Love, longing and loss

October 3, 2021

Hossein Valamanesh’s art oscillates between materials, sensibilities and concepts

Love, longing and loss

‘Where do you come from?’ was the question asked by an elegantly-clad English lady to a young Pakistani artist, installing his solo exhibition at a London Gallery in 1994. To which, he cheekily, responded, ‘from the Royal College of Art’. But that query remained stuck to every ‘outsider’ in the mid 90s, because non-whites were expected to disclose their identities at every point of entry.

One is not sure if the situation, and the inquiries are still there, but Hossein Valamanesh’s work Where Do You Come from? reminds one of a sentence many travellers, workers, and migrants encounter in this global world. For centuries, people were residing in their homelands, continuing with their family professions, following their ancestors’ examples in attire, language, food, etc. However, with the advent of the 20th Century, the phenomenon of moving from one place, profession, practice became a major factor. Hence ‘where do you come from’ is as existentialist a concern as ‘to do or not to do’.

Today, not only an immigrant but everyone is pondering over this phrase. Because even if we have never left our address, we may become aliens in our familiar settings – for belonging to a minority sect, gender, ethnicity and ideology. Actually, the real question ingrained in the initial one is: ‘Why are you different? Why are you trespassing’? A question creative individuals often receive from the public.

An artist, after forsaking his style, medium, vocabulary and his land of origin too, invokes a range of reactions. One can identify with Hossein Valamanesh’s title, because the Iranian born has been living and working in Australia since 1973, so probably he – as Rushdie observes that a writer’s home is his language – belongs to his art.

His art is the habitual traveller between materials, sensibilities and concepts. In Since Everything Passes, his first major museum exhibition in Europe (at the Institut des Cultures d’Islam, Paris), works from 1985 to 2021 are on display from September 23, 2021 to February 13, 2022. In 1993, Valamanesh had an exhibition in Pakistan too. His one-person show was held at the National College of Arts (NCA) Gallery Lahore.

A few pieces from Lahore are now part of the Paris exhibition, which offers a rare opportunity to decipher his approach towards matters external and internal, as some works are imbued with the writings of Rumi.

Not only the verses of a 13th Century Persian mystic poet, but other Farsi phrases seem significant for Valamanesh. We believe that we are born in, and belong to a country, but in reality, it is the language which delivers us to this world, our mother tongue. Language, particularly, is crucial for a person who moved out of his homeland, because catching any sound of conversation, or shred of text in his rarely used language brings back the entire country, history, literature, music, even the landscape. Language is as deeply rooted as a tree, which keeps on growing, most often internally. Thus two of Valamanesh’s works, both in bronze, Don’t Say Anything, 2004, and This Will Also Pass, 2012, are composed of Persian letters, but fabricated by joining twigs.

Traditionally, script was inscribed employing part of a tree or plant (reed pen, or some sharpened branch). Valamanesh shapes his letters through a natural substance; turns them almost into an oracle, a sacred message if we translate – not only from the Persian language, but Iranian culture, too. His titles - about not speaking, and hope for a phase to pass - somehow relate to an oppressive atmosphere, with censorship, and repressions of all kinds. The bronze sculpture Don’t Say Anything, reminds of Mo Yan, the adopted name of Chinese Nobel laureate, the writer from another closed society. Mo Yan literally means ‘don’t speak’.

Love, longing and loss

The separation of self can happen by migration, but it is also possible in the realm of imagination, fantasy and desire. 

A few other works allude to the situation in his distant and abandoned home country, like Daily Bread (1995), in which a traditional flat bread, outline of a man’s torso and a black burqa are placed on the wall, with some stone pieces at the gallery floor. The work, if on the one hand indicates the economic conditions/pressures, it also echoes the Mexican author, Juan Villoro, observing that “the taste of bread depends on freedom”.

There are clear political references to what he left behind, but what has not left him. His preference for ordinary things relates to Arte Povera, the Italian art movement about using poor, mundane, and discarded material; at the same instant, it is about the process of recollection. While walking, you may pick some leaves, pebbles, tiny things that fancy you, bits of driftwood, shells, all which once removed from initial surroundings, acquire new meaning and identity; and remind of a location far from where they ended up accidentally. Our memories are also like bric-a-brac, which we store from different venues, scenarios and encounters, and which, away from their source, assume a separate character, an identity for us.

The presence of material in Valamanesh’s art is just not an excursion with variant possibilities, but these substitute the formation of personal, and cultural pasts. Through these he “interweaves the contexts between Iran and Australia”, his twin homelands. The motif of duality appears in a number of works, like Lovers from 1996, with two male shirts joined, or Subdivision (1989) of a man’s silhouette on a sheet of corrugated iron casting a shadow of traditional geometric patterns. The split of self, into an alter ego, or a shadow from another culture, is a feeling repeatedly experienced in a world made of displaced humans, information, goods, technologies, and maps.

Valamanesh extends this idea through a map of the world on a fabric, Where Do You Come From? 2013, or Char Soo 2015, a 4-channel video projection in collaboration with Nassiem Valamanesh, recording a historic bazaar in Iran with men and women in their identifiable attire. ‘Char Soo’, means everywhere, literally four directions, so for the artist, this view envelopes the image of a society known for being religious, regressive, restrictive, and repressive, but there are other split identities, for instance Iran before 1979 Revolution – or prior to 1973, the year he left the Near East.

The separation of self can happen by migration, but it is also possible in the realm of imagination, fantasy and desire. One can experience it in Valamanesh’s Seven Steps (2009), an installation of a wooden ladder stuck to an acrylic mirror, continuing its length, the other half. This artwork illustrates displacement, as does his digital print Nesting, 2005. The upside down torso of a man on the branches of a tree. The nest was made not of straw but in the form of a human being. A solution as transitory, troublesome and tiresome as the photograph of a Persian carpet burning (Longing, Belonging, 1997), the flame caught in the centre of a conventional rug amid a landscape that can be from everywhere, Iran, Australia, France, Pakistan, UAE, Africa and the Americas.

The flame visible in the Longing, Belonging is still in the heart and mind of every migrant, no matter if his reasons are political, economic, religious, cultural, or just random. The amazing aesthetics of Valamanesh is like the structure/tone of Persian poetry; it is subtle, mild and endowed with layers of meanings. However, the artist does not possess a passport to a national past (as favoured by many from the lands of ancient civilisations), because he deals with ideas like love, longing and loss, which move beyond borders. Visible in his 1993 work constructed of silk and electric motor, The Lover Circles His Own Heart, a mechanical reincarnation of whirling dervishes from Konya, Turkey. Like this ‘figure’, we are all on the move: physically, virtually, geographically, perpetually. Hence, we are connected to the art and life of Hossein Valamanesh – and with him, at more than one place, simultaneously, miraculously, marvellously.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

Love, longing and loss