As a contrast to all the negative reports from Turkey last week, I want to focus on a more positive influence from Turkey in the art world. The gallery Pi Artworks was founded by Yesim Turanli in Istanbul in 1998. A well-known figure in the Istanbul art scene, Turanli broadened her horizons and opened her gallery on the vibrant Eastcastle Street in Fitzrovia a few years ago.
The area of Fitzrovia is somewhat of a hidden gem in London. Squashed between tourist-heavy Oxford Street, neighbour to the glamorous Marylebone and bordering the now completely regenerated King’s Cross area, Fitzrovia remains an area for those in the know. Lambs Conduit Street was recently described as one of London’s finest local streets, with many independent little cafes and shops. A dozen or so young galleries have opened here in the last 10 years.
Pi Artworks represents artists from Turkey, but also an international roster of promising talent. The current show features Parastou Forouhar. Forouhar was born in Iran but left to study and work in Germany, as she felt too restricted in her freedoms after the Iranian Revolution of 1979. However, as with many artists born in the Middle East, the region retains its influence long after the artist has moved away. As a female, for Forouhar the most pressing issue was the way women’s freedoms are restricted. In Swanrider, a series of photographs made between 2004 and 2010, a veiled woman strides gracefully atop a white, swan-shaped pleasure boat, conducting her very private battle of modernity against tradition.
Forouhar had a show at Pi Artworks earlier this year, and the British Museum took notice, buying a series of Forouhar’s prints. Yet the current show, Written Room, is different. Forouhar has written on all four walls, the ceiling and the floor of the gallery in what appears to be Persian script, making the writing come alive before our very eyes. Visually, this is an arresting installation, the black letters delineated clearly from the gallery’s white walls. Adding an interesting dimension, the writing expands further on little ping pong balls, scattered around the gallery and sometimes playfully kicked around by visitors.
The show is part of a much larger Written Room-project that started in 1999. Forouhar has marked the walls with her writing in galleries around the world, in Australia, Italy, Germany and Greece. What is most striking about the work is that the script is almost as incomprehensible to those who can read the language as to those who can’t. The ‘text’ does not follow straight and logical lines, but travels around the space without any horizontal or vertical axis. The meaning thus remains elusive to all.
This is exactly Forouhar’s intention. She doesn’t merely feed Iranian traditions and realities into the Western narrative, but goes one step further – by challenging the pre-conditioned views that we in the West have of the Middle East, and by shaking up the West’s so-called ‘Orientalism’: a simplified and clichéd approach towards a foreign region. This associative behaviour has troubled Forouhar from the start: “When I arrived in Germany, I was Parastou Forouhar. Somehow, over the years, I have become Iranian.”
It is fascinating to see Forouhar develop from an artist with a heavy load, to a freer individual who now exposes the challenges of dislocation and displacement, an issue that has never been more relevant in our times of globalisation. Her path is very positive, and very hopeful. Yet is it really possible to shake off our past? In 1998 both Forouhar’s parents, intellectuals and activists, were brutally murdered by the regime in their own home in Tehran. We only have to take one step closer to her bright and colourful prints – those acquired by the British Museum - in order to notice that what look like decorative symbols are in fact the faceless figures of the subjugated, their hands and feet tied.
Should you have the time and the will to venture out of Fitzrovia, Written Room could be visited together with the large retrospective of Mona Hatoum at Tate Modern. The exhibition has been reviewed extensively elsewhere, with nothing but praise. Suffice to say in this context that Hatoum, born from a Palestinian family in Beirut, and now living in Germany, also had to withstand constant assumptions about the ‘foreigner’ and expectations of always taking a stance on her native country. “They come with this preconceived idea of where I come from,” Hatoum said, “and therefore what I’m putting in my work, and they tend to over-interpret the work in relation to my background.”
But the personal is interwoven with the universal, the specific with the general. Both shows remind us that the past can never be fully denied.
Parastou Forouhar, Written Room, Pi Artworks, until 30th July
Mona Hatoum, Tate Modern, until 21 August