In Iran, artist Afsaneh Safari operated her own gallery and an underground life-drawing club.
AFSANEH SAFARI/QUEEN GALLERY
On March 21, 300 million people worldwide will celebrate Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Some members of Toronto’s Iranian community started gearing up last week with an artistic spin on the holiday — an exhibition at Moss Park’s Queen Gallery.
Organized by Queen Gallery director (and former Tehran architect) Mahrokh Ahankhah, the show features five Iranian artists who live in Toronto — Afsaneh Safari, Davood Mategh, Firoozeh Tangestanian, Sayeh Irankhah and Touka Neyestani. Although the exhibition’s works range widely, Nowruz’s theme of rebirth is mirrored in these artists’ lives as many try to make a fresh creative start in Canada.
Back in Tehran, Afsaneh Safari operated her own gallery and an underground life-drawing club.
“In my country, most university art students didn’t know how to draw the ear or the neck because the model usually had a scarf,” she explains. “I thought, we really need” a nude model. “But in the governmental art centres, they cannot do this. So one of my friends and I decided to have this privately.”
Soon, university professors were sending students over to Afsaneh’s gallery for the sessions. “It was quite a nice experience,” she says.
Safari and her husband now live in a Bayview Village apartment where she does freelance graphic design.
“It’s really hard to just live between canvases,” she says of her new, cramped, at-home studio space. But she also says she’s happy to be in Toronto, where “there’s lots of culture and lots of people live together peacefully.”
Touka Neyestani, a political cartoonist who moved to Toronto last year, provides some of the most powerful images of the exhibition. His pointed drawings, inspired by the 2009 Iranian election protests, call out police brutality, censorship and repression. Although Neyestani’s works are mostly dark, one double-edged cartoon shows a new day dawning out of a billy club.
Sayeh Irankhah, who’s also shown at the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition, the Artist Project and Arta Gallery, offers the most classically Persian images of the show. Her paintings include the region’s characteristic turquoise hues, vase forms, boteh shapes (often called “paisley” in the West), Arabic scripts and pomegranate fruits, which are placed on Nowruz tables to symbolize fertility and new life.
Most importantly, Ahankhah says, the show, like the holiday, is an opportunity for friends and family to get together and celebrate — particularly on the 26th, when Queen Gallery will host a closing celebration with music and storytelling.
“There’s a huge Iranian community in Toronto right now. Before, they were mostly in North York and Richmond Hill. But a new generation is all around downtown,” Ahankhah says.
Iran is widely believed to produce the largest number of artists in the Middle East.
“Despite what you hear about totalitarianism and fanaticism, art has developed quite a lot,” says Iraj Milanian, an art collector and retired pharmacology professor who moved to Toronto two months ago to develop a gallery of his own. He says the wife of the last Shah was a key figure in this artistic burgeoning. “She concentrated on developing contemporary art in Tehran in museums and scholarship. That was the seed of the fruits we see coming now,” such as Sotheby’s record-setting October auction of contemporary Iranian art.
Government regulations around art and imagery in Iran remain strict. In May, Ahankhah plans to host Tehran photographer Shadi Ghadirian’s images of women with bare body parts scribbled out — a nod to Islamic officials, who often do the same with foreign fashion magazines before they enter the country.
Though her paintings are more personal than political, Safari says she still enjoys the possibilities that Nowruz symbolizes: “The beauty of the new year for me is that it could be a start for new things.”
JUST THE FACTS
WHAT: Nowruz art exhibition.
WHERE: Queen Gallery, 382 Queen St. E., open Tuesday, Wednesday & Friday 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Thursday 1:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
WHEN: March 3 to 26, including a closing celebration with storytelling and music on March 26.