Far beyond his sensational account of women's world prevalent in his single-figure signature work, Heading towards New York is a rather unusual and outstanding painting by Afshin Pirhashemi in which the female figures are not standing still, but forcefully staring at the beholder. An ever-increasing number of blindfolded women, back dropped by a cloudy sky that hints at a worrying climate, are going towards a destination that is marked by the Statue of Liberty, hence seemingly New York. The repeating women are in eastern black dresses ornamented by Persian calligraphy and the scenery suggests a cultural encounter that is imminent.
The work is inspired by a famous classical painting by the 16th century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel, whom the artist considered as a mentor since an early age. Entitled The Blind Leading the Blind, Bruegel's 1568 oil painting, often called The Parable of the Blind, is a literal depiction of a line of blind people following each other and stumbling into a ditch. As a religious moral parable quoted from Jesus Christ, 'if the blind leads the blind, both shall fall into a ditch' and this might be the case for the row of women following a leading figure whose eyes are covered too. The women are holding swords or otherwise a connecting rope while the leader holds a gun which alludes to their consciousness. The blind in Bruegel's masterpiece implies the quality of being human, whereas the blindfolded women, in Pirhashemi's work, evoke an awareness and determination symbolized by various indications such as the sword, the gun, the rope and the scarf.
Emphasizing the message that following the leader whilst blinded may lead to trouble, the church in the background of Bruegel's scenery is replaced here by the Statue of Liberty as a reference to freedom or otherwise referring to the city of New York as an utopian place for ambitious women determined to move away from their surrounding environment. On her dress, the leading figure has a calligraphic motif perhaps suggesting that the looming confrontation will focus on culture. But the appearance indicates that there is not much insight about what is going to happen as a result of this journey. The fact that the Statue of Liberty is represented by a female figure is a matter of irony for the artist who seems to refer to all the taboos and restrictions imposed on women by the traditional culture.
Pirhashemi's women have a strong and somehow aggressive feature as well as a charming glamour that refers to the contemporary popular culture. The artist is also fascinated by contemporary fashion imagery. With their gaze and standing poses against an abstract background, the female figures somehow resemble the fashion models who usually appear in an unidentified setting with no defined time and location.
Confronted to the hurricane force of Afshin Pirhashemi's women, they appear to lack the spirit of the classical Venuses or that of female figures in romantic paintings who expressed the good and evil forces of life. His women appear nonetheless like exceptionally successful ritual artifacts and as they resemble goddesses or contemporary burlesque queens, they reveal the artist's state of mind.
Afshin Pirhashemi is a prominent Iranian contemporary artist and he is part of a growing trend towards a neo-expressionist painting that is becoming increasingly prevalent among his generation. Besides his astonishing success in the art market that secured him an admirable place in the top 500 best seller artists of 2010, he has inspired many Iranian young artists. His early works for which he was repeatedly awarded were in black and white and it was only two years ago that limited colorful brush strokes began to penetrate his works. Even his recent large canvases are not fully colored and still the figures are back dropped by a mainly white surface that clearly eliminates the sense of time and place.
His figurative paintings at first glance show a classical perception of female beauty, but further layers are deliberately conceptualized by combining the figures with symbolic elements such as text, icons and commercial logos in order to evoke inter-textual meanings. He depicts a hybrid vision of the woman as a source of desire and beauty on one hand and a mystic emblem that has been referred to in Persian poetry and mysticism on the other hand.
By depicting the woman figure, he demonstrates his views on life. His works becoming metaphors of his own existential conditions and his social struggles. They are indeed the artist's reaction to his concerns and anxieties through pursuing the violent, subconscious, instinctual aspects of women. In addition to possible psychological and formal motives, the socio-political developments that are taking place in Iran may have provided the background to these deliberately provocative images of women. Indeed, elements such as the green ribbons, the bloody faces and the hard fist of the shouting girl are not meaningless details.
Staring at the beholders, his challenging figures allude to a feminist view on women sympathizing with the limitations and taboos imposed in a patriarchal society. He sometimes objectifies the women in his works and aims to denunciate the fantasized albeit negative viewpoint of society. This can be read as a female personification of all that is unacceptable and perverse to him. What appears to have preoccupied Pirhashemi the most is the woman's facial expression and gaze that is interpreted in conjunction with some objects in her hands or in the background. The rest of the work seems to resist the painterly process and remains almost entirely abstract.
Afshin Pirhashemi is the award winner at the 2nd International Beijing Biennial in 2005 and also the 6th Tehran Painting Biennial in 2004.