Art History

The Memory of ‘Please Sit Down’ - A History of Contemporary Iranian Art

Eric Yoon | April 5, 2019

One expresses his painful experiences with the revolution both directly and indirectly; while the other one expresses his reminiscences about the times before the revolution by trying to bring back the memories and roots that people have forgotten. This depiction is about two Iranian artists: Nicky Nodjoumi (born in 1942) and Mehdi Farhadian (born in 1980).

Since the Iranian Revolution (1978 - 1979), Iran went through countless changes. Prior to the revolution, Iran was the United States’ closest ally and partner in Middle East. However, after the revolution, during which Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown, everything changed. The relationship between the United States and Iran worsened when Iranian college students occupied the American embassy and took 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days since November, 1979. The United States severed all the diplomatic relations with Iran and restricted commercial relations ever since. During this period, Nicky Nodjoumi was exiled from Iran and moved back to the United States. Shortly after, he became an iconic artist of modern art for expressing about defiance.

Iranian Revolution: Mullahs (the local Islamic clerics or mosque leaders) lead anti-Shah chants during the second mass demonstration against Iran’s ruler in two days as it moves through the streets of downtown Tehran, Dec. 11, 1978. The mullahs, speaking through bullhorns, stand on top of a car. (AP Photo/Michel Lipchitz)
Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Empress Farah walk on the tarmac at Mehrabad International Airport in Tehran to board a plane to leave Iran on Jan. 16, 1979. After the Islamic Revolution, lots of Iranian figures either left or arrived in Iran through the airport, a typical Bauhaus-style architecture, commissioned by the Ministry of Finance at the pinnacle of Reza Shah’s secular reign in 1937. (AP Photo)

Unlike Nodjoumi who directly went through this tumultuous event, Mehdi Farhadian was born right after the revolution. His generation was the first to experience Iran as an Islamic nation. Comparing those two artists, what is it that we can learn? We have one from the pre-revolution and the other from the post-revolution. We have one Iranian artist exemplifying defiance and the other from the new generation. What Nodjoumi and Farhadian experienced in Iran should be different as they lived in Iran during different time periods. However, to our surprise, how Nodjoumi viewed Iran from the past is almost the same as how Mehdi saw Iran from the present. This leads to a question, “Then, what did the revolution, hoping for the better future, change about Iran?”

Nicky Nodjoumi was on the Iran’s blacklist and went through surveillance, repression, interrogation, and torture. He was oppressed by the government as he created political posters criticizing against the Shah’s regime during the revolution. He didn’t stop criticizing the power even after the new Islamic government took control. He continued criticizing power-holders for their greed, obsession with power, and wrongdoing. He dealt with very sensitive topics such as social, political, and religious issues and bravely raised his voice against the suppressive government.

“Please, sit down.”

Because of his activism, he was called into the interrogation room where only two chairs were placed. The interrogator kept silence for a long time after saying ‘Please, sit down’ to Nodjoumi. He had to endure the fear and pressure coming from the complete silence for three days. He said that was one of the most terrifying and frightening experiences he ever had. The title of his first solo exhibition at Barakat Contemporary in Seoul, Please, sit down, is named after this incident in the interrogation room. Painful experiences in Iran didn’t stop Nodjoumi from voicing his opinions on the social issues and the government’s obsession with power through his artwork. He continued to do so even after coming to the United States. His consistency was valued and led him to be selected as one of the most influential artists in Iran for the past 80 years.

The word, ‘please,’ is used to be polite; however, in Nodjoumi’s case, it exposed him to the fear of not knowing what would happen next. This duality that the word ‘please’ has (i.e., what it means on the dictionary vs. what it means to Nodjoumi) is well-demonstrated throughout his exhibition in Seoul, especially in his painting with the same title. In this painting, there is a man in a suit holding a stick, who represents the one with power. This man is wearing a formal top but wearing a pair of pants that a clown would wear. Also, he is wearing a mask so you can’t figure out his identity. Nodjoumi’s intention is to make this man exemplify power rather the one with power. Power that we’re talking about here refers to any types of power in the world. The man you see next to him is the one wearing a red suit. You will notice his fear from his curved back and passive attitude as he is handing over a chair. The dynamic we see in this painting is that of power and obedience. And, the person that they’re trying to make sit is the victim. By showing such interaction, Nodjoumi intends to demonstrate how power works.

Nicky Nodjoumi, Please Sit Down, 2018, Oil on canvas, 221 x 173 cm
Courtesy of the artist and Barakat Contemporary, Seoul

Another interesting thing about this painting that we should pay attention to is that the oil, which represents Middle East, is spilled around those men. If you look at it closely, you will notice that their reflection on the oil shows the opposite direction of how they are standing. By showing the opposite image through the reflection, Nodjoumi is implying that the dynamics around power regarding who is the one with power and who is the victim can constantly change anytime. This pattern is actually evident in Iran, home country of Nodjoumi and Mehdi Farhadian. One of the best examples is how the Shah’s reign fell apart and another party gained power during the Iranian revolution.

Unlike Nodjoumi, who was victimized during the revolution, Farhadian had nostalgia for Iran prior to the revolution. Farhadian tried to express his concerns with the current Iranian politics and society through his artwork based on his research of history and the environment along with his imagination of what it would have been back in the old days. His artistic approach toward history is based on poetic feelings, and he always try to remain only as a narrator. Through his artwork, he reveals his worries about the negative impacts that the current political system brings. Specifically, he is concerned with the individualistic decision making for society.

(a) Mehdi Farhadian solo exhibition, Parade Square, 2018, Richard Taittinger Gallery, New York. Image courtesy of Richard Taittinger Gallery, New York
(b) Mehdi Farhadian, Inflated Lion, 2018, Acrylic on canvas, 78⁷/₈ x 122 in. (200 x 310 cm.). Courtesy of the artist and Richard Taittinger Gallery, New York

Mehdi Farhadian, who recently had his solo exhibition at Richard Taittinger Gallery, is the last of his six siblings, who did not experience the pro-Western and pro-American side of Iran prior to the revolution. When he grew up, everything about the Western art was prohibited, and even the related books were censored by the government. Mehdi had to do his research about the Western art secretly. His adventure for pursuing forbidden knowledge and contemplating about a better future well represents the new Iranian generation’s curiosity and courage. In his recent solo exhibition about 'Parade Square', Farhadian explicitly criticized against the current society and politics on his artwork, just like how Nodjoumi did about the old Iran. What Farhadian and Nodjoumi have in common is that they both used symbols to express their views. However, unlike Nodjoumi, Farhadian approaches history from the third point of views and adds his imagination of what life would have been like in the past to his work.

“Meaningful progress comes from daring to defy barriers.”

Nicky Nodjoumi criticizes the government for oppressing opinions, and Mehdi Farhadian interprets Iranian history from the new generation’s perspective. The messages, conveyed through countless symbols in their artworks, perhaps voice their concerns with their country and reflect their hopes for the better future. We always have rights to hope for the better tomorrow.

Barakat Contemporary, Seoul

Nicky Nodjoumi solo exhibition
Please Sit Down

2018 - 2019

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