The pen is mightier

A major retrospective of the cartoonist and political satirist Ardeshir Mohasses in Dubai, assures his place in Iran's rich cultural lineage.

A 1970s pen and ink work of Ardeshir Mohasses (left) and an untitled mixed media work on paper by Mohsen Ahmadvand (right).
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I am Ardeshir Mohasses. But I like to be known only by my first name. Because I like my first name a lot. This is the best name that I could have been given. It is a beautiful name. Especially when I write it under, above or in the middle of my sketches. - Mohasses, in conversation with Esmail Kho'i in 1973. The cartoonist's name is not only a source of immeasurable pride to himself, but for many Iranians too, both at home and across the global diaspora. From next week, Dubaians will get to see why, in a major retrospective at the XVA Gallery, in which over 30 original prints and drawings will be presented by Iranian artist and long-time friend, Fereydoun Ave. The work will be complemented by pieces from a protégé of Mohasses, the 26-year-old Mohsen Ahmadvand. The timing of the show coincides with a renewed resurgence of interest in the legendary cartoonist, who is now aged 70, and still producing work despite being heavily limited by the symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

Over the past 40 years, Mohasses has become synonymous with a particular strain of satire, social commentary and driven, impassioned artistic accomplishment. Best known as a political cartoonist whose eloquent and forceful cartoons have appeared in a multitude of periodicals, papers, books and exhibitions, he has emerged as a sort of social conscience amid Iranian society, reflecting the conflicting eras of the Pahlavi and Islamic regimes and drawing on universal themes of oppression, brutality, corruption and hypocrisy.

Yet, it's quite possible you may not have heard of Mohasses. Amid the current hubbub of interest directed at the Iranian art scene, he is rarely spoken of in quite the same league as, say, Parviz Tanavoli or Charles Hossein Zenderoudi. But when he is cited, it's generally with awe, respect and reverence. For this artist - living in self-imposed exile in New York City since 1976 - articulates the darker recesses of the human condition, with a sharper scalpel than most. He transcends the easy snap of caricature and mockery for deeper meditations on power and control in dark, cynical cartoons of warriors, peasants, plutocrats, black-clad women, imams, the faithful, the lost, ordinary men and women and twisted semi-human, semi-animal beasts.

"The funny thing is that he looks so much like the characters in his drawings," recalls Fereydoun Ave. "This is what you have to understand, he looks like that - the nose, the legs. He has this funny squeaky voice - as a person, he's a bit of an eccentric, a low-key eccentric, a passive-aggressive. He is an odd person." Ave considers, as do many other commentators, that it is Mohasses's deep-seated insecurity about himself that informs the characteristic perspective of his work - the constant identification with the underdog, the distorted characters, the bitter worldview. While there is a grim humour to many of Mohasses's pieces, it comes at a price - real flickers of hope, of affirmation or positivity barely come through from his pen and ink pieces. Only in the colour paintings, produced at various phases of his career, do we see a redemption of sorts, through the vivid colours and fleshed-out forms.

Typical Mohasses cartoons display an obsession with the human form. With a merciless eye, his work is reminiscent of the opulent grossness of Honoré Daumier, or William Hogarth, or perhaps there are echoes of Gerald Scarfe's twisted characters. His classic run during the late Seventies, following his relocation to the US, sees his pen unfettered by external pressures. Looking at his work from this period is a simultaneously funny, discomfiting and unsettling experience - his views on figures of authority in relation to those of the victimised and oppressed are eloquently expressed. Mohasses is a master draughtsman, and it's the ruthless economy of his lines that imbues his pieces with their dynamic attack.

"His work really changes over the decades, in style and technique, quite radically," says Ave. "He was heavily influenced - like we all were - by the 1979 revolution, but yet I think it embodied years and years and regimes and regimes of oppression. Not necessarily one specific regime." Mohasses was born into a middle-class family in Rasht, northern Iran, in 1938. According to him, he did his first drawing at the age of three, a picture of an army general. It wasn't until he was at college, however, that he abandoned plans for a legal career in favour of full-time artistic pursuit. "It was not really in my control," he told Kho'i. "There was something in me, a force that was pulling me towards drawing." In 1963, he began supplying a Tehran-based daily newspaper, Kayhan, with drawings, which were an immediate hit with readers. With his distinctive style, which pulled in elements of traditional Persian culture, modern-day troubles and a deep empathy with ordinary people, he was feted and persecuted alike for his uncompromising vision.

But disdaining the mantle of political cheerleader, Mohasses maintained that in his view, form and style was paramount to subject. "There are principles by which I am deeply bound, and I follow them in all my works," he told Kho'i. "But any content, if it is not presented in perfect form, cannot be effective." Finding himself equally praised and monitored in Iran, as he entered his thirties, he soon started yearning to escape. Ave, who returned to Iran from college in the States in the early 1970s to start up his own gallery, struck up a friendship with Mohasses. Ave recalls an awkward and nervy figure, hugely popular, yet unsettled and desperate to move West.

"He would be over at my house every weekend, we would go to openings together, we worked on preparing a book together. I did two major shows for him in Iran. I remember, whenever I saw him, he would be sitting with a notebook, scribbling away. He didn't really participate verbally in a lot of stuff. He was observant, he would sit and look and draw. A fascinating character? Yes, but not a very understood one. I think that is where the suffering came from. He felt a great misunderstanding from the world."

However, Ave debunks a popular myth that it was the persecution by the Shah's secret police that precipitated Mohasses's departure for the US in 1976. "It is totally a misunderstanding to think he was hounded out of Tehran," he says. "He left entirely of his own accord, for health reasons. All of his heroes, wonderful caricaturists in America who were highly regarded, his dream was to be like one of them and do books... it was a dream he was going for. I think that I was like a little window for him. He liked the sound of America."

Once settled in the States, married to an American wife, Mohasses achieved new flights of inspired eloquence in his work. Always a shrewd chronicler of authority, he found himself characterising the manifestations not only of the ailing Pahlavi regime and the burgeoning Islamic revolution, but also the policies of the US. As his work became stylistically looser - caused by a combination of factors, including his illness and widening circle of influences - he experimented with abstract elements, colour and collage. At the heart of his practise remained the primal urge to satirise and critique.

"He is, first and foremost, an artist," concurs Ave. "Everyone who has any critical say on the art of that time, critiques Ardeshir Mohasses as an artist, rather than a cartoonist or a satirical cartoonist or any of those things. He is the perfect example of a brilliant artist and a brilliant craftsman, with his pen and ink cartoons." In the XVA show, Ave has presented a series of pieces alongside Mohasses's work by Ahmadvand. Few artists in Iran today have Mohasses's bite and attack, but in his own work, hugely influenced by Ardeshir, Ahmadvand reflects the maverick spirit of the older man with brio and panache. "I believe that art should have identity," he says. "This comes from tradition, which connects the past to the present and the present to the future. One can read society through art."

Ahmadvand considers himself simultaneously in the lineage of Mohasses, as well as being responsible for a new approach to similar subject matter. "My works are the continuation of Ardeshir's, and that kind of thinking," he says. "But my works are for my generation which has a new language - therefore I have new elements. We are working in the same school of art, especially in drawing, but the only difference is the style."

"One can never change anything by art," said Mohasses, in his 1973 interview with Kho'i. "The only thing 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." From the work, we are fortunate enough to see in this show, Mohasses's place in the rich cultural lineage of Iran is undoubtedly assured.
Ardeshir Mohasses and Mohsen Ahmadvand, XVA Gallery, Bastikiya, Bur Dubai From Oct 4 to 18.