Visual Arts Iran

Beautifying Tehran With Surreal Street Art; Interview with Mehdi Ghadyanloo

Saeed Valadbaygi
Written by Saeed Valadbaygi
  • Your murals cover over a 100 walls in Tehran. What attracted you to painting murals? Was it a desire to reach a particular kind of audience, the medium itself, or something else?

Tehran was grey. When I looked at its walls, as a graduate of the arts, I saw them to be lifeless and rigid. It was ten years ago.  Then came a call by the city’s Organization of Beautification [an affiliate of the municipality]. They were inviting artists to collaborate with them. Given my training in painting, illustration, and drawing caricatures, I thought that I could bring some of this to bear on the walls; that this was an opportunity to begin painting murals. And so this is what I began to focus on. My first objective was to bring color to the city: offering some relief—if only for a few seconds—to the residents of this grey city. I also wanted to experience painting on a larger scale.

  • These murals are often considerable in size, spanning the entire façade of a building.  How are the buildings selected, and what role does the municipality play?

It was collaborative. The municipality suggested some of these walls, and others were selected by me. I used to walk around the city with my camera for hours, taking pictures of the walls and people that I thought would be suitable for painting. I used to sit in front of these blank walls and sketch. I’d often piece together the image right there, trying to picture its full effect on the wall.

  • Let’s talk aesthetic.  The scenes in these murals are surreal; featuring Escher-like dimensions and uncanny juxtapositions.  What led you to work in this style, and what about it do you find so compelling? What does it allow you to do?

The idea was to create art that people would find appealing, without sputtering out visual pollution in the city. There was a lot to get right: the perspective, the angles of shadows, the height of the horizon relative to people on the street, the architecture and urban area. That said, most of these works were painted over five years (from when I started ten years ago), and given that Tehran’s surfaces and its people’s sensibilities are constantly shifting, perhaps these works aren’t suitable for this city anymore. In terms of their content, I was really drawn to creating images of suspended spaces and frames that allow for multiple narratives; situating the viewer such they can follow any one of several storylines.

  • Your recent paintings on canvas (the Perception series) extend this surrealist vision. But I feel that there is a greater sense of angst about them as well. Is there a common theme between these paintings?

Painting in Tehran requires a lot of focus and caution. It’s been four years since I’ve painted murals in Tehran. Perhaps I just I can’t focus on beautification the way I used to; maybe this is why. The audience isn’t on my mind when I paint [on canvas]. In the Perception series you can feel angst, confusion, endless repetition, the abandon of modern humanity, fear and hope. The subjects of the paintings are alike: small in comparison to their frame of mind, preoccupied and hopeful. They’ve been set into motion by a common concern, the fears and hopes they share has them talking to another. They’re philosophical in their approach. The literary equivalent to these paintings, I think, might be the works of Milan Kundera and Romain Gary. Their contents have been shaped by my past and present life in the Middle East: like my childhood years, which were witness to the war between Iran and Iraq [1980-1988].

  • You have recently started painting murals in London as well. Are you approaching these differently than your works in Tehran? Is the content of a work supposed to relate to its social surroundings?

The mural in London that I painted—We Didn’t Start the Game—was intended as a continuation of the works on display at the gallery (the Perception series). That wall hosts the work of urban artists from all over the world, and features a new one every month. In terms of form and aesthetic, [this mural] was perhaps the darkest that I’ve painted, and I consider it to be my personal favorite from among all the murals I’ve ever painted.

  • Like most cities, the streets in Tehran also feature the work of underground artists. And also like most cities, the municipality is less likely to regard these works as “beautification”. What are your thoughts on this underground art scene in Tehran?

You can find a lot of interesting graffiti in Tehran today. Its creative depth—the very substance of this work—is based on its independence and counter-normative nature.

About the author

Saeed Valadbaygi

Saeed Valadbaygi

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