Installation view of Ali Akbar Sadeghi: A Retrospective (all images courtesy the artist and the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art)

TEHRAN — On January 28 (coincidentally on the same day as the first heavy snow in Tehran in years) Ali Akbar Sadeghi, who is commonly referred to as the father of Iranian Surrealism, attended the opening of the well-deserved retrospective exhibition of his extensive artistic career, granted by the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. He had previously participated in over fifty exhibitions nationally and internationally.

Visitors are given the opportunity to enter the labyrinthine world of Sadeghi within nine galleries that cover the entire museum space and divide his multi-disciplinary creations thematically. His practice includes paintings, illustrations, poems, sculptures, stained glass, installations, and animation.

Installation view of Ali Akbar Sadeghi: A Retrospective

As one would expect from a man whose art phenomenally unifies humor and social commentary with references to Persian epic poetry and illustrious sixteenth-century Iranian Coffeehouse painting, he is delightful, cultivated, witty, and incredibly meticulous. In a January 30 conversation in the museum’s auditorium with one of the exhibition advisors, Faryar Javaherian, Sadeghi answered a question regarding the difficulties of thriving as an artist through two wildly different political eras of Iran — referring to pre- and post-Islamic revolution in 1979, by playfully saying “There were no difficulties.” He further explains, that though the circumstances change rapidly, all an artist needs is a space and the determination to keep creating. He recalls memories of frequent days at work that extended overnight in projects completed for the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (Kanoon). He describes these moments, in the company of fellow celebrated individuals such as his long-lost friend, Abbas Kiarostami, as lively and uplifting. Sadeghi eloquently described the difference between generations of Iranian artists by stating that the artists of his generation were focused on the quality of their production, in comparison to artists currently concerned with fulfilling market demands.

Installation view of Ali Akbar Sadeghi: A Retrospective

The curator of the exhibition, Fereshte Moosavi, who is also the art director and curator of the Magic Of Persia Foundation, refers to the creative process of Sadeghi as a survival activity. This phrase, “survival activity” alongside the discovery of the artist’s works, reminds me of Democritus, known as the laughing philosopher. Democritus emphasizes the importance of cheerfulness while having deep knowledge of the agonies the world undergoes. Similarly, using surrealistic methods, Sadeghi encompasses the allegorical stories and cruel realities with stinging satire. “You have to know true suffering to be able to mock it,” he repeats.

Walking through the first gallery, one notices visitors basking in nostalgia as they see the children’s books illustrated by Sadeghi they grew up with. Sadeghi’s collaboration with Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults through the 1970s resulted in the production of various animations and books for which he later won numerous awards: including the grand prize of the Noma Concours for Children’s Picture Book Illustrations, in 1978. The content of these books vary from ancient national history to contemporary tales. Some books have also been translated into other languages.

Installation view of Ali Akbar Sadeghi: A Retrospective

Installation view of Ali Akbar Sadeghi: A Retrospective

Installation view of Ali Akbar Sadeghi: A Retrospective

Though using symbols and iconography Sadeghi refers directly to Iranian history and mythology, there are aspects that are universally significant. Particularly, the apple has been prominent in world history, art, and literature. This familiar symbol was part of the story of Adam and Eve and the Arabian Nights, as well as the works of Rene Magritte and Paul Cezanne, who intended to “astonish Paris with an apple,” a phrase he often said to many including art critic, Gustave Geoffrey. This simple object is repeated in the Coalition series Sadeghi created between 2001 and 2002, shortly after the September 11 incident. In the 5th gallery of the museum, the visitors find the apple within forty paintings that depict how the world came together in order to destroy love and humanity, by illustrating the apples being shot with arrows, or getting crushed. The yellow apple refers to sacredness; red apples refer to love, blue for freedom, and so on.

View of Sadeghi’s Coalition series

Another remarkable series is the Lost in Fame series. In Iran, bentwood chairs are known as Polish chairs due to their introduction to Iran by Polish immigrants in the 1940s. They are seen in restaurants and cafes such as Cafe Naderi, where writers, artists and intellectuals have hung out for nearly a century. Sadeghi uses these chairs to refer to gradual westernization of Iran as well as the country’s neutrality in the Second World War. The chairs are either damaged or piled up or stripped of their original function, and are positioned besides direct references to western art history’s famous artworks including Edgar Degas’s Ballerina and Auguste Rodin’s Thinker. In the painting titled “Degas” (2015), one may notice that the Persian warriors are offering flowers to the ballerina. These warriors are repeated in Sadeghi’s paintings as a symbol of humankind, depicting aggression, defense, sympathy, and morality.

Installation view of Ali Akbar Sadeghi: A Retrospective

Sadeghi is an iconic figure in Iran’s modern art history and a contemporary artist-philosopher, and this exhibition exceeds the expectations of those who, like me, are familiar with his work. His retrospective follows a series of solo shows that have focused on pioneering artists of his generation — including Parviz Tanavoli in 2017 and Farideh Lashai in 2016. The museum, which has been repeatedly recognized for its impressive collection of Western Art, is now putting forward the country’s own household names to be discovered, an undoubtedly essential step since there has been a rise of interest in Iranian art over the past decade.

Ali Akbar Sadeghi: A Retrospective continues at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (Kargar Street, Tehran, Iran) through April 14.

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Anahita Toodehfallah

Anahita Toodehfallah is an independent art writer and researcher. She received her Master's degree in History of Art and Museum Studies from Paris-Sorbonne University (Paris IV). Originally from Iran,...