Iranian art is an hors d’oeuvre that Galerie Huit is offering for a taste test
Yas Mostashari Chang was slightly taken aback to hear that this interview was going to lead to her being called a “tastemaker”.
“I don’t believe in taste-making,” she says. “I think art is very subjective. There’s no such thing as good art or bad art, and, as the years pass, my taste changes.”
So let’s just say that Galerie Huit’s new exhibition, “A Postcard from Persia”, is an example of gallery cuisine: an appetite teaser. It was put together in six weeks, she says – “just as a taste”. Mostashari Chang, who was born in Tehran in 1973 and is one of Galerie Huit’s four directors, has a plan: to present a summertime hors-d’oeuvre to the city from five contemporary Iranian artists, assess the public’s appetite and then provide more substantial meals.
It’s good timing. For the past few years, Iranian contemporary art has been moving to the forefront of buyers’ minds, not least in Iran itself; last month, an auction of modern and contemporary Iranian art in Tehran made almost twice what had been estimated, and a work by the late poet and artist Sohrab Sepehri became the most expensive painting ever sold in the country. It went for about HK$6.5 million.
(To put that in a more local context, Zeng Fanzhi’s Last Supper was sold at auction here in 2013 for HK$180 million.)
You won’t see anything close to either price level at Galerie Huit, where the show’s works start at about HK$50,000 and the most expensive is HK$250,000. “I believe art is for everyone, not just the privileged few,” says Mostashari Chang. “Iranian contemporary art is quite inexpensive compared with Chinese contemporary art. Iranian artists still want to cater for Iranians at home. For a moderate investment, one can put together a very serious collection. We didn’t even think about the price; it just happens to be reasonable.”
The title of the exhibition isn’t, strictly, accurate: only two of the five artists live in Iran, and Persia, of course, no longer exists. Yet the very word has connotations of a place, and a past, that may have disappeared but has left behind cultural ripples with an enduring relevance to the country’s diaspora. If anything, in some cases, the show is a postcard to Persia.
Darvish Fakhr’s work, for instance, even to an untutored outsider, looks like nostalgia written on canvas. Power Lines Through Fasham shows a mountainous scene in Tehran province; what you feel is the hum of absent people.
Fakhr, who was born in Canada and studied art in Boston in the US and London, now lives in Brighton, England, and his artistic sense has been moulded in the West. One of his works, a nine-panel portrait of dancer Akram Khan – himself a product of the Bangladeshi diaspora – is in the permanent collection of London’s National Portrait Gallery; and it was a BP travel award in 2004 that enabled him to explore Iran (which is strangely apt as BP started commercial life in 1908 as The Anglo-Persian Oil Company).
Another one of Fakhr’s painting, Tamiz, shows a woman on a ladder scrubbing graffiti from a wall. Tamiz is the verb “to clean” in Farsi. You don’t see the woman’s face, nor do you see the whole woman in his Ripped Khanoon, a painting of a poster that’s, literally, been defaced. “Not for political reasons,” explains Mostashari Chang, who’s keen to make it clear that the show has no political agenda. “It’s about the city cleaning itself.”
It’s also about layers, which are also a theme in Ali Esmaeilipour ’s series entitled Immigrants. In 1997, he won the Artist Award at the 4th Biennale at Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art; the following year, he went to Singapore, and he’s been there ever since. “In his collages, you can see traces of him being Iranian,” says Mostashari Chang. “His experiences are of it as home but not home – a view from outside the country.”
That’s also her experience. “Home” is a word she uses more often than perhaps she realises. She has lived in Iran, Canada, London – where she studied architecture and met her Hong Kong-born, fund manager husband, Chechung Chang – and Shanghai. When they married in 2007, it was a three-city wedding, and the main event was in Istanbul. They’re both children of peripatetic parents, and they’ve learned to hop globally from branch to branch like the birds in Mohsen Jamlinik’s charming work in the show. (He, ironically, is one of the two artists who haven’t left Iran.)
The Changs came to Hong Kong in 2010. “It’s the first time since I left London that another city is becoming home,” she says. But when she talks about her own collection of Iranian art, sourced on trips there, she says: “It felt like bringing back a piece of home.” She particularly likes the continuing conversation of calligraphy: “For me, I see it and it talks to me.”
Is Hong Kong an ideal market for such work? “Hong Kong is gaining momentum in the contemporary art world, so it’s natural to bring this link,” she says. She’s not sure what size the Iranian community is here (“very small, the smallest community I’ve known”) so she can’t necessarily rely on any exiled longings for art. But perhaps a transient background, the nebulous notion of home and the search for identity will strike a particular chord with residents and visitors here.
“I’m not a curator – yet,” she says, “but we have a very good team at Galerie Huit.” Having been an architect, she says, has given her a sense of art. So she’s going to build on that. “I’d like to get more involved with artists, nurture them. You have to believe in the artists you’re showing. As we move forward, I’d like to see how we settle.”
“A Postcard from Persia”, Galerie Huit, G/F & 1/F, shop 2, Soho 189, 189 Queen’s Road West, Sheung Wan. Ends on August 5