Closed circuit history

Oppressors and oppressed through the eyes of Ardeshir Mohassess

Pen and ink explosions of the "forbidden" impossible in words

Comedy and satire have always been instruments to criticise society and its rulers. Under dictatorial and totalitarian regimes in particular, laughter is a means of bypassing censorship, or worse fates. Iran is no exception.

With Islam forbidding the depiction of human form, figurative art in Iran developed to a lesser extent than language. The word was the main weapon for criticism, and because of its directness, the most dangerous. Laughter and satire in prose and poetry helped disguise biting criticism. The powerful, whether mullah or ruler, were put under the magnifying glass of ridicule in the witty tales of Obeid Zakani, through the mouth of the "simpleton" Molla Nasreddin, the song-spiel of the seemingly ignorant joker Haji Firuz (painted black for added security) [1], and the hundreds of jokes passed from mouth to mouth in taxis, bread queues and street corners. Even revolutionary slogans were often dressed up in satire. [2]

The pictorial too has been put to use for the same purpose: earlier in some miniature paintings and more recently in the "coffee house" school of painting. These depicted scenes from both religious and folk epics such as the Shahnameh (Book of Kings), Amir Arsalan and the martyrdom of Islamic saints (such as Imam Hossein) [3]. The cruelty of rulers, the innocents being wronged and the vindication of the just are common themes.

Ardeshir Mohassess was influenced by all these. He also admits to being inspired by 19th century painter Sani el-Molk and other paintings in the Qajar period [4], and to love for Giacometti, Bosch, Bruegel, and Daumier [5]. And more than anything the word: "I think the influence of literature on my works has been even more – especially Becket’s Waiting for Godot". His works have been likened to that of Goya [6], the American Ben Shan, Steinberg or Max Ernst [7]. He works in the tradition of Otto Dix whose biting satire and sharp eye for the barbarity of the rulers, but also the failing of the ruled, has great affinity with Mohassess – although I have no evidence that the latter has seen any of Dix’s works.

No limb, no head, long nosed

Iran’s best known cartoonist and satirist was born on September 9, 1938 in the northern city of Rasht. His father was a lawyer and his mother a headmistress of the first school for women in that city – a post she occupied at the amazingly tender age of 14. His maternal grandmother painted at home. He began drawing when aged 3 [8] and published his first cartoon in 1951 in the comic-satirical paper Towfigh. He went to Law School and was later employed as a librarian in the Ministry of Housing and Construction. He resigned "after I had read most of the books [in the library] because I feared becoming addicted to a monthly salary"

He then began to draw, unpaid at first, for the daily newspaper Keyhan. Favourable reviews by Jalil Ziapour and by the poet Ahmad Shamlu [9] in 1963 helped launch his reputation. He was 24. He had his first exhibition in 1967, published his first anthology Cactus in 1971 and soon afterwards Puppets [10].

The Shah’s secret service SAVAK became suspicious of his popularity. They began to see a reference to torture of political prisoners in Ardeshir’s headless, or limbless figures. He responded by drawing men and women with several heads and many limbs. They saw caricatures of the Shah in his figures with a big nose. They even thought the dates at the bottom of some drawings are coded messages for the number of executions in the Shah’s prisons. They asked him to put captions under his cartoons to prevent misunderstanding. And finally they showed his works to the Shah who demanded an explanation form the Keyhan editor, ad then ordered him "don’t print what you don’t understand". Thereafter while the Shah ruled Mohassess had difficulty in getting more than a handful of works published [11].

Ardeshir himself says that his headless or limbless figures were inspired by the religious imagery of the Coffee House school which included qessass punishment [an eye for an eye], while the circus was the inspiration for the figures flying here and there. In those years he just sketched and sketched, outside schools, in cabarets, in café table, insistently, persistently.

In 1973 he began work with the New York Times, and in June of that year he visited France for six months at the invitation of Jeune Afrique [12]. Since 1977 he has lived in the United States. He continues to contribute to New York Times, exhibit, publish [13], illustrate some books [14], and comment on contemporary affairs such as the Iran-Iraq war and Afghanistan. Increasingly working in colour – water colour and crayon – he uses collages of his old works based on the Qajar painters.

Revolution

Ardeshir’s depiction of the revolution typifies his world view. He uses pictures to transport the viewer to where words cannot. His caricatures are "explosions of the "forbidden" which are at present impossible in words" [15]. With an eye that is "sharp and ruinous in a few simple lines he recounts, or lays bare, a social-historical-cultural topic and forces one to think. Mohassess penetrates the heart of the affairs and subjects – where life pulsates" [16].

Above all Ardeshir’s acute eye observes and confronts power. Power in its various guises. Again and again he opens up the historically interminable link between religion and power – a link that transcends time as it transcends specific religions. In his drawings he shows how this historic partnership was no accident, nor was it an invention of the Iranian revolution. At times this partnership is so intense that the institutions of power and religion become indistinguishable [17]. Yet most people fail to notice it and have little or no insight into this relationship despite its "critical role in social contracts, the system of production, ordinary day-to-day life, beliefs and values, and also culture and literature". Without dismembered bodies, limbs, heads order cannot be maintained [18].

It is in relation to power, that Mohassess lays bare not just the oppressor, but also the oppressed. This latter appears in the vision of the Islamist revolutionary who has broken from his bonds and marches forwards fist clenched, but with eyes blindfolded. He shows him defending himself with the scimitar from a screaming mulla, but without body or head. In these and related pictures Mohassess encounters the other issue of revolutions: what Michael Brown has called the "complexities of the relationship between victim and oppressor" [19].

Ardeshir’s images are complex. His is not a simple cartoon. A whole history is depicted in those few dashes of ink on paper – his favourite medium. He insists that we understand the roots of oppression. Look carefully, and the general or the mulla is trampling on someone. But Ardeshir also asks us not to view the victim as an object of pity or nostalgia.

What he does, is to confront us with the image of the victim-rebel as an agent of change, but an agent that needs to know where he or she is going if he or she is to change society. Ardeshir’s images is his way of saying that the revolution in Iran gave a big no to what it did not want, but was unclear on where it wanted to go. The revolution became a victim of that ignorance that could not see the historic links between power and religion. The revolutionary clenching his fist with one hand clutching the crutch with the other, is as much the victim of his own illusion, as he is of the Iraqi minefield.

But I think Mohassess goes beyond a depiction of a mass illusion towards the Islamic revolution. He is addressing all revolutions, or for that matter all change. Again and again he is expressing a more universal truth for revolutions, telling us to shun certainties – or the blindfolded revolutionary will not overcome the oppression of the mullah or the Shah, or tradition. As Michael Brown observes "Ardeshir attacks the unself-critical sentimentalism and romanticism which so often leads to a politics that resembles what it opposes, that knows nothing but power and betrays its own critical insight to hubris and unreflective optimism". His recent return to images of the 19th century and the use of collages of his old works based on the Qajar painters is an expression of the essential sameness of the roots, and appearances, of oppression in Iran.

Women

Ardeshir is particularly sensitive to women, when he was drawing schoolgirls coming out of school, the dancers in the Laleh Zar café-bars, or in their relations with men. Talking to Katayoun Bigleri, Ardeshir admitted that women "had a major influence", and "the status and position of women, and their emotional manifestations from Qajar times onwards are evident and obvious in my works".

You can see this love in the innocent eyes of the women sat upon by mullahs, or in chain. He shows when he ridicules the lustful misogynist ranting of the religious teachings of the 15th Century Majlessi whose books are central to the beliefs of Shi’ite clergy in Iran today.

But also note that the women being ridden, chained or otherwise abused usually have the face and are clothed in the attire of the Qajar times. It is as if nothing has changed in the last hundred years. He explains this time warp – when it comes to women - with humour in his illustration to the Marriage Code (one of the first works he did ) first published in 1963 with an introduction by the poet Ahmad Shamlu [20]. There he satirises the code, so deeply embedded in shari’a laws, where a women is essentially owned by the man for his sexual fulfilment. That was the civil code in the time of the Shah. That remains the civil code now. And it is rooted in centuries-old religious law. Nothing fundamental has changed for women where it really counts: in the home, in inheritance laws, in ownership of property, and also in the ownership of their bodies. The Code is clear on this point. They can keep control of their bodies only on condition they renounce nafagheh (subsistence) by their husband. For most women no nafagheh means no roof, no right to children, and even no food.

Yet Ardeshir’s women are not blindfold. Their large eyes see the injustice, and the real oppression. His women are not just victims. They are also shown smiling, dancing making love, sometimes in an inversion of the polygamy increasingly practised in Iran today, with more than one man. Or is he here inverting the Islamic view that when it comes to giving witness, or inheriting, or even being murdered [21] a woman is half a man?

In these and other pictures, Mohassess shows another aspect of his personality, his eroticism. His social criticism is often tinged with eroticism, as it was in the stories of Obeid Zakani, or more recent social critics. "Eroticism is an important element in my works" he admits, but "the eroticism seen in my works is an Indian and Iranian eroticism which I have incorporated in my style" [22].

Seasoned rake

Some of the images, and symbolism of Mohassess will be inevitably lost on the non-Iranian observer. They should, however, recall that Ardeshir is commenting on a country which puts a two and a half million dollar price on the head of a writer from another country, Salman Rushdie, for a perceived religious affront. This is a country who pictures people on its postage stamps who have cut off the head of intellectuals whose only crime was to look more deeply into history, where numerous writers are murdered for daring to ask for a writers association and for an end to censorship. He is also drawing in a society rotten to its very core [23] and also highly conservative in its tastes.

In such a society Ardeshir’s sharp eye misses nothing from "the monarch’s crown and the courts of the Qujar and Pahlavi dynasties, to a mouse poking its head out of a hole, to the man of turban and sharia’ forever sponging off others, to the dismembering of humans. … He is there at every moment of life [24]. Look carefully and you will see that when "someone has drawn a sword, without doubt a human being is dying under his boots. … Savages dressed up as kings and mullahs, night watchmen, and victorious DUSAGHBAN; aggressive individuals who chew at the throat of others, who tear humans limb from limb and in their spare time continue to violate others." [25] For him the cartoon is not just a tool for comedy.

Indeed "the caricature has entered the arena, shroud tied round its neck and sword in hand, with a face burnt by fire and smoke, a mouth filled with blood from the blows of fists and rifle butts, and a contorted face so metamorphosed by pain that it has totally lost any resemblance to the joker and party jester of a few decades ago [26]. The caricaturist "is a seasoned rake who punishes society for being funny [27]. As Yevtushenko said "a good artist is deadly in a bad society". If the cartoons of Ardeshir Mohassess make you laugh, you are only laughing at your own folly.

Mehdi Kia, March 1999

Footnotes

1. The black-faced Haji Firuz, a character who goes round in the Iranian new year, and the illiterate, and apparently ignorant, black servant in the ru-howzi (literally on top of the pond) popular plays were often vehicles for biting social commentary.

2. Marching revolutionary crowds ridiculed prime minister General Azhari’s claim that the nightly chants from rooftops were mere cassettes relayed through loudspeakers. They chanted in rhyme: "Azhari you idiot! Still claiming it is a cassette tape? There are no feet in cassette tapes". Or, in answer to tear gas grenades shouted "It’s our own oil money, throw us another!"

3. Epic poetry of Ferdowsi (721 AD) is graphically recited in coffee houses. Amir Arsalan is a long epic story written in the 19th Century. The martyrdom of the third Imam, and grandson of Mohammad, and his immediate family and friends is mourned each year in the Arabic month of Muharram. In addition to processions, the martyrdom is depicted in plays known as Ta’zieh.

4. Painter of the Qajar period (1796-1915)

5. Interview with Katayoun Bigleri, translated by Majid Rowshangar. In Book Review (Barressi-ye Ketab) fourth year no 15, edited by Rowshangar 1992.

6. Michael Brown. Ardeshir Mohassess. An appreciation. Rowshanai no 9, USA November 1989.

7. Mohassess. Microcosmos, Graphic Design no 53, Tokyo 1974. See also Graphic Design no 44, 1971

8. Interview with Morteza Negahi, Simorgh Magazine, California, USA no75-76, 1998.

9. Keyhan Weekly, April 21, 1963

10. Cactus: Daftarha-ye Zamaneh 1971 with an introduction by Karim Zamani and Puppets: with an introduction by Ali-Asghar Haj Seyed Javadi, Toos publications Teheran 1971

11. Eyewitness of the Iranian Revolution. Graphic Design no 81, 1981.

12. See Jeune Afrique nos 672 & 688 Paris, 1973

13. Puppets, introduction by Wendy Coyl. San Fransisco: Carolyn Bean Publishing 1977; Closed Circuit History, introduction by Ramsey Clarke. Mage Publishers, Washington DC 1989; How one can be an Iranian. Bernard Barold Paris 1988; Life in Iran, introduction by Bernard Riley, US Congress Library – with the assistance of Mage, 1994; Simorgh, special issue on Ardeshir Mohassess nos 75-76 edited by Morteza Mir-Aftabi 1998

14. Obeide Zakani Cat and Mouse; Sadegh Hedayat Nirangestan and Tuppe Morvarid.

15. Khosrow Golesorkhi quoted in H Rad, Rowshanai, ibid

16. Morteza Mir-Aftabi. Simorgh ibid

17. H. Rad, Rowshanai bid

18. H. Rad ibid

19. Michael Brown. Ardeshir Mohassess. An appreciation. Rowshanai, ibid.

20. Keyhan Weekly, April 21, 1963

21. The "blood money" for a murdered woman is half that of a man. If a man murders a woman, before he can be executed the victim’s family have to pay half her blood money to the killer!

22. interview with Katayoon Bigleri ibid

23. Morteza Mir-Aftabi – Simorgh ibid

24. Morteza Mir-Aftabi, ibid

25. Morteza Mir-Aftabi, ibid

26. Ahmad Shamlu. Shroud on shoulders, sword in hand. Simorgh ibid

27. Ahmad Shamlu, Keyhan Weekly ibid