Interview with an artist: Abbas Kowsari and Mehrdad Naraghi

by Unseen September 24 2016

With so many artists present at the fair, the opportunity to talk to them about their work and inspiration cannot be missed. Today we got in touch with Iranian artists Abbas Kowsari and Mehrdad Naraghi, represented by Ag Galerie. Read our interview below and head over to the Transformatorhuis to see their incredible work.

Can you tell us more about the photography scene in Iran? Is it an appreciated art form? Is there an audience for it?
MN: Though it isn’t a big market, there are galleries that speacialise in photography and video. I think it’s more a matter of people needing time to get used to it. Having said this though, I think it’s interesting to see that on an international level, Iran is not new to the photography industry. Considering the array of social and political issues that have taken place in Iran throughout recent decades, photography has been the prime medium to document and share this with the outside world. As a result, it’s almost as if this is the only image that the international community has of Iran.

To be honest, it’s frustrating. When the West looks at photography from Iran, it’s not because they’re interested in the quality of the work but because they are curious about the culture and the country. This means that people often have a fully formed opinion about Iran without having even ever been there due to a photo that they came across in the media. This behaviour also has consequences on a local level. When artists see how the West responds to these images, they start producing work to match the trend, to what they believe the external world wants to see. In doing so, the cycle is perpetuated and has, as a result, changed the natural flow of art in the Middle East.

AK: As Mehrdad said, at the end of the last century, Iran witnessed a host of various political and social conflicts. People were eager to document what was going on in the country, and as a result photography took on a much more journalistic and documentary role. Today, however, the art scene is more international than ever before, which means that Iranian artists are able to experience developments taking place in other countries. This opportunity means that we are able to show other artist communities, and particularly the Western world, what is currently taking place in Iran – the things you don’t see in traditional documentation. It is our mission to change the stereotype that people have developed about our country by showing the truth of contemporary culture and society in Iran – a goal I strive to achieve through my own work.

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Abbas, the work you are presenting at Unseen this year is part of a series, titled Masculinity C. Can you tell us a little bit more about it? Does this mean there will be more to follow?
When I started this trilogy, most Iranian artists were focusing on women as a result of human rights issues at the time and various social movements. The lack of men as artistic subjects is what inspired me to approach this subject, something that Sadegh Tirafkan had begun doing too.

My series on men began in 2006 with the body building culture in Iran. I’ve always been interested in masculinity and how this has traditionally been defined by one’s looks and physical make-up instead of a person’s character. This approach to the topic resulted in self-reflection; what defines me as a man? Am I masculine, or should I understand masculinity to be what I see in these bodybuilders? Continuing this exploration, I made the second series depicting wrestlers in 2007. This series was more than just the physical build of a man. Now there’s competition involved; power defined by victory. The last of the series, Masculinity C, turns the tables around and shows ordinary men. These are men you see on a daily basis. They are not bodybuilders, they are not augmented from their reality. They are normal.

The setting of this series is also of note. The hamam has an important historical significance in Iranian culture. The development of the modern shower meant the closing of the hamams and the loss of an inherent part of what I felt it meant to be a man. As a boy, going to the hamam was part of growing up. It was where I was exposed to other men of all sizes, shapes and ages. In some ways this is what defined “manhood” to me. Without this place of communal gathering, who will define manhood for the young men of today? I want to continue working on this subject, looking at places where men interact and come together – environments that are predominantly masculine. What or where this will be exactly, I cannot say, but there will be a future series.


Mehrdad, your series is focused on Japanese culture. Why Japan? What caused you to depict this?
It’s an ongoing challenge for me to find my identity as an Asian photographer. The way we look at art in the East is different from how it is traditionally looked at in the West. I feel we are less rational – we work more on intuition and spirituality. We do not work on logic, we do not feel the need to analyse everything.

In 2014 I was completing a residency programme in China and it was there that I felt a connection with contemporary art for the first time. I felt a connection with these Chinese artists that I hadn’t and couldn’t feel with Western contemporary art. I was exploring my identity and I really wanted to make something out of this connection. I went a step further, looking towards Japan and the culture there. Inspired by this I worked on landscapes for many years, in particular focusing on the Japanese garden: both natural and man-made at the same time. The harmony between these two juxtaposing factors and the culture that accomplished this was truly fascinating for me, which is why I decided to focus on it in my work.

Be sure to drop by stand #07 this weekend to see the works in person!

Image credit:
(cover image) Untitled, from the series Japanese Gardens, 2015 © Mehrdad Naraghi/Ag Galerie
(body images left and right) Untitled, from the series Maculinity C, 2016 © Abbas Kowsari/Ag Galerie
(body image) Untitled, from the series Japanese Gardens, 2015 © Mehrdad Naraghi/Ag Galerie