Artist Interpretations in Gifts of the Sultan: Q&A with Sadegh Tirafkan

August 8, 2011

On view through September 5, Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts explores Islamic art through the universal tradition of gift giving. The exhibition features more than 200 works of art from three different continents and spanning the eighth through nineteenth centuries. The exhibition also features the work of three contemporary artists, all with roots in the Islamic world—Sadegh Tirafkan, Ahmed Mater, and Shahzia Sikander—commissioned to interpret the art of gift-giving in Islam. Exclusively on Unframed this week, arts writer and founder of Art Middle East Nazy Nazhand interviews each of these artists about their contributions to the exhibition.

Sadegh Tirafkan, Always in Our Thoughts, 2011, courtesy of the artist and Assar Gallery, Tehran

Part I: Sadegh Tirafkan

Deported from Iraq to Iran at the age of six and a member of the youth militia in the Iran-Iraq war as a teenager, Sadegh Tirafkan experienced loss at an early age. In this remarkable piece, he remembers those lost to him by referencing the hijla, an Iranian tradition of erecting temporary shrines to commemorate the dead. Tirafkan characterizes it as a gift from the living to the deceased. The commemorative structure is suggested here by, among other things, the use of colorful strips of cloth, which allude to bits of fabric tied by visitors to the hijla in remembrance of the loved one.

How does your work relate to the Islamic artistic tradition represented in “Gifts of the Sultan?” How has traditional art influenced your practice?

For me, Islamic art is too broad a label. I’m more influenced by Iranian traditions and history, and the Iranian interpretation of Islamic artistic traditions. But more specifically, with the idea of gift-giving, I wanted to approach it from a spiritual point of view, the idea of people donating something without wanting anything in return. Having no expectations. To be able to live in this world is a gift.

With Hijla, I wanted to present a gift from the living to the deceased in their honor, but to also celebrate life. The word actually means marriage, and traditionally it’s an image of a deceased man, but I wanted to break the taboos and use pictures of living people and also women and include mirrors, so that the viewer can share in the celebration.

What are your thoughts on museum exhibitions like Gifts of the Sultan that juxtapose historical and contemporary artworks?

It should continue to be done this way and I hope more museums do it. Contemporary art gives new perspective to historical works and vice versa, transferring between past influences and present references.

Sadegh Tirafkan, Always in Our Thoughts, 2011, courtesy of the artist and Assar Gallery, Tehran

Where are you currently based? One of the major themes in Gifts of the Sultan is that of cross-cultural interaction and exchange; what are your thoughts on this theme and how does the geographical location of where you work influence your perspective?

I’m Iranian and my art is influenced by Iranian history and culture. But I never want to be categorized by a singular place or category. Names like Orientalism, I don’t understand. My work is about roots and identity. As artists, we should do our job first and not worry about the clichés.

So much has been changed with globalization and the amount of information available to us. Now when you go to galleries in cosmopolitan cities, you see art from all over the world, not just Western art. People want to see something different and to learn about these cultures and the idea of Western and Eastern cultures inspiring each other. I’m based in Tehran and come to North America once a year and travel to Europe and rest of the Middle East throughout the year. For me the constant travel allows for a broader perspective and to absorb the similarities and differences in people and cultures.

Describe your creative process; what are you currently inspired by? What are you currently working on?

I started working as an artist in Iran about twenty years ago and I had my first New York exhibit about ten years ago. In the years since, I’ve worked both inside and outside Iran and I want to continue to do that. I have a desire to be part of the world.

My work has always been organized in three parts; self-portraits, masculinity in Iran, and how my society, my culture and people around me relate to their culture and their heritage. I try to address this step by step—first myself, then my gender, and then people in general. Because if you want to talk about other people, you have to know yourself. I’m not satisfied with just photography any more. I want to explore these themes through a new concept and continue to experiment in multimedia.

Nazy Nazhand is the founder of Art Middle East, a series of programs and cultural events during Armory Arts Week in New York City and Art Platfom – Los Angeles. She’s a contributing writer covering art from the Middle East. She has written for Artnet, Modern Painters, Artinfo, Whitewall, and T Magazine. Follow her: http://blogs.artinfo.com/vanguardism/ and http://twitter.com/#!/NazyNazhand. Additional reporting by Kimia Shahi.


This Weekend at LACMA: Free Tim Burton Film, Middle East Film Series, Free Concerts, and More

August 5, 2011

Starting tonight and happening every Friday in August you can enjoy a family friendly Tim Burton film outside in Hancock Park, for the nice price of free—bring a picnic and enjoy Corpse Bride tonight! The movie starts at 8 pm, so make an evening of it by coming early to check out the Jacques Voyemant Septet in a free Jazz at LACMA performance, stop into the galleries—free after 5 pm (except for Tim Burton) for LA County residents—or grab dinner or drinks at Ray’s and Stark Bar.

Inside the Bing, our newest film series, in conjunction with Gifts of the Sultan, is “Once Upon a Time in the Middle East.” It kicks off tonight with Sergei Parajanov’s hallucinatory The Color of Pomegranates, followed by Ali Khamraev’s Man Follows Birds. Tomorrow night series continues with the thriller Topkapi, featuring an Oscar-winning performance from Peter Ustinov, and Arabian Nights.  

That’s not all in the way of film at LACMA this weekend. We’ve also got our Saturday Monster Matinee—Jason & the Argonauts—which is just $5 (or free if you’re a LACMA member).

On Saturday evening in Hancock Park, Orquesta Charangoa performs for free as part of our summer Latin Sounds concert series.

August finds a new theme for our weekly free Andell Family Sundays—Crazy about Color. Bring your kids and find inspiration in the permanent collection, then make art together in our free artist-led workshops.

Josef Albers, Homage to the Square, 1951-55, gift of Mrs. Anni Albers and the Josef Albers Foundation, Inc., © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Our weekly Sundays Live concert series will feature the trio of Judith Farmer (bassoon), Boglarka Kiss (flute), and Robert Thies (piano) performing works by Poulenc, Tansman, and Schumann.  

Those are just the special programs we have planned for the weekend. Of course, we’ve also got a half dozen buildings filled with art. There are any number of exhibitions to choose from—including The Sound of One Hand, which closes later this month—as well as smaller permanent collection rotations. Here’s a tip: head up to the fourth floor of the Ahmanson Building for two fantastic exhibitions of South and Southeast Asian art: The Way of the Elders, which looks at images of the Buddha in Theravada traditions, and The Changing Face of Nepal, which examines the development of portraiture in Nepal over the centuries.

King Girvan Yuddhavikram Shah (1797-1816), Nepal, c. 1815, Indian Art Special Purpose Fund

Scott Tennent


VIDEO: Preparing for Levitated Mass

August 3, 2011

Recently, amid tractors and cranes, on the edge of a deep trench being dug just north of the Resnick Pavilion, we spoke with John Bowsher, who is overseeing the installation of Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass.

The sculpture will be complete this fall, after a 340-ton boulder is maneuvered into place above an open slot more than 450 feet long. Visitors will be able to pass beneath the boulder and experience it hovering above them.

In the video below, John talks about the physical dynamics of the construction and the process of working with a living artist on a truly massive project.

Amy Heibel, with Alexa Oona Schulz


New Acquisition: Elizabeth Catlett, Sharecropper

August 3, 2011

Last month the newly formed American Art Acquisitions Group voted to acquire Elizabeth Catlett’s Sharecropper, a graphic masterpiece. A sophisticated and virtuosic pattern of cuts into the linoleum block create the striking energy and clarity of this print.

Elizabeth Catlett, Sharecropper, 1952, gift of the 2011 American Art Acquisitions Group

Catlett, who is the granddaughter of slaves and just celebrated her 96th birthday in April, was first introduced to the linoleum cut, or linocut, in 1946, when she apprenticed at El Taller de Gráfica Popular in Mexico City (The People’s Graphic Workshop). The artists’ collective (Catlett was a member from 1946 to 1966) influenced her commitment to create art that would promote social change and be accessible to broad audiences. Prints, in particular linocuts, were the workshop’s specialty and became Catlett’s preferred medium: they were inexpensive, easy to incise, and conducive to publishing large editions. The linocut is also aesthetically appealing for its smooth, uniform, and clean surface qualities.

Sharecropper, first created in 1952, is one of Catlett’s most iconic works, and the version just acquired for LACMA is the artist’s proof—the first impression pulled by the artist. The vivid contrasts of the black and white markings creating the sharecropper’s weathered skin, textured white hair, and broad brimmed straw hat framing her face are direct and vigorous—and contrast with fatigue evident in the eyes and the large safety pin neatly holding her lightweight jacket closed. These details allude to hardships of the life of a sharecropper. Sharecropping was an agricultural system that emerged in the U.S. immediately following the Civil War. Laborers worked plantation lands, usually cotton fields, in exchange for a portion of the crops, but typically the proceeds from the crops were allocated to the landowners in advance for expenses, such as housing on the plantation, now required of the farmers. For formerly enslaved African Americans, this exploitative system created extensive and ongoing disenfranchisement.

Catlett’s image does not shy from this history, nor have other artists throughout the history of American art since Reconstruction. In fact, Sharecropper demonstrates the persistence of this theme, namely picking cotton, in American art for both African American and Caucasian artists, including, from LACMA’s collection, Winslow Homer (The Cotton Pickers, 1876), Thomas Hart Benton (Cotton Pickers, 1931), and John Biggers (Cotton Pickers, 1947). However, Catlett’s Sharecropper is now the American art collection’s most modern image of American sharecroppers, and one of the artist’s innovations was to remove any visual reference to the cotton field or bags. As a result the image appears more universal and heroic, a portrait of the everywoman sharecropper to whom we look up but who does not meet our gaze. Sharecropper in on view now in our American art galleries.

Austen Bailly


More Burton-Inspired Pics from the Public

August 1, 2011

Attendance to our Tim Burton exhibition is going strong two months into its five month run. One of the best things about the exhibition is how our visitors continue to interact with it online. We invited visitors to post their own Burton-esque images to our flickr group to see things that seem to have taken inspiration from Burton’s aesthetic. We love to see this multimedia feed grow with an assortment of beautiful, mysterious, playful, gothic, colorful, and dark images.

Steel branches from alexcap1101

Steel branches

Check out the Flickr group here.

sonicshadowlover13 submitted this image of her Jack Skellington-inspired outfit, complete with skeleton gloves and choker.

shaunsaumell submitted several images of a beautiful, surreal landscape that look right out of The Nightmare Before Christmas.

tagletwitch created an amazing sculpture  from what looks like recycled wires.

Some contributors have drawn their own dark, Burton-esque creatures like taylorwchristensen’s Stick Boy and Match Girl and mouse25’s My Pretty.

Scroll through all of the submissions for more sketches, costumes, house decor, hairstyles, tattoos, and some inspiration from nature.

Submit your Burton-esque images here.

Alex Capriotti


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