Everything we know from history has been delivered to us through narrative. A historical composition is invented by the historian. The qualifications of the historian might range from an educated scholar to an everyday person passing on a bit of information they received from a book. Regardless of qualification, the historian as a storyteller frames historical information by selecting and ordering a set of details. Both the narrator and the audience have finite senses and a finite capacity to receive information, so needless to say, the historian’s framing of select information is by its nature incomplete. This incomplete picture of the actual event narrated by the historian is not necessarily less true. Rather, it’s the historian’s job to select and organize information in such a way that the part can reveal the whole. My purpose for laboring over this synecdochic notion is to make the point that history is relative. And it is this idea of relativity that allows room for interpretation and presentation.
The artist can exploit this notion of relativity through creative expression to such an extreme that the initial impression the audience has with the artwork might not register any historical connection. The work might be so obscure that relevant information such as names, dates, figures, and environment are represented as intellectual concepts manifest in abstract forms. In this case, history is projected through materialized forms rather than project a specific message in order to engender conversation among the audience. Visual art engages our senses to not only contemplate the past, but to emotionally perceive history. The names, dates, figures, and settings are relevant and provide context, but a strong sensory experience serves as to fill in those subjective details that one narrator could not possibly compose.
There is an element in history that the artist will usually harness in order to bridge the audience with the past: recurrence. History might be outlined along a linear scale, but historical narrative is cyclical in nature. Historians often relate past events with contemporary society by revealing repetition of themes tracked throughout time. The historian’s responsibility is to repeat history through narrative so that the audience can learn from society’s past mistakes or achievements. The artist has the advantage to convey history in a creative way that contemporary audiences may understand and assimilate such lessons.
Pouya Ashfar recently exhibited Out of Character at The Space by Advocartsy in downtown Los Angeles. The exhibition featured 30 artworks depicting historical Iranian personalities that shaped culture and politics. These historic figures are rendered as characterizations. This animated style contrasts the stories and figures they represent. But recalling what was previous discussed, the function of art is to generate both a psychological and emotional reaction to provoke conversation. Even in writing a historian might choose to lean more toward storytelling than bombarding the reader with a succession of facts and dates. Such immersion in storytelling provides context for the reader to assimilate information. The works of Out of Character take a similar approach by stylizing history in a contemporary façade that communicates through the colloquial dialect of modern culture.
Strangely, the exaggerations of physical characteristics in Ashfar’s shahs, empresses, and politicians quite literally animate their presence. Life is growing and transforming over time. By taking these figures out of the static past and displacing them in the present with a contemporary makeover, they are infused with life’s essential element of transformation. They are no longer one-dimensional historical figures. And yet, they embody all the mystery and nostalgia we wish we could touch from the past. This exchange brings these personalities into our world while placing us in theirs. The fault of realism in depicting historical figures is that although it provides an illusion of a figure’s presence, their world is incapable of entering our contemporary space and therefore the audience stands at a distance. Afshar’s animations eliminate that boundary by integrating the past into the present. This cyclical experience that transcends time and space allows the audience to learn the lessons that history and our present situation is offering. And what better way to understand this cyclical nature than through revolution!
I briefly spoke with Pouya Afshar at the closing reception for Out of Character. Standing before his work, Iranian Constitutional Revolution, he said these words:
Pouya Afshar: The reason it’s an important piece for this exhibition, per se, is because it’s about artists recording the stories and history. Right now, the country (Iran) is going through a lot of commotion. A lot of shenanigans are happening. In a sense, it’s a replica of this time. It looks like the country is resetting again.
There is a saying that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. How do you see that apply here?
For myself, it’s going back and reading the stories and looking at the facts and seeing where we are going as a country today. And then it gives me a better perspective. When we start talking about these characters and about what they did and how things concluded with each of them, it can be the start of the conversation with the audience, and then that conversation will end up with them educating themselves and trying to see the similarities.
How did you select the characters? Is there any relationship with how you arranged them?
The arrangement is not important. But these are the pioneers. Some of them were pivotal characters against the constitutional revolution. I picked the most important characters. The rest of the pieces in the exhibition, they are minor characters that had minor goals in this whole narrative.
What initiated the concept for this painting? Was it reading back on history or was it you seeing things today and then going back in history?
They exist in a parallel universe for me. It’s noticing them so that they don’t become some character that existed at some time and that’s it. Learning from them. Learning from what they did and their narrative and seeing what we can do to improve things.
When you were creating this, obviously you knew your audience. But there are also Western and non-Iranian people who are receiving this work. Is there anything you have in mind that you wanted to convey to them?
The fun part about this is every culture, every society, has this similar narrative that it can go back to. Yesterday, I was talking about the Watts Riots with someone my age who didn’t grow up here. So I’m setting a spark in him to go back and see what happened. Because he wanted to go and see Beverly Hills and he wanted to see Watts, and they are miles apart. If you don’t know the background story of what happened, you’re not going to have a good grasp.
As you were speaking I just started thinking about American politics and the constitutional crisis we’re in.
Exactly. I have the monarchs (paintings). It’s not exactly important to know who they are. But what they did has a piece of the puzzle that creates our history as collective memory for us Iranians. I see a president as a monarch these days. It’s the same thing. What they did and how they will be perceived later on is important to me. Or sometimes it’s retailing their stories. These three characters (pointing to women characters) there isn’t much about them, but they are pioneers. I’m giving them a new façade, almost. I’m reading about them and retelling the story. Hopefully, I’m conveying some personality so people can become interested and read about them.
Title image: Pouya Afshar, Jafar Tales, 2019