The German-Iranian artist Parastou Forouhar is known for having created masterpieces that embody the “synchronicity between harmony and beauty with other nuances that show violence and a sense of insecurity and entrapment.”
Autobiographical in nature, his work covers various formats, including installations, animations, digital art and photography.
In 1991, Forouhar left Iran and settled in Germany, where he made a postgraduate degree in Arts. His work has been presented in numerous galleries and museums in Iran, Germany, Australia and New York, and is also part of the permanent collections of the German Parliament in Berlin and the British Museum in London.
Forouhar is a professor of Fine Arts at the Mainz Academy of Fine Arts in Germany. Currently, his work is exhibited in a collective exhibition of women Iranian artists entitled A bridge between you and everything, managed by acclaimed photographer Shirin Neshat, at the Nine High Line Gallery in New York City (it was between November 7 and December 14, 2019).
Here are some excerpts from the interview I did with Forouhar:
Omid Memarian: Your “Eyes” collection evokes a police state and political repression. At the same time, curved lines, recurring symbols and the use of black and white show a harmony and tranquility that contrast with the meaning expressed in the work. As a spectator, I was shocked. Your concern is in Iran, but the narrative seems universal. What motivated this collection?
Parastou Forouhar: You pointed out something which I consider to be fundamental in a lot of my work: The concurrence of contradictory perceptions — the synchronicity of harmony and beauty, which are evident in the patterns and in their accumulation at first glance, along with other layers that display violence and a sense of insecurity and entrapment. Most of the latter layers become evident at second glance. In reality, by engaging the viewer in a work of art, I'm trying to show how to look at things and view them. I want to compel the viewer to look more carefully. As you in some way pointed out, this polarity and contradiction in perception, or the concurrence of opposing phenomena, is part of the human / social condition. You see its manifestation in Iran, but it’s not limited to a single society. Or, as you mentioned, it’s a universal narrative.
While working on the “Eyes” collection, which is one of my recent works, I was feeling a kind of intense crisis. There are social crises that stare at us and we seem to be fixated on them with anxiety, unable to overcome them. More than anything, this collection may have risen from the psychological and emotional crises that I'm going through, whether from the perpetual violence and oppression in Iran, the social collapse resulting from the various wars in the Middle East, growing confrontations with “the other ”and fascism in Europe, where I live and work, or the coldhearted brutality against asylum seekers here and there.
Parastou Forouhar: You pointed out something that I consider fundamental in much of my work: The concurrence of contradictory perceptions; the synchronicity between harmony and beauty, which it observes at first sight in the accumulation of patterns, with other nuances that express violence and a sense of insecurity and entrapment. Most of those nuances are evident in a second look. Actually, by capturing the viewer in the artistic work I seek to show how things are observed to see them. I want to force the viewer to look carefully. As you pointed out, polarity and contradictory precept, or the concurrence of opposite phenomena, is part of the human and social condition. You see its manifestation in Iran, but it is not limited to a single society. As you said, it is a universal narrative.
When I worked in the “Ojos” collection, one of my recent works, I felt an intense crisis. There are social crises that stare at us, and it seems that we are obsessing, anxiously, unable to overcome them. More than anything, this collection may have emerged from the psychological and emotional crises that I am going through, be it violence and perpetual oppression in Iran, the social collapse caused by various wars in the Middle East, the growing confrontations with “the other” and with fascism in Europe, where I live and work, or the cold brutality against asylum seekers everywhere.
OM: Politics, violence, discrimination, inequality and pain are the main themes of your work, as in “Eyes”, “Watermark” and “Red is my name”. Sometimes they are easily discernible and other times, more effort is required to find the relationship between the various symbols and elements. What led you to create so much harmony in repetitive symbols?
PF: Every artist works with life experiences. A person’s emotions and channels of understanding are formed by experiences. I grew up in a family and among a group of people whose main concern in life was to fight for freedom and justice under the dictatorship of the second king in the Pahlavi Dynasty. My father and mother and many of the people around me spent part of their life as political prisoners. In my youth, I witnessed the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, along with the brutal suppression of political opponents by the Iranian government, followed by migration and expulsion from my homeland… These situations in life shaped my human emotions and gave rise to my art. My artistic language and forms are based on ornaments and patterns which I gradually picked up over the years and tried to use to express my art. The ornamental structure allows me to present a mixture of visible and hidden meanings, to create beauty, balance and harmony with details that make you feel trapped in an organized turmoil and chaos. I try to create the potential for suspension between contradictory states that will emotionally and psychologically engage viewers and make them ask questions. From a technical standpoint, many of these sets of works are digitally created and printed with wide use of computer programs.
PF: Every artist works with life experiences. The emotions and channels of understanding of someone are formed from the experiences. I grew up in a family and in a group whose main concern in life was to fight for freedom and justice in the midst of the dictatorship of the second king of the Pahlavi dynasty. My parents and many of my surroundings spent part of their lives as political prisoners. In my youth, I witnessed the Iranian revolution and the war of Iran and Iraq, and the brutal suppression of the Iranian government against political opponents, followed by the migration and abandonment of my homeland … These life situations shaped to my emotions and they created my work. My language and my artistic form are based on ornaments and patterns that I collected over the years and tried to use them to express myself. The ornamental structure allows me to present a mixture of hidden meanings, create beauty, balance and harmony with details that make you feel trapped in turbulence and organized chaos. I try to generate a potential suspension between contradictory states that will emotionally and psychologically capture viewers and lead them to ask questions. As for the technical, many pieces are created digitally and printed using computer programs.
OM: Many of your works are spacious. Instead of being framed and hanging on the walls, they take over the entire gallery, so that the viewer lives a common experience.
PF: You can generate a more complex and compact connection when an art form engulfs the audience, rather than just being in front of you. I see this aspect being in harmony with my work. These site-specific works take over and transform the space. As an emigrant, space has always been a challenging element. I think the desire to transform space is, to some extent, related to the experience of immigration and the struggle to open up your own space. I think you can see traces of these special works when I first started as an artist after finishing my studies in Germany in the mid-1990s. I think my first work that had this special feature was “The Written Room.” It was initially presented in 1999 and most recently I performed it a few months ago. It has been my most traveled work.
PF: A more complex and compact connection can be created when the artistic form involves the audience instead of just facing it. This aspect is in harmony with my work. Site-specific works take over the space and transform it. Being a migrant, space has always been a demanding element. I believe that the desire to transform space, to some extent, is linked to the immigration experience and the struggle to open my own space. You could notice the traces of these special works when I started as an artist, after having finished my studies in Germany in the mid-nineties. I think my first work had that special feature was “The written room.” It was first introduced in 1999 and, more recently, I did it a few months ago. It has been the work that has traveled the most.
OM: Your regime's security agents were killed in Iran in 1998, and since then, you have sought justice and responsibility for these political crimes, as well as keeping your memory alive. How did this influence your artistic work?
PF: The political murder of my parents has undoubtedly burdened me with a heavy load that I will always carry. These kinds of tragedies stay with people. I have always tried to avoid being crushed by this tragedy and as a human being, to react in a socially responsible way. Throughout the years, I have stood by the relatives of other victims of political crimes in Iran in order to seek justice and develop a culture of remembrance. There is no doubt that I have become more political and the impact of it can be seen in my artwork. But at the same time, I have always tried to be mindful of the basic difference between politics and art, and avoided taking advantage of them in favorable or detrimental ways.
PF: Without a doubt, the political murder of my parents has been a huge burden that will be with me for life. These tragedies always accompany us. I tried to avoid being crushed and, as a human being, I sought to react in a socially responsible manner. Over the years, I sided with the relatives of the victims of political crimes in Iran in order to seek justice and create a culture of memory. There is no doubt that I have become more political, and that is reflected in my artistic work. But, at the same time, I always tried to be aware of the basic differences between politics and art, and avoided taking advantage of them in favorable or harmful ways.
OM: You travel frequently between Iran and Germany, and to other countries. How did three decades of life, culture and travel to the West influence your identity?
PF: By now I have spent more than half of my life in Germany. This second half of my life has shaped my professional career to such an extent that when I think and speak about my art, I rely on German as my primary language. In Germany and other countries, I'm introduced as a German-Iranian artist. I see myself as an immigrant who belongs to different cultures. I am attracted to spaces that are in between. Given this background and life experience, my identity is a process that is affected by many things. It’s alive and fluid, as opposed to fixed or solid.
PF: So far, I have spent more than half of my life in Germany. The second half of my life shaped my professional activity to such an extent that, when I think of my work or speak of my work, I use German as my first language. In Germany and other countries, they present me as a German-Iranian artist. I see myself as an immigrant who belongs to different cultures, and I am attracted to the spaces in between. Given my background and life experiences, my identity is a process that receives many influences. It is alive and fluid, instead of fixed and solid.