The ocean can be yours. Can it? Visas, passports and border control may argue otherwise. Air travel is a modern phenomenon, the first commercial flight crossed the skies in 1914, before then however, voyages traversed oceans by ship. Who owns the sea? This is a question that our ancestors have been arguing about for centuries and it is unlikely that an answer will be agreed upon soon. The title of a contemporary exhibition of artwork by four Iranian artists at Gerald Moore Gallery purports to claim that the ocean can in fact, be ours.
The title of the exhibition curated by Janet Rady at Eltham College actually has nothing to do with contemporary politics. It has been taken from The Conference of the Birds, a poem written in 1177 CE by Persian poet Farid ud-din Attar. The poem narrates a gathering among birds that have met to decide on finding a king. They agree that their ruler should be the mythical Simorgh, whose reflection is first revealed to them in lake, which may explain the ocean in the title. The common linking thread between all the artists on show – besides their Iranian heritage – is an interest in poetry. Verses are even spoken out loud through recordings presented by Afsoon. Spread across a large white wall are dozens of linocut portraits pasted against pastel coloured paper. The thick black and white faces are the visages of poets from all over the world, both male and female. The accompanying audio plays their poetry in both English and the language the lyrics were written in, spanning, Arabic, English, Farsi, French, Greek, Russian, Spanish and Turkish. Each portrait is presented in two forms, one tight crop and one larger rectangular image where Afsoon has allowed each writers face to lie gently against its own soft rainbow hued environment of flowers or stars.
Iran is famous for its literary tradition. Afsoon’s Poets in Heaven however, celebrates poetry globally. Her characters are depicted in heaven, the most idealised place in the world; obviously, she admires each and every one of these figures. They haven’t just travelled the oceans, they have been rocketed high into the sky. Jason Noushin also inscribes verses into his work in the form of calligraphy painted onto birds. His lyrics are the Farsi translations of the poems of his favourite English poet, Ted Hughes, allowing the half-English and half-Iranian artist to manage both lines of his heritage. These poems are painted onto crows, both two and three-dimensional. The models are comprised of wire covered in encaustic. His birds seem mythical, like the famed simorgh in The Conference of the Birds. Noushin has not given his flying animals beaks or feathered heads, their faces are open and they look like they are unraveling. The birds on canvas are illustrated in the same way and it looks as though a bandage is being unwound. Besides them is Conjuring in Heaven, a human form whose face is depicted in the same way as the crows with his head left open, the inside is painted but we can’t see what lies inside this opening. By painting with encaustic on canvas, Noushin has given texture and quite literally built muscle. Next to these fantasy characters are two women who are displayed facing towards one another. One is titled Bahman and the other Batman; the bodies of these women are comprised of collages. Bahman wears a cloak of Iranian cigarette packages, whose name is very similar to the Anglo-speaking world’s much-loved Batman. The paintings are a beautiful play on words. Despite being made in 2017, they have been coloured with turmeric to appear as though they are older. However, Noushin’s interest in typography and words is probably the most interesting in a series of six pen and ink portraits that have been drawn on top of large bible leaves. The artist was formerly an antiquarian book dealer, which explains the constant use of literary references, still, the illustration of Iranian figures against a Christian bible is somewhat unconventional. When asked why he chose to depict these figures in this way, Noushin explained that he simply liked the typography of the book, which comprises large titles and dense text, providing his portraits with an interesting sense of depth and texture.
On the wall directly opposite Noushin’s literary portraits are the visionary paintings of Katayoun Rouhi. Like Noushin, Rouhi’s paintings are covered with Iranian calligraphy. Rouhi does not depict humans however, but birds. The images are free of outlines and mostly depict birds against trees in the most direct reference to the exhibition’s title with Rouhi’s favored bird being the illustrious simorgh. Rouhi’s canvases are very dark, with white and grey text written against the background. At times, small patches open amongst the script to reveal brilliant blue windows in which tiny birds appear to be living in another world. I cannot stop to think that perhaps these stunning blue openings are supposed to represent the lake in which Attar’s birds first set eyes on the simorgh. There is something very mysterious about these canvases; there is an air of stillness and mystery. It is all the more mystifying when we learn that the Farsi painted onto the images is in fact upside down – nobody is to know what Rouhi has written. The most striking of Rouhi’s images in this Causa Sui series is the inverse of all the others, with a white background and jet-black text. As well as her large canvases, Rouhi presents us with a series of smaller works that are framed behind thick frames. On top of the glass she has added more details that move with the viewer as they pass by the paintings providing depth and dimension, it is almost as though the birds are flying.
The youngest artist in the show Ghalamdar has not shied away from Persian tradition he has however, applied a modern touch. Across a series of images on golden and pearlescent paper, Ghalamdar depicts myths through a mélange of screen-printing, collage and spray paint. Amongst his images, like Fereydoun had three sons, we are shown scenes from the Shahnameh, another of Persia’s epic poems, written by Ferdowsi circa 1000 CE. What is so remarkable about these images is that, while the figures replicate those found in traditional Persian miniatures (Negar-Gari), they have been placed into a foreign environment that has been heavily inspired by calligraffiti, a technique that mixes traditional calligraphy with street graffiti.
The Ocean Can Be Yours is flooded with myth and poetry. What unites these artists is a deep respect and appreciation for not just their own heritage, but also the words of the world’s greatest literary figures. Birds are the starting point for this exhibition. Noushin’s crows fly from one corner to Rouhi’s simorgh on a distant gallery wall. In one pair of Rouhi’s images titled Language des Oiseaux (language of the birds), one black bird appears to be passing a pearl to a white bird, who’s mouth is open, ready to receive it. Perhaps we can take this symbolism as a metaphor for the title of the exhibition and what we should take from it. The artist’s on display at Eltham College have allowed their influences to cross oceans and traverse time, travelling through traditions to arrive at the contemporary. Yes, the ocean can be ours if we are ready to receive it.
The Ocean Can Be Yours is on display at Gerald Moore Gallery, Eltham College until 29 April