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farhad ahrarnia: stage on fire

15 May - 27 June 2014
82 Great Portland Street
London W1

For his third solo show at Rose Issa Projects, Farhad Ahrarnia combines his interest in dance, high modernism, and the arts of Central Asia and the Middle East to explore the relationship between various national, cultural and political institutions and 20th-century avant-garde arts.

Using digital photography on canvas with needlework in some pieces and traditional marquetry in others, Stage on Fire presents vibrant, colourful and kinetic artworks that are rich in reference and metaphor and create a visual music.

The project was inspired by a visit to Central Asia in Spring 2013, when the National Art Gallery of Uzbekistan invited Ahrarnia to engage with local artisans. The resulting series of canvases, Martha’s Vineyard and Modern Stage, reflect a traditional Uzbek sensibility: a rich palette of sophisticated shades, a range of embroidery techniques, images of vernacular architecture and echoes of folklore.

There are also numerous art historical references in the Stage on Fire project, particularly to the influence of Uzbek art on Russian Orientalism and its effect on the legendary impresario Sergei Diaghilev’s acclaimed dance company, the Ballets Russes (1909-1929), which transformed the design, choreography, music and art of the early 20th century. Ahrarnia also references landmark performances by the pioneer of modern American dance – Martha Graham – and pays homage to the sculptures of Isamu Noguchi and the paintings of Kasimir Malevich and Vasily Kandinsky.

In the Modern Stage series, the architectural landmarks of Samarkand and Bukhara are transformed into dynamic backdrops of fantastical spaces in which the ghost of Nijinsky, Diaghilev’s male star, strikes a pose. The Ballets Russes transformed myths and legends into modern dance to encourage the performers and the audience to define their modernity through historical and Oriental references: it was a unique period, when for numerous artists the characteristics of the 'exotic other' and the 'Oriental' equated with what was considered to be modern, emancipated and free from the shackles of Western culture. Through his needlework, Ahrarnia not only links these diverse but harmonious elements visually but re-animates the art historical fragments to re-engage the viewer with the triumphs and failures of high modernism in contexts other than the Western.

In the Martha's Vineyard series, Ahrarnia references a surreal scenario as madcap as the plot of Argo: during the Cold War era, America’s Central Intelligence Agency decided to combat the spread of Soviet avant-garde art and politics by covertly sponsoring a number of American artists to visit countries that were most vulnerable to Soviet ideology, which was particularly attractive to intellectuals, blue-collar workers and the rural working poor. This policy of exporting American artistry as a form of cultural combat led Martha Graham to perform across Asia, which eventually took her dance troupe to Tehran and Abadan (one of the world’s largest oil refining centres) in 1953. Both cities were great emblems of mid-20th-century modernity and represented Iran's rapid progress in gaining industrial and economic might.

Ahrarnia transforms Abadan’s oilrigs and refineries into a culturally and politically charged stage on which Martha Graham symbolically performs. The embroidery and lines of taut and loose threads suggest movement while simultaneously connecting the performer with her surroundings. The total effect is to heighten the atmosphere of cultural intrusion, political entanglement and tension, as well as the sense of sabotage and espionage.

In two other panels, Leaning into Ritual and Ceremony of Us, Ahrarnia celebrates the impact of Russian avant-garde art on generations of artists, architects and graphic designers by re-constructing a number of Malevich’s suprematist paintings in one of the most traditional and orderly mark-making and decorative mediums - the highly decorative Persian marquetrywork (or Shiraz khatam). Ahrarnia frees khatam from its conventional geometrical precision and rigid sense of discipline, and this breaking away from the orderly, linear and symmetric provides the opportunity to consider the impact of the flourishing alternative Modernities in both Middle Eastern and global contexts, no matter how briefly they manage to flower.


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