A celebration of Persian voices and talent

Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians—The Mohammed Afkhami Collection


Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians

The Mohammed Afkhami Collection
“Persian art shows how the past is always present for Iranians and how successfully they use traditional aspects of life and art as a foil to critique or comment on current conditions.”

Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians
The Mohammed Afkhami Collection

B eautifully curated by Dr. Fereshteh Daftari, the Asia Society’s Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians—The Mohammed Afkhami Collection offers a distinctive perspective of Persian arts and culture that is not to be missed.

Can the soul of a culture withstand a radically shifting political and societal environment? The twenty-seven artworks that make up this exhibit offer a definitive yes. They don’t aspire to encompass all contemporary art created in and outside of Iran, or even Mr. Afkhami’s entire collection. That decision serves it and us well, providing both intimacy and thematic diversity that’s sure to appeal to a variety of audiences, and encourage them to discover more Persian artists.

Though the art and artists are contemporary—from 1998 to the present day—many materials and subjects are echoes of empires gone by, underscoring the richness of Persian culture and history, as well as repetitions of individual, societal and political themes.

Experiencing this event with Dr. Daftari as a guide was especially valuable. Asked about the provenance of the exhibit, which was first displayed at the Aga Khan Museum, Dr. Daftari replied: “Given that it was a private collection, I didn’t start with a pre-determined theme and then fill it with examples. Rather, I selected what I thought were strong and diverse works, and then created a narrative around them. I realized there was a lot of defiance, humor, poetry and a mystical sensibility across these, hence the title of the show.”

From Shahnameh excerpts to dome replicas to suits of armor, reformulated carpets and calligraphy, the artists employ symbols of traditional culture to both celebrate and subvert outer and inner identity, amid extreme external forces.

That narrative, spelled out in the title of the exhibit, speaks as much to the historical Persian essence as it does to the current day. The multiplicities of Persian life, how spirituality balances—or fights—with a religious majority, how humor and satire, the small and large rebellions, all factor into this exhibit.

Flying Carpet by Farhad Moshiri

Entering the first room, one is greeted by is Farhad Moshiri’s imposing Flying Carpet—which tweaks the Arabian nights stereotype—thirty-two stacked Persian carpets with a missile-shaped fighter aircraft cut from their center, and placed adjacent. The absence and the presence, the precision of the cuts, and the deep reds represent how these machine-made carpets are notably replicative, with the empty center of the stacked carpet resembling a grave. Also repetitive are missiles—one for each “grave”—and the seemingly unending anonymous victims killed by them.

Oil Barrel #13 by Shiva Ahmadi

In the same room, Shiva Ahmadi’s Oil Barrel #13 uses a Texan oil barrel, painted red with delicate drawings around it, as an object of art. Closer, the miniatures on the side reveal themselves to be headless, bleeding, delivering a harsh message about the impact of fuel consumption and war. Daftari noted that many of the pieces “employ traditional and ornate language and miniatures as a seduction strategy for you to come closer.”

These artistic Trojan horses also suggest that amid the pain and destruction of the world there is still always beauty. This same duality—part and parcel of the Iranian spirit—is threaded throughout the exhibit. Yet, It’s not about a competitive binary—beauty or strife—but embracing both. Many people suffer during and after revolution and war. We must bear witness and speak for them when they are silenced or forgotten. Yet, individual creation and expression is equally important, both as a countermand to larger seemingly immovable forces, and as a method of fully experiencing our lives, and being in community with others, whether in your country or through exhibits such as this one, throughout the world.

Becoming by Morteza Ahmadvand

One antechamber offers a plea for unity. In Becoming, Morteza Ahmadvand employs three screens, each representing a symbol of one of the three Abrahamic religions. They constantly morph until the sharp lines turn into a sphere, which ostensibly represents our singular planet. Take away the sharp edges, and we are one humanity, despite cosmetic differences; yet the continual shift between edges to curves and back again also speaks to our inability to maintain a lasting peace. This morphing also refers to how external identities must shift and adapt in authoritarian states, even as the internal self must be hidden from view.

Shahpour Pouyan’s real and imagined domes offer both the beauty of architecture, as well as a warning about such visual representations of empire, and the single-minded yearning for power that leaves human detritus in its wake. In the same room, there’s the contrast of his Projectile 11, an imposing, suspended black steel suit of armor with excerpts of the Shahnameh in the helmet. The juxtaposition of mythological heroic deeds with the brutality of war is striking, questioning what we honor, admire, and practice.

Brooklyn-based artist Afruz Amighi’s Angels in Combat uses screen panels with delicate cut-outs that offer direct images as well as shadows of negative space on the wall behind them. The screens are made of the material that the United Nations used in refugee camps, with a large Tree of Life in the center, and angels on the top right and holding machine guns. The light sources frame the art perfectly, underscoring the delicate nature of the canvas as well as the artist’s minute cuts, but that light is also deceptive. When you step closer—though not so close that you set off the museum sensors—there’s a different story. Daftari explains, “The tree of life being threatened and what we perceived as guardian angels have turned into executioners.” There’s a beautiful light here, figuratively and literally. We expect hidden messages in the darkness, but the converse is cunningly true: the purity of the light also has a concealed message.

Regardless of medium these works, both visually and in terms of subject matter, contend with both absence and presence, with light, shadows and negative space, suggesting the loss of country and distancing of culture, though the emotions they inspire are decidedly different.

Miss Hybrid 3 by Shirin Aliabadi
Khosrow: Terrorist series by Khosrow Hassanzadeh

The late Shirin Aliabadi’s Miss Hybrid 3, is a whimsical photograph of a blond, blue-eyed woman with headscarf, blowing a large pink chewing-gum bubble, with a bandage on her nose suggesting a rhinoplasty. Yet it is also a sharp commentary on gender and the beauty industry and the erasure of individuality in order to live up to societal “norms”. In a different way, in his Khosrow: Terrorist series, Khosrow Hassanzadeh also uses a series of portraits—with a nod toward Andy Warhol and other pop art—of himself and family to slyly address the Western assumptions, and worse, categorizations, of who is an enemy, solely by virtue of place of origin.

Works by artists such renowned directors Shirin Neshat and Abbas Kiarostami—reflect the diversity of media used by contemporary artists. In Hamed Sahihi’s video installation Sundown, there are shadows of people strolling at the Caspian Sea, yet as the video progresses, we see a noose slowly arising, a hanging that no one but the artist notices. What literal and figurative hangings have we become accustomed to, numbed by?

In several places, the artists appropriate songs or sayings from current regimes and repurpose them, leaving it to the viewer to determine if they are propaganda or critique. To be sure said criticisms aren’t only political, but are also about consumerism, beauty culture, and humanity itself. Daftari notes that “it would be a slogan if it were too obvious” and these pieces are the furthest things from obvious.

The diversity of media—painting, sculpture, drawing, video, and installations—is matched by the locations and esthetic of the artists, who are based in Europe, Iran, the United States and elsewhere, representative of the post-revolutionary diaspora. Regardless of where these artists live, their essential Persianness prevails, which questions how much culture is tied to geography.

When asked about the ease of making art in Iran, especially in a time when governmental reaction is easily provoked, Dr. Daftari noted, “The artists test the waters, and the gallerists create a narrative to appease authorities, and yes, some exhibitions get closed down once in a while.” These artists figuratively draw a line and see how far across they can go, continually altering their process and product each time that shifts due to governmental whims. One is reminded that much of the world’s art is created in the friction of what is considered verboten, or rigid.

Though not every piece is a direct response to revolution and war, clearly the art and artists are conditioned by sociopolitical situations. Shadi Ghadirian’s recreations of Qajar-era photography, focused especially on women, offers cunning contemporary Easter eggs such as a soda can or helmets that both remarks on the impact of Western influences and what may or may not have changed with the passage of time. Another photograph stages women in full head-to-toe, face-covering chadors, a purported portrait that erases individuality, time, even gender, and is again a trenchant—and playful—commentary on the present as much as the past.

The spiritual aspects of the collection are no less pronounced, if subtle. In Mohammed Ehsai’s Mohabbat (Kindness), the calligraphy switches from traditional to modern lettering, with kindness acting as both the glue that holds the past and present together, and the agent for moving outward. Shirazeh Houshiary’s mystical Pupa, a reflective glass, mirror and stainless steel sculpture, celebrates the intermediate stage between larva and insect—where everything is in flux and all life is possible—with different angles providing alternate narratives and views.

Persian art—diasporic or not—is full of such modernisms, in theatre, motion pictures, visual art, video installations, poetics, sculpture and more. Yet it’s less for the sake of an artistic movement as much an expression of how these artists inhabit their world, our world, full of frictions and contradictions. Throughout this exhibit, one is aware of how the past is always present in for Iranians and how successfully they use traditional aspects of life and art as a foil to critique or comment on current conditions.

The concentration of 27 pieces—a robust mix of painting, sculpture, photography and video installation—incites a headiness, an intoxication, with even the two-dimensional objects offering a sense of fullness and motion. Many of these works require one to literally and figuratively lean in to capture hidden messages, and all embrace the multiplicity of perspectives, both individual and collectively. The art scene in and out of Iran is robust and modern, even with its roots in empires gone by, which makes this exhibit especially fascinating, and generative. You’ll leave “Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians—The Mohammed Afkhami Collection” wanting more: of these artists, of Dr. Daftari’s curation and insights, and especially more of this culture’s art, which is as it should be, given the breadth and depth of the subject matter.

The utmost gratitude to Dr. Fereshteh Daftari for her time and invaluable insights.

Special thanks to Elaine Merguerian and Michelle Yun Mapplethorpe of Asia Society for their support and generosity.

Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians—The Mohammed Afkhami Collection at Asia Society in New York through May 8, 2022. For more details, visit Asia Society.


Curator and scholar Fereshteh Daftari received her Ph.D. in Art History from Columbia University (1988). Her dissertation, The Influence of Persian Art on Gauguin, Matisse and Kandinsky, was published in 1991. During her tenure at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1988 – 2009), she curated a number of international exhibitions including Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking (2006). Her curatorial work in the field of Iranian modernism includes Between Word and Image at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery in 2002, and Iran Modern at the Asia Society Museum in New York in 2013. She has also focused on contemporary art. Action Now, the first exhibition of contemporary Iranian performance art, was held in Paris (2012); Safar/Voyage: Contemporary Works by Arab, Iranian, and Turkish Artists at MOA in Vancouver (2013); and Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto (2017), which then traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and is now opening at Asia Society. Daftari’s most recent publication is a book titled Persia Reframed: Iranian Visions of Modern and Contemporary Art (London: I.B. Tauris/Bloomsbury, 2019).


Mandana Chaffa

Mandana Chaffa is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Nowruz Journal, a periodical of Persian arts and letters, and an Editor-at-Large at Chicago Review of Books. Her criticism, essays and interviews have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies, and she serves on the boards of the National Book Critics Circle and The Flow Chart Foundation. Born in Tehran, Iran, she lives in New York.


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