On the opening of her exhibition ‘Wounded Virtue’ at Dastan + 2 art gallery on December 25th 2015, The Tehran Time’s Arts and Culture editor Sam Samiee sat down with contemporary artist Farah Ossouli and discussed the gaps and bridges from her generation to ours.
S: Thank you Mrs. Osouli for giving us your time for this interview. I want to begin with a narcissistic question: what do you think about the generation that was born in the eighties?
F: I think it is very important that we make sense to people from your generation and vice versa. When I was nineteen or twenty, I had a lot of older friends, sometimes twenty years older. I loved to see them working in their profession, such as Mrs. Saberi, the director who I got to be friend when I was nineteen or Khosrow Khorshidi, scenographer and costume designer. They were cultured and experienced. I was curious about what they thought about each other’s works. Naturally as I grow older, I like to be in contact with the younger generation, and I have realised why they also would like to be in contact with me. Venturing attitude and fresh ideas, the new windows that open for you, or the view you have about the world: we were an idealist generation, you are the practical generation. It seems like you are our parents, sometimes you seem to be wiser than us at your younger age. We were not analysing things like you, we were following our feelings, excited, and sometimes completely against our interests. It was the hippies era, you know.
S: What do you think about your fellow generation who don’t agree with you about us? They say we are fashion victims, lost, or without any ideals.
F: There are differences among the younger generation, but they are all coming from one place, and are connected to the global scene via the internet. You are not in a country confined with borders anymore. When we were young one photograph from a war, or a film or an artwork could shake the world; but now many things that I see on social media are merely consumed products. I see and I pass, while it could have been valued as an important artwork back then. In this global competition, your generation sees their fellows all over the world. It was not the same for us, we wouldn’t care and we wouldn’t see them. We had an imagination and would act according to that. The global scene was also idealist: Che Guevara posters, or posters from Poland that would influence us profoundly. We would go to festivals to look at eastern European artworks. Now your generation has all the options and this can make everyday things a bit difficult and shallow for you, but on the other hand you have amazing resources that allows you to see the realities in it better. It is tougher and more chaotic; there are more competitors. You have no other option than being practical- how do you want to be idealist in such a world.
S: But shifting from that single narrative to pluralism has been the responsibility of your generation that has been both our parents and teachers. Teaching us how to live, even if the theory you believed in was not updated. How did you survive in both worlds? What has made you successful in this transition?
F: What has kept me busy has primarily been that idealism. My view on painting, thinking about Matisse and Picasso or many that had never been successful in the financial aspect (although Picasso is an exception) that has changed now. We went after painting in a very romantic way, and I still have the same feeling about it; love and melancholy at the same time. In art school I tried a lot of mediums, although back then they used to say you have to stick to one thing.
S: I remember a few years ago I saw a work of yours: you had depicted two kids in miniature, and illustrated bombs around it. How did you keep that hope while those bombs were falling?
F: I don’t know, it was very difficult, but it has been in me since I was a kid. Maybe because I grew up in a kind family. My parents were overtly kind. I used to think my dad comes out of fairy tales, it was unrealistic. I used to think all the rights are women’s because of my father’s kindness. Of course later I realized things were very different.
S: How about your mother?
F: She was like her family, very open minded and encouraging us to work. My aunt had studied art and had graduated from Decorative Arts Academy, another had studied translation, while my aunts from my father side were religious. One grandmother was among the first women who didn’t wear the hijab, while my other grandma would only show a triangle of her face. My grandmother was the school dean and my mom was teaching there too and they all had a great respect for art. I was never blamed for what I studied.
S: Tank magazine had written a magnificent text for The Tehran Times, saying that the shoulder-pad of manteaux in your generation changed things for our generation and I want to ask, how does that shoulder pad connect to your art practice?
F: Something interesting that had happened was that a lot of books were being circulated at the beginning of the revolution. I would go in front of The Tehran University and I would buy a full bag of books, spending all my money. Then the war began, and little by little things changed. We couldn’t find ourselves. I was confused. I remember I read a book by Viktor Frankl, Man’s search for meaning. This books rescued me. I realised I had to make a decision: do I want to stay in Iran? do I want to leave? Do I want to be hopeless? I decided to stay and do my work.
S: For meaning?
F: Yes, for meaning. The meaning that I was in love with Iran. I imagined myself asking myself what I do. I passed a very difficult ten years: galleries were closed, the museums were closed, there was a war and painting had become a very abstract subject. I was not among the established painters from before. I started to do painful commissions for graphic design work that normally I would have not done and throughout all those years I kept painting as well.
S: How can one with a sensibility for meaning and beauty find answers somewhere other than painting and art?
F: Well a part of it was to maintain my cash flow, the painting was there because it was important to me to continue painting. Two subjects were important to me: being a woman and being an Iranian. These two facts led me to pick up my way of working. I used to paint differently from how I paint now, then I picked up the form you see today.
S: What do you find in the ruins of our public fashion, if one can call it ruins?
F: Everywhere on earth certain things are imposed on people, in different ways. The Iranian girls who make themselves replicas of each other, also have a positive readership too: they say we choose what would be dictated to us.
S: What do you like to say to women in your generation? Those who maybe make art or would like to make?
F: Well I think women have their angle. If I paint the subject of motherhood it is different than a man painting it. He paints his mother. I paint my mother and myself. There is a different relationship to the subject. So they have to keep and work on that angle to explore it and open it up. This can make women’s situation and condition more understandable all around the world, so that both men and women can change their views on women. We are women but also mothers and wives and we are responsible for bringing up the next generation. Naturally when we are more educated and able, we can make the world a better place.
S: Arguably most of the discourses historically are perceived as masculine: mathematics, philosophy, politics, etc. except for fashion and textile. They have always been seen as a feminine discourse if also masculine. As a painter what do you think when you stand in front of a gorgeous vitrine, someone fashionable, or a person immersed in it?
F: It has two aspects: it can become a dictatorship on its own. This happens when people feel they have to follow something that is labelled fashionable. If they can’t have a mental option of wearing something old, if someone feels obliged to wear whatever someone else has designed in New York or Paris or London, I personally don’t like it. The other side of it is all the interesting products that can take many different directions. I saw this come to realization at The Met on Chinese designs: some works were almost like a sculpture, you couldn’t call it fashion only anymore.
S: So you approve of fashion when you can find a meaning in it, correct?
F: Yes, meaning that in fashion there is art. Fashion sometimes looses its function, but it’s still carrying something from one place to another. It moves and makes new things, which is very interesting.
S: What do you perceive first when you look at a fashion product? The cut or the fabric or the style or something else?
F: No it’s the general volume, I look at it as if it is a sculpture: its relation to the space, its relation to the body.
S: What do you like to be asked from you that you feel nobody asks?
F: Nothing comes to my mind at this moment. However my friends and I have had created a group called Dena, we produced twenty five shows outside of and five in Iran. The idea was also to go to other cities. I believed when we were there, whoever was the audience, whatever the works were, as soon as they saw a fifty year old that has painted and has lived, it would be an inspiration for the young audience.
S: Thank you very much dear Farah for your precious time.
The Tehran Times gives the opportunity to artists by providing them with complete autonomy to freely edit and review their interviews and to share them as they see fit with their vision. These premises has led our Art and Culture editor at large, Sam Samiee, to interview a few of Iran’s most celebrated contemporary artists, which will be published on our website in the upcoming months.
Photo credit: Ashkan Radnia