The poet Esmail Khoi once remarked to Ardeshir Mohassess that many of his drawings focused on oppression, depicting both the oppressor and the oppressed as ugly and animal-like. “You seem to suggest,” Khoi observed, “that those who suffer from oppression are no less cruel that their oppressors.” Ardeshir responded, “Perhaps I see both as equally responsible.” [1] Throughout an artistic career that spanned nearly five decades, Mohassess’ evocative line drawings depicted the heavy burden of the contest for power on the lives of Iranians. Above all, Ardeshir saw himself as a reporter, and his body of work forms an archive of twentieth-century Iran.

The artist Nicky Nodjoumi, a close companion of Ardeshir’s, points to his deep knowledge of Iranian culture. A self-taught artist, Ardeshir had majored in political science at the University of Tehran. Soon after completing his formal education, he began making and exhibiting line drawings that drew on a range of references. Ardeshir studied historical photographs and lithographs — especially from the Qajar era; classical poetry; illuminated manuscripts; and coffeehouse paintings from the Shi‘i folkloric tradition. His pen drawings absorbed all of these influences, melding them with a sensibility that was equally informed by Buster Keaton’s films, Samuel Beckett’s plays and Goya’s paintings. Situated within this complex network of cultural flows, Ardeshir’s art reflects a deeply Iranian cultural ethos while touching upon universal themes, as the artist Shirin Neshat observed. Ardeshir’s work, as Hamid Dabashi astutely noted, is marked by biography, the “historical memories of two monarchies he has survived (the Qajars and the Pahlavis), a theocracy he escaped (the Islamic Republic) and now an empire he calls home (the United States).” [2]

As an artist, Ardeshir was at once everywhere and barely seen. His drawings were published in Keyhan, Iran’s leading daily, and in the New York Times. He influenced some of Iran’s most notable artists. His art was included in the first Tehran Biennale in 1958 and in a group show at the Musée du Louvre in 1974. And yet to many his name was unknown — perhaps because he lived much of his adult life in quiet exile in the US and because Parkinson’s disease limited his mobility for nearly 25 years. More recently, shows at the Homa Gallery in Tehran and a retrospective at the Asia Society brought his art to the attention of a broader audience. [3]

In the fall of 2008, Ardeshir created his last drawing — a portrait of an anxious man on whose knee sits a picture of a man laughing. It was perhaps a self-portrait, reflecting an artistic vision that combined humor with dark foreboding. In the 1970s, Ardeshir’s drawings poked fun at the Shah’s liberalizing modernization program, while depicting regimes of control and repression that came to pervade Iranian life. Ardeshir created iconic images of the revolution that led to the overthrow of the monarchy. Shortly afterwards, he turned his keen eye on the repressive tendencies of the Islamic Republic. His drawings contained many culprits and few heroes. Even “the people” who have thrown off bondage and march victoriously with raised fist do so with blindfolds and bullet wounds. “I do not believe in an ideal society,” he said. “I do not need an ideal society either, as there is no need for me in such a society.” [4] In the spring of 2006, I visited Ardeshir in the small apartment in Greenwich Village where he lived and worked for more than three decades. His diminishing health was evident, but so was his blistering spirit. Surrounded by piles of books and drawings, he knew where everything was. He flipped through the piles to show me, proudly, articles written about his recent show in Tehran. A pen seemed to be permanently nestled in his hand. He seemed embraced by his circle of friends, his caregivers and his drawings. A persistent urge to make art remained. Ardeshir passed away in New York on October 9, 2008. “One can never change anything by art,” he said. “The only thing that one can say is that artists in each period of history leave a record so that people in the future will know about their time.” The history of Iran’s long twentieth century is richer for the record he left us.

Endnotes

[1] See a translation of the 1973 conversation between Khoi and Ardeshir in Shirin Neshat and Nicky Nodjoumi, eds., Ardeshir Mohassess: Art and Satire in Iran (New York: Asia Society, 2008), pp. 31-37. Unless otherwise noted, quotations from Ardeshir are from this source. Ardeshir Mohassess preferred to use his first name, using it alone to sign his art, a preference I adhere to here.
[2] Hamid Dabashi, “Ardeshir Mohassess, Etcetera,” in ibid., p. 17.
[3] Between 2006 and 2008, the Homa Gallery in Tehran held three shows of Ardeshir’s work. Shirin Neshat and Nicky Nodjoumi curated a retropective of his work at the Asia Society in 2008.
[4] Quote from a 1971 interview reproduced in a memorial leaflet distributed at Ardeshir’s funeral in New York.

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Shiva Balaghi "Change of Power," Middle East Report 250 ( ).
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