SHARJAH, United Arab Emirates — For the renegade Iranian artist Farideh Lashai, landscape painting became a reflexive gesture to experiment with new forms and animated methods. In her current posthumous retrospective at the Sharjah Art Foundation, work from Lashai’s five-decade career (up to her death in 2013) reflects her mood and perspective on the changing political situation in Iran. While meandering through the exhibition in the two-story heritage house Bait Al Sarkal, curated by Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi, the president of the Sharjah Art Foundation, one gets the sense of an intrepid woman who experimented fearlessly.
Unlike other Iranian artists from the Saqqakhaneh School of the 1960s, like Parviz Tanavoli and Faramarz Pilaram, who combined traditional motifs with modernist shapes, landscapes became Lashai’s method of exploration. Beginning with the untitled oil on paper paintings of the ’70s, abstract forms emerged from her method of diluting oil paint to resemble the dribbling effect of watercolor. Here, her translucent brown tree trunks and oozing dabs of green paint depict pared-down traces of nature. But her paintings from the ‘80s and ‘90s exhibit a sense of fury. Horizontal black and brown blemishes painted aggressively on the canvas in “Untitled” (1992) depict nature in a storm, a similar technique to the one she used in her Horse series, which she painted during the same period following her mother’s death. The brushstrokes appear reckless and hurried, barely capturing the outline of the animal, but signaling its energy and force as it gallops through the wind.
One can certainly see allusions to the precarious political condition in Iran in her tempestuous paintings, but Lashai gravitated toward landscapes and nature initially because these subjects allowed her to experiment with color and form, and, later, as the Iranian government began to disintegrate, the permanence of the natural world provided some kind of solace. This exhibition’s extensive display of paintings reveals Lashai the colorist delving into abstract renditions of the environment. Commenting on her Vase series, shown after the revolution of 1979, Lashai said that she felt her viewers too could be distracted by nature’s sanctuary.
Lashai’s less compelling but rare portraits, especially from the Mosaddegh series — which portray Mohammad Mosaddegh, the last elected prime minister and a bastion of democracy in Iran — and the single image of the novelist Sadegh Hedayat — who criticized Iran’s monarchy and the clergy — are conspicuous because they convey her unequivocal support of freedom. Perhaps more telling is Lashai’s reworking of Goya’s etchings, “When I count, there are only you … But when I look, there is only a shadow” (2013), which is inspired by his Disaster of War series. By removing Goya’s violent imagery from the works and projecting a moving spotlight that restores Goya’s animated figures back onto each piece in a dark, eerie room, Lashai captures the universality of oppression, and the brutality prevalent in Iran’s modern history.
In her animated Rabbit in Wonderland series (2010), comprised of seven works influenced by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Lashai uses fantasy to channel her political convictions and depict the social order in her country. Couched in the simplicity of a child’s tale, with animated rabbits hopping in and out of various painted, nearly abstract landscapes, the piece functions as an allegory for the denizens of a dangerous society who must be clever and cautious to avoid being caught by predators espousing autocratic ideologies. Accompanied by a soundtrack of traditional Arabic and Western music, the enigmatic Cheshire cat in “Gone Down the Rabbit Hole” (2010–12) and the crow in “I Come From the Land of Ideology” (2010–12) serve as stand-ins for ominous figures in Iran.
In addition to her politically inspired paintings and animated videos, Lashai celebrated Iranian culture and its rich legacy. Videos showcasing cabaret scenes from old DVDs, before they were banned, also incorporate Persian folklore. In “I Don’t Want to be a Tree, I Want to be its Meaning” (2008), whose title references a line from Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red, the art of traditional bookmaking is combined with an elaborate Persian tale that plays out through moving figures projected over three paintings that morph into each other. Such works attest to Lashai’s elaborate visualization.
Although not consistently engaging, Lashai’s multifarious oeuvre — which also includes crystal vases and imagined Persian gardens made of wire mesh cylinders containing suspended, painted leaves — we see the work of an artist who pushed boundaries relentlessly. Her work is a testament to her efforts to question the ideologies of the mullahs and reclaim her homeland’s pre-1979 glory days.
Farideh Lashai continues at Bait Al Serkal (Arts Square, Al Shuwaiheen, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates) through May 14.
Editor’s note: The author’s lodging and travel expenses were paid for by the Sharjah Art Foundation.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the movement in which Lashai participated as the Sadequain School. It was the Saqqakhaneh School. The article has been corrected and we apologize for this error.