Farhad Moshiri: Iran’s Own Pop Artist

In March 2008, an Iranian by the name of Farhad Moshiri made international headlines. At a Bonhams sale in Dubai, Mr. Moshiri became the first Middle Eastern artist to have a contemporary work auctioned for more than $1 million. Eshgh (2007) consisted of a large black canvas with the Persian word for love embroidered on it with Swarovski crystals.

Today, Mr. Moshiri is one of Iran’s most successful living artists, represented by top world galleries. A new and lavishly illustrated two-volume art book surveying his career – “Life is Beautiful,” edited by the art consultant Dina Nasser-Khadivi and published by Skira – features many of the works that Mr. Moshiri has produced with their titles and dates.

In London for the book launch, Mr. Moshiri joined Kayhan London for a conversation about his life and career. Appearing much younger than his 53 years, the diminutive artist wore an open-neck shirt and blazer, and took an occasional sip of a water bottle he carried with him.

Mr. Moshiri spent his childhood and adolescence in Shiraz, where his father owned a chain of movie theaters. “I should have been a filmmaker,” he explains. “I was raised watching more films than art books.” Thankfully for him, he also studied painting from a young age, first at school in Shiraz, and then in the 1980s, when he moved to the US to study at the California Institute of Arts.

It was not an easy time to be in the U.S. “Iran was very detached from the world,” Mr. Moshiri recalls. “It was portrayed in a very dark and nasty way.” Besides, after graduation, Mr. Moshiri’s career did not go as well as he hoped: “It was very difficult to find work as an artist. I had a show, but it was not very successful.”

So after 13 years away from his homeland, Mr. Moshiri moved back to Iran, and “left any thought of being an artist behind.” Why? “I was going back to a place where the art world didn’t exist. I couldn’t make it in the West. How could I make it in Iran?”

Returning to Shiraz, he began by making design objects – chairs, tables and other household items that he found in reject shops and restored – and selling them. It was a frustrating enterprise for the artist, because he realized that no matter how hard he painted or drew over a chair, it was still “just a chair” and not a work of art. So he “went canvas: I started to paint again.”

Those early canvases were “really bad,” he recalls. Yet they gave him a refreshing sense of freedom, and allowed him to experiment with “no one watching.” Eventually, he started to produce naïve paintings inspired by Qajar art, and a couple of years after his return to Iran, he got his first exhibition at the Seyhoun Gallery in Tehran (where he now lived).

Mr. Moshiri was still convinced that film was his true calling; it was a discipline he had studied at Cal Arts, and he was heartened by the success of Iranian cinema in the West. So he continued to work with the camera. To get unexpired negative stock, he had to go through state-run institutions such as the Farabi Foundation and submit his scripts before he could begin filming. The scripts repeatedly came back for revision. “It was an endless cycle of meetings,” says Mr. Moshiri, who realized he had chosen a “controlled” medium.

Painting was much easier: “I could paint with nobody looking over my shoulder.” After a few early assemblage paintings – composed of found materials such as a door, a torn carpet, a window, a piece of wood – he began taking an interest in ancient Iranian art and archeology. Shopping around the markets with his artist wife Shirin Aliabadi, he came across tired old jars in which vinegar and wine were once made, and started buying them for the equivalent of a few dollars each. One day, as he carried one in the trunk of his car, he was stopped by officers who were convinced he was transporting a priceless object.

From that point on, “I just started painting the jar, and tried to imitate what I liked about it on a flat surface.” Mr. Moshiri’s jar canvases started selling extremely well, and his market took off – first at home, then in Europe. Mr. Moshiri went on to make paintings with Persian calligraphy and numbers, then changed tack completely to chronicle tastes in contemporary Iran and produce a kind of Iranian Pop Art.

“Something was happening in society that was very fascinating: the nouveau riche aesthetic,” he said. “Petrodollars were starting to trickle down, people were building, stuff was happening.” As exaggerated portrayals of the homes of the newly rich, which were filled with faux baroque furniture, Mr. Moshiri created a series of ultra-ornate sculptural installations that covered chairs, tables, and home entertainment systems in a deliberately gaudy, shiny gold.

Mr. Moshiri’s Rome gallerist then suggested that he produce art that could hang on walls. Remembering the framed embroideries that were found in so many Iranian homes, he made embroidery his new medium – working with professional embroiderers, all of whom were women: “I liked the fact that I was being soft and feminine,” he notes. The embroideries grew in size and became more lavish, incorporating materials such as crystal. Out of that series came the famous Eshgh work, and Mr. Moshiri’s global success.

Why did Eshgh make such a splash in Dubai? Because it was a moment in which the auction houses came to the Middle East looking for indigenous art. “There was no real database where they could find artists, so they would ask around to see who had a show, who made noise here and there, and they would do studio visits.” Add to that the buzz and excitement around Dubai at the time, and you end up with the historic March 2008 auction.

“We were just lucky to be there, and it happened at the height of the excitement around Dubai,” Mr. Moshiri explains.

Since then, “it’s been a challenge for me to keep up and not repeat myself,” says the artist.

“So I’m constantly trying to develop new ideas, new ways, new methods.”
 His most recent exhibition, “Float,” was held at the Galerie Perrotin in New York in 2014. He is now going back to painting – and has exhibitions coming up next year at the Third Line Gallery in Dubai and the Thadeus Ropac Gallery in Salzburg.

Meanwhile in Iran, the art world has taken off fantastically, with uneven results. But Mr. Moshiri is not bothered. “We can’t be too harsh on something that never had a chance, and now that it’s sort of having a chance, crush it,” he concludes. “I think it’s all good.”