experimented with different ways to integrate into their art popular symbols of Shi’i culture, such as elements of ancient pre-Islamic motifs, votive religious, talismanic and magical symbols, calligraphy and 19/20th Century Qajar ‘coffee house’ scenes. Relying not just on painting to express their creations, the artists turned to sculptural forms previously unknown in Iranian art as the result of official religious intolerance to idolatry. Often cast in bronze, the best known of these are the series of iconic ‘heech’ or existentialist nothingness sculptures, formed out of the Farsi letters for this word, created by Parviz Tanavoli and which he continues to produce to this day.

Significantly, however, although photography was a well established medium at this period (having been introduced into Iran during the Qajar period), no photographers emerged directly during the period in which the Saqqa-khaneh school flourished. Indeed, whilst there are numerous photographers working in Iran today, Sadegh can be seen as an innovator in his use of photography referencing the subject matter of the Saqqa khaneh tradition.

Similarly, looking at both the literary and visual traditions, there are a number of Iranian artists who depict scenes of masculinity and Iranian identity with a contemporary twist such as Fereydoun Ave who portrays Rostam and Sohrab based on the image of the Iranian Olympic Gold wrestler Abbas Jadidi, and the Haerizadeh brothers who draw heavily on the Shahnameh and Taaziye tradition in their work, it is perhaps Sadegh who through his pioneering use of conceptual imagery is one of the most interesting and innovative of the post Saqqa khaneh Iranian artists of today.