Dubai exhibition of Amir Zanjani’s paintings centre on notion of military power

Iranian artist Amir Hossein Zanjani's show at Salsali Private Museum explores the notions of power and submission
Desire to Submission by Amir Hossein Zanjani show marching female soldiers without their weapons. Courtesy Amir Hossein Zanjani / Salsali Private Museum
Desire to Submission by Amir Hossein Zanjani show marching female soldiers without their weapons. Courtesy Amir Hossein Zanjani / Salsali Private Museum

Standing in full salute wearing his khaki uniform, Hiroo Onoda emerges from a sea of brightly coloured paint splodges that pop like bullet holes out of the canvas.

His mouth pursed in an expression of sincerity under his thin moustache makes him the hero of the current exhibition of works by Amir Hossein Zanjani at Salsali Private Museum (SPM) in Dubai, Alserkal Avenue.

Onoda was an Imperial Japanese Army intelligence officer who fought in the Second World War, but he did not surrender in 1945 when the war ended. Instead, he served his commander in blind faith and ignorance until 1974, when he emerged from the Philippine jungle and would only stand down when his commanding officer personally travelled from Tokyo to relieve him.

Onoda died in January this year, but Zanjani has immortalised him in this painting as the ultimate symbol of submission to power.

“He was a true soldier, a military man to the core,” says Ramin Salsali, the owner of the museum. “He is the ideal person to represent what this exhibition talks about.”

The exhibition, which is running for six months, is an exploration into the very notion of power.

The starting point was the military march; Zanjani, who was born and raised in Iran and has spent his life surrounded by war, was interested in countries where dictators rule. He explains that they use the army to indirectly suppress the people by giving them the impression that they are the ultimate power.

“They say it is for your own protection, but actually the military march is the government forcing the power onto you,” he says.

All the paintings are based on real people, recreated from photographs and videos that Zanjani and Salsali found through their 18 months of research that led up to this exhibition.

Along the back wall are some 650 portraits of men and women from the United Nations member states arranged like a jigsaw puzzle – visual examples of the impression of power.

The rest of the gallery shows scenes from communist nations such as Russia and North Korea and to what extremes people will go to when submitting to a power.

“Other than the sociological and philosophical entry points to the exhibition,” says Zanjani, “the other way we can visit the show is through semiology. When you convert a real photograph or a document to a painting, you are making something everyday become iconic.”

By showing the march in its various forms, there is a sense of rhythm and movement in the works. It is especially powerful when Zanjani removes the weapons, as he does in a piece called Desire to Submission. Then, the women depicted could almost be dancing or performing.

“We as humans are born to reject authority but at the same time we subconsciously enjoy submitting to it,” explains Zanjani. “It is a duality within all of us.”

The key work, perhaps, is The Trampoline. An installation that shows the map of the world on a tan-coloured canvas stretched out in the same manner that a leather tanner would stretch his skin – pulled with ropes at all sides and mounted inside a larger frame.

At its base are many crudely formed medals, made from bottle caps, that are moving and therefore making small sounds that give these normally insignificant objects an elevated power.

“In this one we have killed the world and skinned it and then weighed it down with medallions, which are the awards we give each other for submitting to power,” explains Salsali.

There are many more narratives and starting points for discussion as well as the swirling bright colours purposely chosen for their opposition to the military Pantones that warrant the six-month showing and will yield multiple views over multiple visits.

But in the end, we are encouraged to emerge from the exhibition with an altered perception of what is the nature of war and why people follow the leader in such a time of atrocity.

“I grew up surrounded by war and I have been working for a long time to show a different side to it,” Zanjani explains.

• The exhibition of Amir Hossein Zanjani’s paintings at Salsali Private Museum runs until August 17. For more information, go to

Published: May 18, 2014 04:00 AM


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