History as Context of Artistic Practice: Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi in Conversation with Bahar Behbahani

Posted on October 19, 2016 by Kristin Swan

An interview conducted in association with the Hood Downtown exhibition Bahar Behbahani: Let the Garden Eram Flourish, on view January 5, 2017, through March 12, 2017.

Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi: In 2013, you began the ongoing Persian Gardens series. What was the inspiration and motivation for it?

Bahar Behbahani: It started as an inquest of identity. As a person who grew up surrounded by poetry and carpet, one cannot deny that the idea of Persian gardens is indexed in an average Iranian person’s consciousness. The Persian garden has been always connected with a romantic idea of paradise on earth. What are Persian gardens? Why are Persian gardens important? Who made them? Who used them? What is special about the flora in Persian gardens? These were the questions that interested me, along with how Persian gardens might articulate Iranian identity in a global context, in the past and present.

My research started three years ago; I began looking at geography, history, art, and literature in relation to Persian gardens. I soon realized that the subject has more to do with geopolitics than anything else and that Persian history reflects a history of colonialism. So I started to investigate the romantic ideals associated with Persian gardens since the seventeenth century, espoused by Europeans travelers, architects, painters, and writers. This led me to European engravings and books by travelers and orientalists including Sir John Chardin, Eugène Flandin, and Pascal Coste. Afterward, my attention shifted to the work of American scholars such as Arthur Pope and Donald Wilber, which resonates more with the fact that I now live and work in the United States. I soon discovered that Wilber, whom we all knew as a highly respected scholar of Persian architecture in Iran, was the purported mastermind of the country’s 1953 coup. This brought an interesting twist to my research as an artist. It is fascinating to explore Wilber’s surveys of the plans and plots of Persian gardens (his primary passion) and at the same time examine his role in facilitating the overthrow of a democratic government. I am thus drawn to this duplicity and how one might contextualize it, with the garden serving as a metaphor.

U-SN: Persian gardens are very much politicized spaces; they are both sacral and secular. One might argue that they carry the collective memory over the ages more than any other aspects or forms of Persian material culture. How would you contextualize this memory, and what role do you think it plays in the contemporary Iranian imagination?

BB: The notion of the Persian garden permeates Iranian life and its artistic expressions. References are found in literature, poetry, music, calligraphy, and carpet design. My first tangible experience of Persian gardens was as a child crawling on carpets with garden designs. There is an inevitable spiritual weight of the garden that infuses the Iranian consciousness. It is captured in quotidian objects and in literature and art. There are other ways the history of Persian gardens resonates when we consider hierarchy, social upheavals, and civil conflicts all woven together in Iranian culture. Throughout Iran’s evolution, Persian gardens played a major role in various sociocultural aspects of society and served as a central feature in private residences, palaces, and public buildings. The historical roots of the Persian garden span over two millennia. Its first mature expression was the garden of Cyrus the Great’s palatial complex in Pasargadae. It is important to consider the achievements Persian gardens represent, the ingenious application of engineering, water management, architecture, botany, and agriculture. It is equally important to consider the idealized reality they embody, often presented in poetry, which stands in stark contrast with what lies outside of their walls: extreme climatic conditions—the hot, dry, and inhospitable desert that is always a threat to life. The gardens’ walls keep the dangerous desert at bay. Within the walls of the gardens it is not exactly that safe either.

Iran’s historical memory of the garden is filled with brutal experiences, such as the murder of Amir Kabir, the first democratic prime minister, in the bath of one of the oldest gardens during the Qajar dynasty (some 200 years ago); the arrest of Mohamed Mossadeq in the garden of his house (he was another popular prime minister who was removed during the 1953 coup in Iran); and demonstrations in the public gardens during the Islamic revolution. The key questions that I grapple with in the Persian Gardens series are: Can a place remain beautiful even though it witnessed murder, sorrow, removal, and turbulence? How do such places affect our individual perceptions, emotions, and collective behaviors when we are in them or imagine them conceptually?

U-SN: The historical figure Hafiz occupies a larger-than-life place in Persian literary tradition and in many households where his fascinating poetry of love, romance, and cosmic connections is a staple. In certain ways, his poems explore the reaches of the sacred and the profane that Persian gardens embody. Hafiz employs metaphor, humor, and irony to great effect in his poetry to critique those who occupy the political realm, who create these gardens for personal aggrandizement, to show off their political might, but also to seek transcendental enlightenment. In a sense, Hafiz’s poetry is not unlike these rulers who seek both the secular and the divine in the enchanted spaces of Persian gardens.

BB: It’s hard to separate Persian gardens from poetry and it’s difficult to say if Persian gardens are a metaphor, illusion, or reachable oasis. In Iranian culture, the garden and poetry are woven together to the extent that one does not exist without the other. Hafiz used the concept of paradise to describe Persian gardens. He is the great master of the language of ambiguity and metaphor. He talks of beautifully shaped tall cypress tree as symbolizing the lover. The lover is also a metaphor for the ultimate truth that advances from a metaphysical place. The nightingale sings the sad song of separation in this ideal paradise and introduces the pleasure of sorrow. In Hafiz’s poetry, the garden is a beautiful paradise from one metaphor to another. The garden in Hafiz’s world is the manifestation of a country, a society, a house, a place for contemplation, a lovers’ hidden corner, a maze we navigate to reach truth. Seasons are the embodiment of the imaginary world of the fall and rise of the materialistic world as well as the spiritual stages of growth. The running water in the middle of the garden is eternal and is the oasis that each of us longs for. It is so vivid that it can be the most beautiful mirage, a true yet illusionary world.

U-SN: The coup of 1953, perhaps more than any other event—including the 1979 revolution—has impacted Iran’s modern history. Can you describe the significance of the 1953 coup in the Iranian political imagination? One would assume that it has served as a rallying point for generations of Iranians, some of whom might not have been born before the coup but who partake in its collective memory. I am also interested in how it serves as an important component of your current project and perhaps also as creative fodder for other Iranian artists.

BB: The history of the 1953 coup in Iran has been told many times. Yet aspects of it remain mysterious and continue to confound historians, while serving as a source of inspiration for artists. History is made of different layers; my paintings consist of layers upon layers, each representing a different perception or narrative. The coup for Iranians is a signifier of colonialism, the magic of oil, and a major disappointment. For me it is like a love story. It is the story of a flirtation with the British and Americans, the temptation, the betrayal. Whereas Persia has been a romantic land on many levels, nevertheless it has been a place of invasions. This story of the duality of Persian soil is interesting to me. I look at the coup metaphorically through the Persian garden, following our tradition of storytelling and poetry, but I also refer to some real facts from that unfortunate incident.

When I was in school at the age of 12 or so, I was looking at the black-and-white photo of the house of Prime Minister Mosaddegh when it was surrounded by soldiers during the coup, which was orchestrated by American and British intelligence as result of the international oil politics at that time. Mosaddegh was banished to his own house and garden, outside of Tehran, where he finally died and was buried. Following the siege, the heavenly rose garden of the Mosaddegh house was turned into a ruin, occupied by armed puppets who stood in front of graffiti sprayed on its once-beautiful stone walls. This is an indelible cultural image indexed in the memory of generations of Iranians who have come across that picture in history books. Years later, I found out that the highly respected American scholar of Persian architecture Donald Wilber was one of the main planners of the coup.

What interests me is the ambiguity of history: the gray areas, the blurry segments, the untold and unseen parts of it. The first official place you encounter history and get to memorize it is in school. We have been told and taught the history of our country and after years of schooling you still can’t point to one particular and clear answer about an incident. It is like you are looking at it behind a glass. That uncertainty fascinates me. When the school’s books teach you something about a historic event, your relatives recite it differently, and you also hear another version through Western sources, somehow your mind mixes them and creates a new hybrid story out of it. That is a form of art to me. You just translate it to a different medium as an artist. History is like a maze that fills me with anxiety. It is somewhat exhilarating to go from corner to corner through unfathomable paths in that hope to find a piece of truth. But, ironically, it is also that you are searching and searching and the result sometimes is completely disappointing, or scary, or makes you sad. So what I do when lost in the maze of the history is to treat it as my vocabulary and create my own maze. Not far from a space filled with the comforting ritual of a Persian garden, I struggle with a new awareness that my conceptual dialogue with memory and history has just begun.

U-SN: Works in the exhibition such as Preliminary Steps, Chronicle of the Garden, and the eponymous Let the Garden Eram Flourish can all be seen as a form of palimpsest. You build upon historical information, erasing, adding, and re-imagining things. The result is that there is a great deal of complexity in the paintings. In spite of the fraught issues you address, the paintings evoke what might be described as poetic realism if we take into account the ways in which you combine site plans of some of the best-known gardens, floral patterns drawn from nineteenth-century illuminated books, and a back-bending process of layering intricate forms.

BB: My main approach in this series is investigating documents and archival materials, either text-based or pictorial materials. Accordingly, I extract descriptions of the archetypal gardens that were written, drawn, and sometimes even converted into engravings by Henry Corbin, Arthur Pope, Eugène Flandin, and Pascal Coste, among other European and American philosophers, architectural historians, and travel writers of the time. I look through all the materials for codes and historical references to raise germane questions for the present. It is a challenge trying to resolve a mystery or to rescue a historical event from obscurity given that one is limited by personal memory and given what one views as a collective amnesia in society. My works follows a process of deconstruction, analysis, and contemplation of forms with geopolitical consequences, but always with a persistent attention to the subject of beauty and seductiveness. I also work with a combination of elements drawn from Persian architectural traditions and inevitably from my immediate surroundings in New York. The elements drawn from the New York environment are of architectural and historical importance and reflect how I make sense of my present conditions.

U-SN: It is quite instructive how you congregate various forms on the picture surface to insinuate different emotions. For example, in Char-Bagh (which references the quadrilaterals that usually encapsulate the architecture of the gardens) and The Decisions Are Made: Activity Begins, organic, abstract, and geometric forms fuse into each other. In the latter, a work that refers mostly to the events of the 1953 coup, the black bars that suggest redacted information work the fine line of concealing and revealing. 

BB: These paintings live and breathe in the studio for months. The process is very long and meditative as well as gestural and expressive. I translate the substance of Persian gardens into flowing lines with which I completely cover each blank canvas. Some of the intricate drawings are concealed. The drawings are also depictions of architectural plans, enclosing walls, aerial maps, rectangular pools, internal networks of canals, garden pavilions, and abundant vegetation. I paint and erase continually. To me, the residues of paint or drawing are important for the history of the paintings. Even when they are not easily visible, they are there, stored in the canvas, like invisible or covert history. My work process reveals my state of mind; I aim for a language that blurs the line between personal and shared histories. Sometimes it is surprising how one can create a hybrid space within the rigid boundaries of perception and historical facts.

U-SN: One suggests, therefore, that your imagination collides with historical facts, creating what can be likened to faction, the literary genre that combines fact and fiction. Would this be a fair assessment of your modus operandi?

BB: I learned early on that truth can be fabricated. Clearly differentiating public from private behavior and manipulating linguistic nuances were (and still are) essential to navigating everyday life in a contradictory and unpredictable society. Now, as an artist living in the United States, I revisit my birth country’s psychogeographic landscape, and am taken by how physical displacement from the East to the West brings about an illuminating political and social déjà vu. The Persian gardens in my new series seem to me to know that they are being watched. Viewers of these paintings become voyeurs sometimes.

U-SN: Though the different works in the exhibition can stand independently, I am drawn to how they seem to suggest sub-plots of a grand narrative. For example, the Eram Garden—one of the best-known Persian gardens and a monument to engineering and architecture, from which the exhibition derives its title—is the location of the Shiraz University. In an ironic twist of history, the Shiraz University stands as a symbol of a short-lived cultural exchange between the United States and Iran.

BB: These kinds of stories excite me, inspire me to make a visual vocabulary. During the transition to modern Iran, Eram Garden  was neglected for a while—until the forties, when it transformed into the headquarters of the American-Iranian Society under the direction of Arthur Pope. The presence of the Western scholars in the country raised some questions and brought up different dynamics. For me, the garden is a metaphor that I apply it to the history of a country. You plant beautiful flora in a garden, and you also see self-grown or imported plants that can grow fast and cover everything. Visually, I’d like to explore the forms that structure a garden like Eram Garden as well as investigate the trend of the transformation of this garden to a new model of a university. Minoru Yamasaki, who also was the architect of Twin Towers in New York, designed the university. I’m very much interested in the invisible impact of this design in both places. So the elements and the visual language that I use in this series of paintings are somewhere between documentation and a fairytale world, where these two can both evoke some questions and document a new narrative of the history of the garden.

U-SN: Your work process involves an intense and extensive amount of research. How are you able to work out that balance between research, creating, and finding the most appropriate vocabulary?

BB: Researching for me is the essential work process. I start by gathering information and by accumulating documents, images, quotations, historical facts, oral history, plans of gardens, Eastern philosophy of geometry, aerial maps, etc. I create a space in my mind where all this information sits together and mingles for a while. What comes out of it is my poetry or fiction, which is a composite of all the research material. Time and time again, I go back to my notes and archival materials and refresh my mind and vocabulary. I trim or cultivate forms and patterns. I investigate the space for discourse, for abstraction and representational forms that help me to outline the contexts of history and the geopolitics of Persian gardens. Research is like hide-and-seek, the game of my childhood. It was always exciting and joyful to find someone in the course of play, but there was also a great deal of anxiety and fear while trying to find the person in the game, an anticipation of an outcome, just like when one is engaged in research. It happens to me every time I find a new fact about Persian gardens. I start with a simple and obvious fact that I know and from there I am led into hidden corners full of surprises. 

U-SN: You have been living in the United States for about twelve years. You have spent nine of those years in New York. It is fair to imagine that you are immersed in American society and the New York art world. In what ways does your practice reflect or depart from the Iranian art tradition, given your art training in Iran, and what might be the American influences in your practice, if there are any?

BB: Places are fascinating for me—the memory of a place, the glory days of a place, loss of a place, relation of people to a place, building of a place, and history of a place. For me, the life of a place is my point of investigation, to understand its ethnography as well as its socio-political issues in a poetic way. When I look at modern architecture, I tend to go back to centuries ago when the place was nothing but water, desert, or empty land. That is how I can process my thoughts. I have to go back to find the root of the place.

My work emerges from a hybrid space that I inhabit. My beginning the Persian Gardens series coincided with the chance to work in a spacious studio in a high-rise at the Lower Manhattan construction site, provided by Time Equities Inc. Art-in-Buildings. It became a routine for me to walk from Brooklyn, where I live, to the studio in Downtown Manhattan. It takes about an hour and half each way if I walk steadily and at a certain pace. This ritual journey has afforded me the opportunity to observe the construction going on around New York. I see people rush to their many destinations, the mass of tourists in transition, old verses of life and new aesthetics of presence and becoming. I pass through the humdrum of city life to my studio on the fifteenth floor of the abandoned office complex facing the Trinity Church. I find myself alone up there in my silent world surrounded by canvases and paints, where I contemplate our relationship with space and places. I work for hours without speaking to anyone or receiving any visitors. Yet the vibrations from the construction work down the street behind my studio, where the new World Trade Center stands next to two giant holes beautifully designed as the tribute to the national catastrophe, course through my body. In my silence and industry, I am still very much part of the city.

This interview was conducted via email and at Bahar Behbahani’s studio on September 22 and 24, 2016. 

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Written October 19, 2016 by Kristin Swan