30 Artists, 30 years – Khosrow Hassanzadeh
Interviewed by Isabelle Caussé, art curator, Bagri family collection – May 2020.
IC: Your work first entered the Bagri family collection in 2005-6 with works from the Chador and Pahlavan (Iranian wrestlers) series. In 2015, a large-scale installation composed of 384 tiles paying homage to Arab musicians was acquired. In your work you look closely at different people making up Iranian society as well as outside influences from across Asia and beyond as in the Arab musicians’ panel. Is there, in your work, a particular ‘Asia tie’ you could highlight for us?
KH: In my work, I am foremost interested in recreating the worlds of ordinary people – those forgotten or ignored members of society. I want to bring to life and preserve the dreams and fantasies of the common folk. Thus, geography is not necessarily a concern to me.
For instance, the Pahlavans that you make reference to are a deeply rooted tradition of people. At the time, the subject may have appeared ‘pedestrian’, ‘kitsch’ or even ‘cheap’ but I have never been interested in an intellectual view of art.
Umm Kulthum, shown at the centre of the Arab musicians panel, whom Arabs refer to as ‘Kawkab al-Sharq’ (The Star of the East), is revered across the whole region. From Egypt, India to here in Iran, everyone knows Umm Kulthum. I remember in my own family we would listen to her music when I was a child. For me the popular Arab icons are no different to Iranian popular icons. It is this popular culture that fascinates me.
I also was motivated to preserve the local cultures that were quickly being eradicated. Gholamreza Takhti, whose light box shrine is currently at the British Museum, embodied a tradition that was ending. He was the last of the Pahlavans, called the ‘Jahan Pahlavan’. His potent popularity amongst ordinary people threatened the rulers who worked to abolish the ancient tradition.
The Iranian Revolution also played a key role here and I chose to work on the Iranian pop artists whom were silenced after singing was banned.
IC: Having lived in the UK for a few years you recently returned to Tehran. In terms of your work would you say this return home has been important and why?
KH: Indeed, I lived for a number of years in the West and I formed a life there for myself and it was very good. It is not geography, rather the different traditions of East and West. It is the way each culture views aesthetics and beauty. Of course, it must be said that I am much more closely connected with the Eastern view, even though I gained a lot from Western techniques. I connect deeply with Eastern culture whether it be Indian, Chinese or Arab. We have a very long history of close cultural exchanges.
Living in the West, I lived in a truly global city which gave me great exposure. But in the UK, I became like the many displaced wanderers who had moved there. In terms of my art, I found this truly challenging. It would have taken me many lifetimes to be able to fully grasp the popular culture there, to understand what makes people tick, to touch them.
It can perhaps be said that after my fascination with the West wore off, I started to gain a better appreciation for my own culture that I knew so well. In the East, I can grasp people and transform this into art concepts that inspire me.
IC: You have exhibited worldwide. Recently you mentioned your next show will be in India. Can you say a bit more on this, your experience of exhibiting in Asia and how you see or would like to see the arts and culture of the region develop?
KH: The short answer to how we can develop art in the region, is we have to stop using Western art as a reference. We need to stop being apologetic and to find our own truth. In the West, Eastern artists are still treated as “discoveries”. Just like sections in a museum which are assigned to Eastern or Islamic Art. Eastern art continues to be viewed through a colonial lens – art is brought home like prized pickings or spoils.
I have tried to follow this in my own work. I didn’t want the spotlight of the Orientalists to look down on me, I wanted to look at myself face-to-face. I wanted to look at these same unfamiliar personages and celebrate them for myself. I took the Chador, Ashura, or Terrorist and turned each concept on-its-head and looked at them in reverse, and celebrated them.
The most noticeable change since my return to Iran, is the new confidence that I see growing in Asia and a distinct shift eastward. This has inspired my current series called Silk Road, which grew out of a project I was doing with the Chinese. I have completed the first study using silkscreen on canvas, but I am looking to work with mosaic.
In terms of India, this will be the second time I am exhibiting there. In 2011-12, I was invited by the Devi Foundation in Delhi where I created a light box shrine for Gandhi. It’s been very popular and I understand it has become a place of worship! My next show is called Diary. It is nostalgic and biographical and will be exhibited in Pune.
I am from downtown Tehran. I have always chosen to make my work about the subjects that are closest to me for the popular people of Iran. I love the richness of my culture and traditions and I embrace the often surprising and humorous way in which they penetrate and express themselves in contemporary society. Iran is a deeply visual country, life is written and painted all around me in everyday local things and street life. I always use popular mediums and materials; silk screen, painting, collage, cheap paper. My work is always about the unknown people because I believe in their importance and sacrifice, I believe they are the root and solution to everything.