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08/03/08

New York City Museum Exhibits Drawings by Iranian Satirist

By Carrie Loewenthal, Special Correspondent, America.gov

Retrospective displays 24 years of Ardeshir Mohassess' artwork

"I do not believe in an ideal society.  I do not need an ideal society, either, as there is no need for me in such a society.  If someday I feel the need for an ideal society, I will rent one."  -- Ardeshir Mohassess, in conversation with journalist Amir Taheri, 1971


Iranian-born artist Ardeshir Mohassess in his New York studio in 1986

New York -- A perfect society would provide no subject matter for Iranian-born artist Ardeshir Mohassess, whose satirical drawings and collages are on display at the Asia Society of New York in an exhibit that ends August 3.

Ardeshir Mohassess: Art and Satire in Iran is the first retrospective exhibition of Mohassess' work to appear in the United States. The show includes nearly 70 pieces completed primarily from 1976 to 2000.  The first 39 drawings, created between 1976 and 1979, comprise the exhibition's Life in Iran section.

These earlier drawings depict Iran during the Qajar dynasty (1833-1925), but the political, social and cultural customs satirized in the drawings reflect life under the reign of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (1941-1979).  Setting this series of drawings in the more distant past conveys Mohassess' view that the violence of history is doomed to repeat itself, according to the museum's introduction to the artwork.

Following the 1979 revolution that led to the overthrow of the shah and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's rise to power, Mohassess shifted the focus of his work to the ways of the new regime.  Though his artistic style changed at this time from detailed ink drawings to a mix of simple line drawings and collages, Mohassess' work maintains its "dark, disturbing, terribly violent and frightening, yet intensely emotional, satirical and arresting" qualities, said the exhibition's co-curators, artists Shirin Neshat and Nicky Nodjoumi.

Mohassess sometimes communicates a mordant sense of humor in his artwork.  A 1977 ink-on-paper drawing, titled The royal court's greatest painter accomplishing the most important assignment among his artistic activities, depicts a kneeling artist applying decorative motifs to the boot of his king.


The royal court's greatest painter accomplishing the most important assignment among his artistic activities
by A. Mohassess

While the subjects of his drawings are specific to Iran, "they may also be read more broadly as expressing a universal opposition to injustice and authoritarianism," said an Asia Society press release.

One exhibition visitor, a New York City schoolteacher, immediately picked up on the satirical and political aspects of Mohassess' work.

"It seems he saw his job as an artist to call into question whoever was in power," said the teacher.  Indeed, Mohassess once said of his role as an artist, "I am only a reporter."

The retrospective has drawn a substantial attendance, ranging from foreign nationals visiting the United States to native New Yorkers and others.  Erik Hohenstein and his travel companion, on vacation from London, heard about the display of Mohassess' work from a friend and decided they had to see it.

"We're interested in Iranian art in general, and in the whole revolution in general," Hohenstein said.

Circumstances in Mohassess' life also intrigued Hohenstein.  Mohassess was born in Iran in 1938 and displayed an artistic side in childhood.  , After earning a degree in law and political science from Tehran University In 1962, he began publishing political drawings in Iranian newspapers.  Word of Mohassess' appeal spread overseas, and in 1973, The New York Times ran one of his drawings.  As Mohassess' notoriety increased, the Iranian government paid closer attention to his commentary on conditions in Iran.  Several warnings from Iran's secret police prompted Mohassess to leave for New York in 1976.

He thought he would stay temporarily in the United States, but after the 1979 revolution in Iran, Mohassess decided not to return to his home country.

"He left because of one regime, and couldn't go back because of another," Hohenstein said.

Providing more insight into the artist's life, the exhibition also incorporates memorabilia from Mohassess' New York studio.  Artifacts include original prints of drawings featured in magazines, newspapers and books, as well as personal photographs and sketchbooks from his years in Iran.

The Asia Society frequently exhibits the work of Persian artists, said Melissa Chiu, the museum's director and vice president for global art programs.  Past displays have highlighted the art of Iran's Sassanian and Safavid eras.

More information is available on the Asia Society Web site.

Related Article:

Interview with Ardeshir Mohassess, a legendary Iranian illustrator and cartoonist
In early 1970s, I used to work at Kayhan newspaper in Tehran. I was a curious young boy at the time. I had seen the works of Mohassess published in the paper. I also used to see Mohassess in the hallways of Kayhan. He had a very interesting personality which stood out. If I remember correctly, he didn't talk much and our eyes never met. -Ali Moayedian - 6/16/08

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