The Art of Detente

On a wall in Boston, artist Mehdi Ghadyanloo is taking a quiet but historic step forward in U.S.-Iranian relations.

His fanciful mural on an air intake structure in Boston’s Dewey Square represents a first. Ghadyanloo, who has completed more than a hundred surrealistic murals in downtown Tehran, is the first Iranian artist to do work commissioned by municipal authorities in both Iran and the United States.

This exercise in mural diplomacy couldn’t come at a more opportune time. Iran is back in the news after Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential elections. The president-elect has promised, at the very least, to renegotiate the nuclear deal with Iran. The Republican-controlled Congress wants to impose new sanctions.

Quietly, however, the Obama administration has moved to build on the rapprochement initiated by the 2015 nuclear deal. In September, the Obama administration greenlighted a Boeing deal to sell commercial jets to Tehran. The Treasury Department also loosened the sanctions regulations to make it possible for foreigners to use dollars in transactions with Iran. And the administration wants to encourage more U.S. firms to do business in the country.

Still, Iran has complained that the United States has not done all that it promised to usher the country back into the global economy. And European allies, eager to push forward with a broader agenda of engagement with the country, have been dismayed at how Washington has focused its cooperation so narrowly on nuclear matters.

That’s what makes Mehdi Ghadyanloo’s recent U.S. tour so noteworthy. He knows nothing about nuclear weapons. His work isn’t political. But precisely because his utopian landscapes are so far from the worlds of nonproliferation and geopolitics, Ghadyanloo’s work opens up a window on what could be: a true detente in the relationship between Tehran and Washington akin to the sea change in U.S.-China relations in the 1970s. Just substitute murals for ping-pong.

Ghadyanloo’s murals are the perfect vehicles for such rapprochement. They are trompe l’oeil masterpieces that are full of hope. When the Tehran city authorities asked him 11 years ago to help beautify the city, Ghadyanloo submitted five designs to “start the imagination engine of the people,” as he puts it. The city accepted all five designs, and he went on to create more than 100 murals.

At the time, many walls in Tehran were covered with anti-American slogans or pictures of those killed in the Iran-Iraq war. Ghadyanloo was a child during that conflict. “I wanted to make brighter pictures that didn’t depict war scenes,” he says.

Most of his designs cover huge, windowless walls in congested, polluted Tehran. In one, a building accordions back to reveal the blue sky beyond. In another, a path seems to lead away from a busy street into a sunlit glade. Cars float in the air, bicyclists careen down the side of a building, a bouquet of balloons draws a child high into the air: Ghadyanloo creates the illusion of depth and beauty on flat, featureless expanses.

“You see a lot of bad news everywhere when you scroll through your social media,” Ghadyanloo says. “Public art can create a balance.”

The bright surfaces conceal some adversity. The economic sanctions are not abstract for the artist. They made it difficult for him to buy high quality paint. Art collectors have difficulty traveling to Iran. If someone does want to buy one of his works on canvas, it’s hard to transfer the money.

Five years ago, Ghadyanloo stopped doing murals in Tehran. “I was overproducing,” he confesses. “I need another five or 10 years to update my visual library.”

He has since focused on his works on canvas, which are often darker than his murals. Several paintings explore the impact of the downing of Iran Air Flight 655, a civilian jet downed by the U.S.S. Vincennes in 1988, which killed all 290 people on board. Ghadyanloo was 7 years old at the time. One of his canvases depicts a plane aloft without a cockpit, with 290 empty chairs beneath it.

“When I work in public, I feel responsible to people,” Ghadyanloo says. “I check my designs with my mom and ask if she wants to see my work on the wall. Public art should be positive. You’re basically forcing people to see artwork on the street. They’re not voluntarily entering a gallery. You can’t paint a sinkhole in public. It can be in a museum and people can ignore it.”

Ghadyanloo’s murals are so popular in Tehran that they have inspired many imitators, which the artist finds flattering, though most of them are not up to his standards. These imitations are another reason he has been focusing on his studio work.

But the prospect of doing a mural in a different city in another country gets his creative juices going. When the Boston wall became available, he leaped at the opportunity. Part of the city’s Greenway Conservancy, the same wall has featured work by internationally renowned artists Lawrence Weiner and Shinique Smith.

While completing his latest mural in Boston, Ghadyanloo took a break from the work to visit Washington, D.C. to talk with curators, artists and policy professionals. He looks forward to creating art in the nation’s capital.

“I think people in every corner of the world, no matter if they are American or Iranian, are all similar,” he says. “We feel love, hope and fear, and this is the key to public art internationally.”

US News and World Report, December 15, 2016


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