The Persian Paradox

Who says there’s not enough hours in a day? We chat to Mahsa Shamsaei, the incredible lady hard at work behind the scenes of Young Persian Artists (YPA). This movement is dedicated towards promoting the Iranian wave of contemporary art. In her spare time Mahsa works as a maritime lawyer in Geneva, Switzerland.

North: How would you describe this “new wave” of Persian art?

Mahsa: Art education in Iran still places great emphasis on the craft of making art. There is a deep respect for the basics of art-making: an idea, paint, canvas, and the will to make something beautiful. This does not mean that avant-garde art is not being made, it just means that often it looks different to what an audience is used to encountering. In my opinion, aesthetics are still relevant here.

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Selfies in the City, Romisa Sakaki, Berlin exhibition, 2016

I feel that works often recall surrealism. Due to issues of cultural and legal sensitivities, artists have become incredibly talented at saying what they need to say without causing offence or getting themselves into trouble. I feel that the surrealist undertones are very much rooted in the need to be subversive.

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Hope Dreams Desire, Berlin exhibition, 2015

By way of background, Iran is a country of paradox, contradictions, youth and history. Over 60 precent of Iran’s 80 million people are under 30 years old. They are tech-savvy, educated, and very much members of a globalised world. Often this does not sit comfortably with the realities of a country which (at least, economically) has been closed off to the rest of the world for over 35 years. The manifestations of these realities result in rich, complex artwork – studies of the human struggle in its most contemporary sense.

North: Are you yourself an artist?

Mahsa: Only in my mind’s eye.

North: Tell us a bit about how and why you came up with the concept for YPA? What did you hope to achieve?

Mahsa: I have been watching the art scene in Iran flourish ever since I attended high-school in Tehran in the late 90s. I went to a show at Golestan gallery in Tehran over a decade ago and saw work by one of my now favourite artists Samira Alikhanzadeh. I remember feeling frustrated that the incredible artwork wasn’t being seen elsewhere (and by a broader audience).

Some ten years later, my now husband Stephan purchased one of Samira’s works for me instead of an engagement ring – of course I said yes. Fast forward to two years, I finally found the guts to set up the YPA project. In summary, it is a non-for profit platform which I hope opens doors and lets people see the great art being made in Iran today, but also helps different people see how we share similar struggles. For me, art is very much about humans figuring themselves and their lives out. Often it’s a similar story for us all.

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Selfies in the City, Romisa Sakaki, Berlin exhibition, 2016 

North: Do you have other people working alongside you, or is it a solo act?

Mahsa: The YPA project has given me the chance to collaborate with some great people. In the first instance, the artists, of course. For the shows I worked with Open Walls gallery in Berlin for 2015 and 2016, and with AB Gallery in Lucern for a side show in 2015. The shows were very much a group effort made possible by support from my husband Stephan and my friend Maziyar Mehin who is based in Tehran (and works in the arts there). When it comes to the blogging, I do the writing myself but Stephan is my sounding board, second set of eyes and IT Helpdesk.

For me, art is very much about humans figuring themselves and their lives out. Often it’s a similar story for us all.

Zahra Shafie
Hopes, Dreams, Desire, exhibition in Berlin, 2015

North: What challenges have you faced at YPA and how have you overcome them?

Mahsa: For me, the biggest challenge is my day job. Art is my passion, but law is my profession. I don’t want to let any of the people I work with down, but at the same time I want the YPA to be what I think it can be. Dreaming about paintings while writing a deposition is a daily struggle so I’ve started parking my ideas in a funky little notebook for later development and interesting dinner-time conversations with Stephan and friends.

North: Is it difficult to source and contact Persian artists to contribute to this project when you’re living in Geneva?

Mahsa: The one thing which allows me to do this project is social media and the internet. This new generation of artists are very tech-savvy. This means I see and learn about their work online (then I visit them when I visit Iran – which I try to do as often as possible). I often conduct my interviews over Skype and have had the good fortune of speaking to artists in most of Iran’s bigger cities, but also in more far-flung locations like the port city of Bushehr.

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Selfies in the City, Romisa Sakaki, exhibition in Berlin, 2016

North: Describe your first pop-up exhibition in Berlin last year.

Mahsa: The first exhibition we did was Hopes Dreams Desire . All the work was produced especially for the show and in an effort to illustrate what this “new wave” of artists are seeking out. I am delighted to say it was a truly well received show. The diversity of visitors was staggering. We had musicians, students, children, artists, lawyers, doctors, shop-keepers, young, old, all sorts of visitors. What united them all, however, was their curiosity. I got the impression they found the show very moving and could relate to at least some of the work on show. It was fantastic for me to witness this.

Images courtesy of Mahsa Shamsaei. Check out the amazing YPA project and more Iranian art here.

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