Since we first encountered Ahrarnia’s work at Paradise Row in 2009, his career has truly taken off and long may it continue. The 2009 Paradise Row show BallaDrama took contested ideas of identity as its subject, a concept Ahrarnia (born 1971 Shiraz, Iran) continually battles with. By stitching items, threads and leaving needles embedded in canvas printed, iconic film stills, Ahrarnia examines his themes through the lenses of history and gender.
We spoke in-depth interview with the retiring Ahrarnia on the eve of his 2012 solo exhibition Canary in a Coal Mine in 2012 (pictured) in which he discusses his cinematic sensibilities, for which the audio is below. Rose Issa Projects marked the exhibition Canary in a Coal Mine with a lush, hardback publication on Ahrarnia’s work, which he tells us is heavily informed by his work in film; “For many [in Iran], the global impact of Hollywood remains the instigator of an imperialistic battle against existing traditions and local culture” (from Ahrarnia’s diaries). This publication follows Rose Issa Projects’ 2008 publication Stitched on Ahrarnia for a show in which he took inspiration from CCTV footage of riots in Bradford, UK where he spends half of his time.
The title Canary in the Coalmine stems from the practice of the British coal miners who until the 1980s would take a caged canary with them underground during their long shifts. Because the canary sings most of the time, if oxygen levels drop or any dangerous gases are emitted, silence meant its death, and was an early warning system.
Colloquially the phrase “canary in a coal mine” refers to someone who can detect signs of trouble and danger – whose sensitivity makes them vulnerable. The sentiment is an appropriate title for this body of work: the bright, caged canary, singing in the darkness, its voice echoing around underground caves while shovels unearth treasure all around it, digging into the fabric of life. For this show his work is a re-examining of the idea of cultural constructs as ideological stitch-ups. You have to admire an artist who is not afraid of puns.
Ahrarnia creates sculptures in other materials also. His now iconic Dustpan of History was toasted in Dubai where pieces sold for $10,000 a piece at Art Dubai, UAE, 2011 while showing at the Rose Issa Projects booth. The Dustpan of History series features in the Canary in a Coal Mine publication, where Ahrarnia recollects his father’s love of digging in the garden, and the rows of shovels he remembers him by.
Online, some of his most interesting works appear in the archives of A Project from Hinterland for Vienna Art Week 2013. The exhibition was called “Embroidermania”and Ahrarnia appeared alongside artists such as Walter Bruno Brix. In these works he takes his interest in film into the realm of pixels and the stitching becomes more central to the pieces, which concern digital media, distortions and re-imaginings of images from TV (top).
Embroidery is one of the world’s oldest crafts and according to the exhibition notes “has hardly changed since its early days“. But of course it has. Machines now embroider, we experiment with plastic threads and subverting traditional forms and of course, it is no longer considered “women’s work” in Europe and America as it once was. The focus of the exhibition curated by Sandra Schwender looked at male artists who “reinterpret the ancient craft of embroidery in a modern way” It’s a brilliant premise for a show and the works selected by Schwender amongst Ahrarnia’s pieces, were impressive.
Maraya Art Centre, UAE also hosted an exhibition on geometric art called The Beginning of Thinking is Geometric in late 2013, in which Ahrarnia featured with Algerian artist and past Six Pillars guest Fayçal Baghriche amongst others. The exhibition was accompanied by an illustrated catalogue edited by Rose Issa, with essays by Christopher de Bellaigue.
And then there was “Open Your Eyes” in 2014, again at Rose Issa Projects. A visually diverse collection of artworks, ranging from 17th-century engravings to contemporary photography and painting, “the exhibition celebrates creative intuition and reaction: Throughout history, we have listened to and followed the opinions and advice of writers, philosophers, economists and politicians, but often it is artists who are the first to realise and respond to changes in our world.” Another brilliant premise for a show.
For this Ahrarnia showed his Bury My Heart series, embroidered digital prints on canvas presents images of Native American tribes that have been “stitched up” as a metaphor for modern-day colonialism and territorial expansion. Clearly an artist that finds parallels outside of his own culture, his relationship with history as inspiration for form and content proves ongoing. Below are works that are clearly taking from 1960s forms and tones and at first appear to be the pure abstraction of Suprematism, a movement which came out of Russia post-Cubism around 1915-1925, yet on inspection are modern reworkings of this distinctive style.
At the same time often the prints used by Ahrarnia bring his references right up to the present, as pictured below in a piece shown at Edge of Arabia, London for the show Come Together in 2012.
Through the act of appropriation and needlework, Ahrarnia is said to “explore the various tensions that arise when contemporary Iranians attempt to negotiate and reconcile their own sense of deep-rooted tradition with the force and consequences of modernity”. Perhaps this is reading too much into it, perhaps this is how he expresses or relieves himself of his owns stresses, possibly caused things he witnesses at home or abroad. In his silver dustpans there are elements of the pre-Islamic history of Persepolis, Mesopotamia, and even Pharaonic Egypt; “the pointed tips of his silver shovels, like the needles on his embroidered panels, encourage viewers to dig into their own past in order to rediscover the many layers of history and life beneath.”