Ramin and Rokni Haerizadeh on the perils of making art about sex and politics in the Middle East ...
From THE ECONOMIST online
Ramin and Rokni Haerizadeh, two Iranian artists exiled in Dubai, fled their homeland in spring 2009. Iranian officials became aware of their work when it was included in Charles Saatchi's exhibition, “Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East”. Armed with a catalogue, representatives from Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and National Security descended on Tehran's art galleries, pointed at Ramin Haerizadeh's partially naked self-portraits (from his “Men of Allah” series) and asked, “Do you know this man?” They then raided a patron's house, confiscated two of the artist's works and threatened the collector with four months in prison. Family and friends called the artists, who were in Paris for the opening of their exhibition at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, and warned them not to return. Iranian passports are hardly great calling cards, but after the intervention of a sympathetic Sheikh in Abu Dhabi's Department of Higher Education, Mr Haerizadeh and his younger brother Rokni were granted three-year visas for the United Arab Emirates.
The Haerizadeh brothers' studio is in a hard-to-find warehouse in Al Quoz, a dusty industrial area on Dubai's city limits. They share a vast single room with Hesam Rahmanian, a friend and fellow artist. Each has their own turf of wall space and tables covered in paint and supplies. Natural light hits the cement floors through opaque skylights in an insulated tin roof. Spoiled for sun in the Gulf, the artists need only switch on the fluorescents in the evening. Over the blare of an old air-conditioning unit, they listen to Chopin and Schubert, or Charlotte Gainsbourg and Patti Smith while they work. Thirsty guests are handed a used Evian bottle, which they can re-fill from the five-gallon cooler.
The Haerizadehs appear to be inseparable. When they're not travelling, they spend nine hours a day, seven days a week in this space. They also share an apartment. Yet their work is distinct. Ramin's art is grounded in photography and usually features images of himself. For the past six years he has worn a beard, something associated with religious mullahs in the Middle East. Yet the situations in which he casts himself—either digitally or through collage—are decidedly irreverent. His “Men of Allah” series evokes intimate situations overlaid with traditional Islamic patterns, whereas his more recent work alludes to the anger and despair of the Green Movement, Iran's besieged political opposition.
Rokni, by contrast, is a painter with a style that indicates a broad appreciation of European traditions. He studied art at university in Tehran, but says he really learned to paint from films about artists such as Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso. “The culture of painting is very weak in the Middle East,” he says. “The work doesn't have any energy.” He works in series, which allows him to approach a single theme in a variety of ways. For example, the 15 paintings that were recently exhibited in Paris under the title “The Pieces Required in Constructing the Whip of a Foe” depict diverse subjects unified by their exploration of torture. “I love Warhol,” he says, “but that kind of repetition would feel like a cage to me.”
Despite their stylistic differences, Ramin and Rokni Haerizadeh create at the same pace, roughly one work per week when in Dubai. They're also dependent on daily dialogue. “We talk-talk-talk about the details—very harsh criticising and laughing,” says Ramin with a wave of his cigarette. The brothers, both left-handed, smoke a pack a day each. They recently bought a drawing of an ashtray by Damien Hirst off Artnet. “We look at everything with a sense of humour,” says Rokni, who sometimes depicts himself as a clown with a red nose and two donkey ears. “When you get too serious about your work,” clarifies Ramin, “the work gets less serious.”
In Iran, it's essential to appreciate the absurd. The general perception of contemporary artists is that they are insane, or atheists, or insane atheists. Among Islamic fundamentalist regimes, it's considered better to repeat the wisdom of the past than to display originality. “Creation is for God,” explains Rokni.
The art world of Middle Eastern expat-intellectuals hasn't fully embraced the Haerizadehs either. “They are friends but they never cover us,” explains Rokni. He and his brother don't fit into their “New Yorkish or Berlin-style conceptual” vision of what is aesthetically correct. Nevertheless, the Haerizadehs enjoy the support of collectors with international renown, such as Francois Pinault and Don and Mera Rubell.
Ramin's phone rings. He embarks on a long conversation in Farsi. When he returns, he says that they've been getting phone calls from friends in Tehran telling them, “Be careful. Don't think you are safe. You could get deported. Watch your step.” In March, one of Ramin's works was censored from the Dubai Art Fair, apparently so as not to offend the Iranian ambassador. Entitled “We will join hands in love and rebuild our country,” it features images of Ramin wearing a chador, the long black veil that women must wear in Iran. Although not immediately apparent to Western eyes, Ramin is depicting himself as a mullah in drag.
Off the record, an official in the Dubai Cultural Authority deflected the censorship issue by saying that Ramin's piece was “misunderstood”. He added that the Haerizadehs were “welcome to stay in Dubai as long as their work doesn't cause friction with an important trade partner.” The UAE does not offer political asylum. It's a “delicate region, which is very vulnerable to fundamentalist movements,” and the government fears a “backlash” if it is perceived as too liberal.
Artists in the West often position themselves as symbolic criminals, but few actually become fugitives. Transgression comes easily in Iran and, to a lesser extent, Dubai. Rokni's paintings have recently outstripped Ramin's in their overt sexual and political content, which means he can't display them publicly in the region. “If I don't paint, I would go coo-coo,” says Rokni. “I've always loved my country but not enough to spend my life making abstractions.” Ramin nods, takes a long drag on his Marlboro, and adds: “No one can bear it when you say what you think.”