Ali Akbar Sadeghi
Inside the north Tehran studio of the visionary 80-year-old artist
Given Ali Akbar Sadeghi’s enormous success – over 50 exhibitions, more than eight books, 10 international biennials and several international award-winning animations – one might assume one of the masters of 20th century Iranian visual art would be given to pretension, but nothing could be further from the truth.
‘I believe that when it comes to success, it’s your environment that can make or break you,’ says Sadeghi, from the second floor atelier of his home in Gheytarieh, an affluent neighbourhood of northern Tehran.
Tucked away off a busy street, the atelier overlooks a beautiful garden. The artist himself cuts a vivid profile. His carefully groomed white mustache gives him the air of an ancient Persian potentate, crossed with a proto-surrealist.
Fittingly, his studio contains elements of both worlds. Ferdowsi’s ‘Shahnameh’ is displayed alongside an array of surrealist objects – apples, melting clocks and replicas of works by Dali and Matisse that Sadeghi picked up on trips to Paris.
As an artist, Sadeghi borrows elements from traditional Persian iconography and incorporates them into surrealist motifs and techniques – a style which has now become instantly recognisable.
‘I owe everything to my wife,’ he says, lowering the volume of the house music he always has playing in his studio. ‘Without my wife helping to organise my domestic life, I wouldn’t have the freedom to be so unconstrained in my professional life.’
The 80-year-old seems to live by Flaubert’s maxim to be orderly in your life, in order to be violent in your art. Surveying his work, scenes of battle and courtship are a recurring theme. A large painting depicting the story of Adam and Eve – part of a new series titled ‘Satan and Soul’ – is particularly striking for its hallucinatory quality. ‘All my work has an aggressive quality these days,’ he says reflectively. ‘But, then again, that has become the nature of the world.’
I’m one of the happiest people you’ll ever meet
By your late thirties you had become a major presence in Tehran’s art scene and have remained so. What’s the secret to your productivity?
I work all the time – I never stop, not even on vacation. I have more than 80 ink drawings that I completed during my travels. On a recent trip to London, my wife had to tell me to stop and spend more time with my grandchild. Another secret is that I’ve experimented with different types of mediums and techniques throughout my career. If you keep charting the same territory, eventually you will get bored and disillusioned. It’s important to keep changing and evolving.
Did you ever think about leaving Iran?
At the time of the revolution I was working at Kanoon. They offered to send me abroad. I considered it, but I knew I could never leave Iran. It’s the nourishment that fuels my imagination. I visited Isfahan for the first time when I was 21 years old. I saw these magnificent mosque tiles. Tears streamed down my face and I kissed the tiles. There are lingering reverberations of Persian iconography in my work, but it’s never done in a self-conscious way – it’s in my blood.
Are you a sentimental person?
You could say so. I believe that art is everywhere, if you take the time to look. A few days ago I saw an older man hunched over and walking down the street with a loaf of bread and some cheese. When I think about that man going home to have a simple dinner with his wife, it moves me and inspires me. But I’m not a nostalgic person, I always believe in moving forward. If you ask me about career highlights, I will always tell you that the most recent work is the one I love the most.
All of your works were untitled until your ‘Myth and Math’ series was published as a book in 1997. Why was that?
I don’t like the idea of an artist who overly explains their work. A title gives the viewer a narrow frame in which to experience the art. I prefer for someone to look at it and come up with their own ideas.
Your technique plays with Iran’s tradition of miniatures. What inspired you to incorporate surrealism?
I’ve always thought classical Persian miniatures are surrealist in a certain way. They evoke a wide range of emotions – from mysticism to bawdy comedy. If you look at the placement of figures and the stories of these miniatures, you can see elements of surrealism – they are sites of fantasy. I don’t really like the miniatures that are being done today because they often just copy older models and I believe art needs to reflect the times.
It’s said that the 1970s was a golden period for Tehran’s art scene. Do you agree?
It was a very exciting time and a lot of great work was being done. I’m really impressed by the young artists we have now but my only grievance is that many – not all – are working to please the market rather than do what they love. There is a real focus on what sells, which didn’t exist to the same extent back in the 1970s.
There are dark elements in your work, but you don’t seem like the ‘tortured’ artist.
I don’t romanticise the notion that suffering is a way to bring out an artist’s best work. I’m one of the happiest people you’ll ever meet.
This article appears in the issue66Buy Now