Silence might be golden, but Shahram Entekhabi’s paintings tell a story
It is a story without a plot, no story lines but drawn lines, which depict personal memories and imaginations. The images address issues that reach beyond the personal experiences of the artist, hinting at broader issues such as the history, culture and politics of Iran. Many clues, no explanations - the artist, an unreliable narrator of his own story. The many associations that emerge trigger a feeling of estrangement. The paintings look as if they have been put on paper with a single stroke of the brush, a maze of figures all intertwined and connected to each other. Sometimes only a human torso can be seen with hooves or claws or merely a head or a foot. Female and male physical features, human beings and animals, identifiable and less identifiable objects intermingle. Like Persian miniature paintings these images demand meticulous attention. They resemble a tumultuous dream, which one barely remembers the next morning.
These unfinished figures, combined with the use of splashes of color turn the art works into a dreamy and almost ghost-like manifestation. Even though there seems to be human body parts floating around horrifyingly, the first impression you feel is not one of a war or a battlefield. The figures appear dynamic and alive. Some of them even seem to be depicted in hedonic scenes resembling an orgy. The figures exhibit distinct gestures and facial expressions. They are characters depicting a series of confusing events.
It is as if Entekhabi rubbed Aladdin’s lamp and instead of a genie, many ghosts from the past spread out on a piece of paper. This is how memory works, a smell, a sound, a taste, a thought, a scratch of one’s own head (like the rubbing of the lamp) and a whole chain of events of a forgotten past is remembered. As the artist himself has said the smell of kerosene reminds him vividly of his own childhood. Kerosene is also the title he chose for a series of his paintings. As early as in the 9th century, petroleum was distilled by the Persian alchemist Muhammad ibn Zakariya Razi into kerosene and used in lamps. The artist shares the personal association to kerosene with many others. Some memories have a universality to them, just like other symbols in the paintings such as the pomegranate or the knife. In the framework of seeing the drawings as a narrative, the early contact with kerosene could also be seen as a foreshadowing of a later understanding of the many political implications of Iran’s possession of crude oil, a resource that brings wealth but also led to exploitation. Kerosene or “Black Gold” - a fortune or a curse.
The many figures and objects in the paintings form one unit. One sees foxes and horses, weapons and nudity, it all seems rather mythical, like a fable or an old national epic that has been passed down for centuries. Like the game “Chinese Whispers” stories can change their meanings when retold. Where to put an emphasis, what is being left out, what is only hinted at? Shahram Entekhabi’s paintings remind one of traditional Persian teahouse paintings that only come to life when being performed and narrated. In Safavid times people gathered in tea houses and listened to a naqqal who played all characters in the story, performing heroic tales, especially those of the Shahnameh (The Book of Kings). These narrations have become part of a collective national memory and identity and they touch upon issues such as bravery, patriotism, love, loss and betrayal and are still being recounted to this day.
A closer look reveals that some of the faces in the paintings resemble that of the artist himself. He is still performing as part of his art, re-enacting his own memories, just as the naqqal simulates different characters. Perhaps the use of the color of gold represents the kitsch that frequently comes with speaking about past events, and pokes fun at such heroic memoirs, like Reading Lolita in Tehran, whose author has been criticized for portraying herself as Scheherazade. Nostalgia is a common theme for any diaspora, the gold medal is given to heroes, there is a mentioning of a “golden era” in any history book of a country. Heroic stories of the past are important parts of any nation’s collective identity. Memory is essential to knowing oneself. Just as teahouse painters had to work with how they imagined the heroes and villains of the story to look like, the figures in the paintings are inspired by the artist’s own experiences as well as those of the nation of pre- and post-revolutionary Iran.
The depicted images are personal recollections - functioning like symbols and metaphors in a poem. The title of the present exhibition is also the title of a famous poem by Robert Frost. Poetry is a genre, which is mainly concerned with disguising its message, hinting at hidden meanings, using imagery, symbols, and metaphors, hoping to awaken associations within the reader. Iran is a country proud of its poetic tradition, and it becomes clear that in a country with a history of silencing oppositional voices poetic forms of art are often used to break taboos and to communicate questions about political, social and gender issues.
Entekhabi paints with ink and on some of the paintings one finds visible splashes of color, possibly reminding one of Rohrschach test images. How a subject perceives those images is analyzed by psychologists in an effort to understand a person’s psyche. Entekhabi’s work has often touched upon exactly this: seeing and being seen. How is one perceived by others as opposed to how one perceives oneself? The figures in the drawings are interwoven, many little parts form a whole, just like the artist’s identity. An identity which is characterized by the artist’s feeling of standing “in-between.” This literally is also the position the naqqal finds himself in when he shifts between the different roles he performs and it also describes his positioning between the paintings and the audience. The frequent appearance of nudity in those drawings could refer to a feeling of unmasking, the more someone knows about you the more vulnerable and ‘naked’ this makes you feel. The drawings are traces of the artist’s memory, a trail that each spectator can follow guided by his or her own associations.
Sophia Ayda Schultz, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
Published in Catalogue of the Exhibition:"Nothing Gold can Stay", Shahram Entekhabi, 2011, solo show, Other Gallery, Beijing, China