By Laura van Straaten
Three Iranian artists who work individually but also collaboratively as a trio are the focus of a new exhibition in New York City. What’s more, they’re brothers.
Raised in Gilan province, northern Iran, they are the Ghasemi brothers: Mojtaba, born in 1987; Sina, born in 1984; and Morteza, born in 1982.
Their new exhibition, “Red Room 2: Migratory Bird,” is a short-term “pop-up” on view at the Elga Wimmer Gallery in New York’s West Chelsea (April 19 to May 2). It mixes drawings and paintings by each brother with paintings and sculptures created by the trio.
The show is curated by Roya Khadjavi-Heidari, who has also produced a short monograph to accompany the exhibition.
Unfortunately, the Ghasemi brothers won’t get to see their first New York exhibition, owing to the vagaries of U.S. immigration policy. “It has been a back and forth thing since [President Donald] Trump’s election. They were nervous: should they come or not come?” says Khadjavi-Heidari. Ultimately, they feared that, as three young, unmarried men with no property of their own in Iran, they might be misjudged and denied entry.
So the Ghasemi brothers sat this one out in Tehran, where they share a tiny apartment that doubles as their collective studio. “They go back to their home town, where their parents live, to do the larger works,” Khadjavi-Heidari explains.
The brothers’ collaborative works take as their subject the perils of forced migration, and the challenges and dehumanization faced by the more than 65 million displaced people around the world.
The largest is an acrylic on cardboard painting depicting a choppy sea, where an inflatable life raft crowded with indistinguishable figures approaches a sinking structure. “These people are moving to somewhere they are going to be alien in,” says Khadjavi-Heidari.
The brothers’ collaborative sculptures each take as a base a drippy paint can with Farsi writing on it. From the paint cans, red or white birds – all made from a messy mix of cardboard and cement wires – emerge. Iranians will catch the reference to the “Gol va Bolbol” (bird and flower) motif in traditional Iranian painting. Yet the birds are, as Khadjavi-Heidari describes it, “stuck in a glue-like material, like a resin, that prevents them from flying.”
“The current works are our third collaborative experience,” the brothers write in a joint essay published in the mini-monograph, “this time being formed around one theme: immigration. Our shared experience of immigration from our birth city to the country’s capital was difficult [in] many aspects, but we overcame it in hope of a better future.” Another common concern:”the constant thought of [migration] to another country.”
The solo work by the brothers is more interesting and successful, reflecting the style and subject matter preferred by each.
Sina’s solo paintings mix heavy brushwork with spatula impasto and feature women (mainly family members) in colorful landscapes or domestic settings. “By reworking the reality, color and locations, old and familiar images are manipulated in order to create a new environment and mood,” he writes. “These images remind me of the places I grew up in and are painfully nostalgic.”
Mojtaba’s paintings are classically figurative: men clad in swimming trunks lounge seaside on the grey sands of the brothers’ hometown of Bandar Anzli on the Caspian Sea. Yet Mojtaba’s most striking work has an altogether different subject. A vertical piece – and the largest figurative work in the exhibition – it shows one man cracking the back of another man, the vertical figures crowded to the left of a canvas against an abstracted black background, evoking artist Robert Longo’s 1979 series “Men in the Cities.” Both of Mojtaba’s men are in bare feet and pajama-style track pants, one sporting a tank top, the other bare-chested. It’s a remarkable work – intimate, yet with a palpable undercurrent of threat.
Morteza’s works on both paper and canvas here are also wholly dedicated to male figures, though his are set exclusively in all-male bathhouses, where boys and their fathers, uncles and grandfathers relax freely and playfully. His acrylic and ink works on view – all black and white, with just a touch or two of red – use the gridded bathhouse tile to good effect, here as landscape, there as abstraction. They are the most contemporary and appealing series in the exhibition.
Prices of the works range from $450 for the works on paper to $5,200 for the largest canvas by the trio.
Khadjavi-Heidari has organized a half-dozen exhibitions in New York of contemporary artists with strong ties to Iran in the last few years. She discovered the trio through Tehran’s Dastan Gallery while traveling last summer.
Her interest in contemporary artists of the region began not long after she decided nearly 15 years ago to expand upon her collection of European and British 19th-century paintings. The collection now comprises many artists of Iranian origin: from art world stars like Shirin Neshat, Y.Z. Kami, Shirazeh Houshiary, and Pouran Jinchi, to emerging artists whose work Khadjavi-Heidari has exhibited and sold in New York, like Bahar Behbahani, Hoda Zarbaf and Allahyar Najafi.
“The Red Room: Migratory Birds,” featuring individual and collaborative artworks by the brothers
Mojtaba, Morteza and Sina Ghasemi, is on view April 19-May 2, 2017, at Elga Wimmer Gallery, 526
West 26th Street, #310, in New York. Photographs: Dana Nehdaran