SHAHBAZI, Shirana; Flowers, fruits & portraits series
By Shihoko Iida
One of the most unforgettable displays in ‘The 6th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT6) was the two huge paintings and nine photographs by Shirana Shahbazi in the Long Gallery of the Gallery of Modern Art. The Gallery recently acquired these nine photographs, from the ‘Flowers, fruits & portraits’ and ‘Landschaft’ series, as well as the painting gifted by the artist, Still life: Coconut and other things 2009, made in collaboration with Brisbane primary school students and Tehran billboard painter Sirous Shaghaghi for Kids APT.
At first glance, it appears that the photographs were arranged randomly between the two monumental paintings, with Shahbazi freely mixing imagery and scale. The photographs contain seemingly disparate elements, and appear free from the pre-fixed connotations and narratives that a series of photographs inevitably delivers. In fact the key source for her images and style can be linked to a genealogy of Western art, particularly Dutch and Flemish painting from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Genres such as still life, portraiture and landscape are often included, as well as symbolic elements, such as skulls and timepieces, found in vanitas painting relating to life and death.(1)
Shahbazi was born in Tehran in 1974, immigrated to Germany at the age of 11, and has been based in Zurich since 1997. As an artist living between cultures, Shahbazi’s work offers a global perspective on traditional and contemporary imagery, moving beyond narrow disciplinary categories and orientalist perspectives. What differentiates Shahbazi from other Iranian artists is the way she adopts and interprets European tradition, and combines it with aesthetics, techniques and forms found in (the former) Persia, China and India. Her work has been described as marrying ‘a German-style cool observation, to pictorial traditions as diverse as propaganda painting and ancient Persian miniatures’.(2)
Shahbazi’s precise studio photographs are often transformed into paintings, posters and textiles such as carpets. She regularly collaborates with billboard painters in Iran, commissioning them to paint her images at a huge scale. The paintings are displayed as installations with photographs and murals, and sometimes re-photographed. From this perspective, Shahbazi crosses not only artistic genres but also professional disciplines such as photography and design. Collaboration is an important part of her practice, questioning expectations of authenticity, uniqueness and originality.
In a world saturated with images, we can see that the ubiquity of the photograph has overtaken painting today. Shahbazi’s practice is firmly rooted in the photographic image, yet its ubiquity is the very reason why she works between painting and photography. She engages with the long tradition of painting in Iran as well as its current use as a tool for mass communication in public space.(3) Her work reflects the popularity, accessibility and familiarity of both media in the contemporary world, while consistently reversing their hierarchical order in art history.
By reproducing her images in different materials, techniques and sizes, Shahbazi strengthens them through repetition. Significantly, she speaks about the nature of the image itself, and at the same time, lets the image speak for itself.(4) As a viewer, it is a pleasurable challenge and responsibility to read the images Shahbazi produces.
Shihoko Iida, Artlines 3-2010, p.37.
1 Vanitas in art is a genre of still life painting that flourished in the Netherlands in the early 17th century. A vanitas painting contains objects symbolic of the inevitability of death and the transience and vanity of earthly achievements and pleasure. See Encyclopedia Britannica.
2 Kate Bush, 'Indepth Arts News: "Shirana Shahbazi: Goftare Nik (Good Words)"', absolutearts.com, 7 Aug 2001.
3 See Ariella Yedger, ‘One thousand and one nights: The edited images of Shirana Shahbazi’, Art & Australia, vol.47, no.2, summer 2009, p.294.
4 See Christy Lange, ‘I am an image’ in Frieze, no.113, March 2008, p.123.