Michael Bergeron
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Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians

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A current exhibition of Iranian artists proves that art speaks volumes about things you cannot say.

Although Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians – The Mohammed Afkhami Collection fills only three small galleries with twenty-seven items, the exhibit intrigues the viewer, possibly to the point they’re likely to spend as much time looking at it as a much larger display.

Items run the gamut of mixed media, paintings, photography and sculpture. Subjects include gender, politics and religion. Several of the artists represented live outside Iran in Europe or North America.

The entrance to the show, across from the museum’s café, has flying carpets lying on the ground. Farhad Moshiri’s “Flying Carpet” (2007) is made from thirty-two stacked carpets with the imprint of a jet aircraft carved in the middle of each.

All of the works date from 1998 to the present and represent three generations of Iranian artists. It’s not surprising to see Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s “Untitled” from his 2024 series Snow White. The minimalistic triptych, a photographic print on canvas, shows the countryside buried under snow. Kiarostami, who died in 2024, remains the most important film director from Iran.

Your attention immediately focuses on Ali Banisadr’s oil on linen “We Haven’t Landed on Earth Yet” from 2024 in the first gallery. Using Bosch type imagery we gaze upon a huge canvas (82 x 120 inches) of blue figures colliding into one another against a swirling blue background. There’s an element of chaos to the piece that demands introspection.

Two works that present subliminal themes dominate the second and third galleries. This is a culture where a satellite dish is a typical banned item.

Afruz Amighi designed “Angels in Combat I” out of woven polyethylene, which is also used to make tents found in UN refugee camps. At first “Angels” looks like a series of textures and whirling figures. Closer examination reveals angels wielding machine guns and images of snakes twirled around medical staffs. A tree of life dominates the center of the all white composition.

Parastou Forouhar mounts a huge chromogenic photo in four panels on aluminum. Each of the panels measures approximately 60 x 33 inches.

“Friday” depicts swaths of dark heavy fabric across the four frames. Friday is the Iranian day of rest and prayer. The smallest amount of flesh can be seen in one panel. While certainly a hand, or more precisely the fold between a thumb and forefinger, the image also suggests a sense of the forbidden.

The more you gaze at the art on display the more the meanings change.

“Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians – The Mohammed Afkhami Collection” will be on exhibit at the Millennium Galleries in the Audrey Jones Beck Building at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston until September 24, 2024.