Iran beyond conflict: the colourful world of Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar – interview

Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar reintroduces Iran’s rich cultural heritage in spite of the politics and propaganda. 

Art Radar speaks with Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar to learn more about his unmistakable style, burgeoning art foundation and upcoming series of interactive art films. 

Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar, 'Dara', 2015, from the "Invincible" series, Digital C Print on 270 gsm Lustre Paper. Image courtesy the artist.

Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar, ‘Dara’, 2015, from the “Invincible” series, Digital C-Print on 270 gsm Lustre Paper. Image courtesy the artist.

Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar (b. 1984, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France) is a multimedia artist who deftly merges black and white photography, archival shots and Persian imagery to provide a refreshing alternative to negativity presented by the mainstream media regarding his cultural homeland, Iran.

The artist’s strong ties to his Iranian heritage, as told by curator and art consultant Janet Rady, provides Behnam Bakhtiar with a “multi-layered” palette:

To describe Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar’s artwork is to describe the country he belongs to and so passionately and justifiably champions: Iran. Multi-layered, complex, thoughtful, deeply historical yet utterly contemporary, colourful, positive, creative, unique. Viewing the world through the prism of Sassan’s carefully crafted compositions gives us a sense of his profound compassion for humanity.
Behnam Bakhtiar’s work has been exhibited throughout the world and has been sold through Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses. His work has been a part of the Magic of Persia (MOP) Foundation events and is included in this year’s RCA Secret Dubai exhibition at Art Dubai.
Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar. Image courtesy the artist.

Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar. Image courtesy the artist.

What would you say is your signature style?

My signature style revolves around mixing the old and the new, giving a new meaning to the old using the new and vice versa.

We [Iran] have been misunderstood for so long and I think it is vital to show to the world what we are all about. Two important points helped me shape my style of work. First, I focus on positivity rather then pain and suffering, and second, I strive to show the world the true nature of Iran and its people contrary to all the negative propaganda we have been having for decades by the majority of western media.

I want people to get it right away when they stand in front of my work. I want them to see visually instead of explaining…

Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar, 'Kashan II', 2014, from "The Real Me" series, Digital C Print on 270 gsm Lustre Paper. Image courtesy the artist.

Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar, ‘Kashan II’, 2014, from “The Real Me” series, Digital C-Print on 270 gsm Lustre Paper. Image courtesy the artist.

According to Lorenzo Belenguer (FAD Magazine), your work provides

“A bridge between the Middle East and the West, a step closer to the ancient culture of Persia while jumping fearlessly to the now.”  

What artistic and creative techniques do you employ to blend the past with the present or future?

The techniques are unique to each series. For instance, in The Real Me series, I have used detailed Persian patterns on images I have taken from the gems of Iran such as Abyaneh, Persepolis and Kashan to name a few, giving the old a fresh new look with a powerful message.

In my new ongoing series, Invincible, over eighty people has been a selected to take part in this series, where each have an amazing story to tell and based on that story, a work is created – I work on each image by tapping into their psyche and their personalities, so that the viewer can have something real and true to learn about Iranians today.

In my portraiture work, I am driven by my subjects based on their physical and mental individualism, as well as their trace in history. By painting each figure, I try to bring forth the forgotten values and to reintroduce them to the new generations.

Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar, 'Ali', 2015, from the "Invincible" series, Digital C Print on 270 gsm Lustre Paper. Image courtesy the artist.

Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar, ‘Ali’, 2015, from the “Invincible” series, Digital C-Print on 270 gsm Lustre Paper. Image courtesy the artist.

In the same article, Belenguer states that you break “stereotypes and old clichés with great command and smooth easiness”. What stereotypes in particular are you seeking to expose in your work?

With my work, I am trying to reintroduce the world to the beauty of Iran, its heritage while focusing on the Iranian people from a view untouched by modern politics and agendas. In general, the Iranian people have been shown for too long as something that they are not. We are one of the oldest races alive today and certainly not what we have been portrayed as for several decades now.

I have utmost admiration for our people with their eternal strength, deepness of souls, right mindset towards the world, high spirits, respect for others and the never ending smile on everyone’s faces. While living in Tehran from the age of ten to nineteen, I always saw the above present on every corner and since that time I always wanted to put the spotlight on every single one of my brothers and sisters and focus on their positively limitless traits of character and values and show to the world the strength and greatness of each and everyone one of them.

Please tell us about the collaboration with Goldsmiths of London Computer and Science Department for your “The Real Me” series. How did it come about? Any interesting stories behind the process?

I always wanted to do a film for The Real Me series and I will never forget how Rory Blain and Samir Ceric reacted to the clip when it was played at the lower floor of the gallery in London – their expression was exactly what I had worked for so hard for a year, which resulted with me joining the Sedition Art family. The process in building The Real Me art film with the Goldsmiths of London Computer and Science Department was great since everyone would understand each other well and with the help of Diego Fagundes who led the project, we were able to produce this great film in Farsi and English.

Regarding the subjects in your “Invincible” series, do you examine each figure’s “physical and mental individuality” or are you digging deeper into the psyche of Iran?

It gets a bit more complicated than that. The physical and mental individuality as well as the psyche of Iran are both present; however, there is the whole persona of the subject in question analysed via a one-on-one, which typically takes a few hours to a few days depending on the person and their story. I really try to get inside the head of the person to really understand his/her feelings and emotions hidden away deep down, and then bring all of that out with my work.

Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar, 'Hamid Reza', 2015, from the "Invincible" series, Digital C Print on 270 gsm Lustre Paper. Image courtesy the artist.

Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar, ‘Hamid Reza’, 2015, from the “Invincible” series, Digital C-Print on 270 gsm Lustre Paper. Image courtesy the artist.

Tell us about the Fondation Behnam Bakhtiar. Why was it created? 

I have been thinking of creating an art foundation for some time now, whose support would be exclusively focused on Iranian artists, heritage and culture. I always saw a need for an organisation dedicated to serving as a gateway between Iran and the world, and that would truly support the artists of my country – Iran – in a way such that every talent would have a true chance to be heard in the global scene.

As the head of the Foundation, I have a unique vision to create a new cultural and artistic movement aimed at improving and more appropriately introducing the real essence of Iran internationally, while at the same time highlighting the country’s unique talents and artists who are leaders in their field.

Which artists have been chosen to reside in the permanent collection? Why were they chosen?

Artists whose works go inline with the core values of the foundation. We have works by some big names, as well as by emerging artists, and the reason for that is that we want to create a new understanding of the Iranian art community. Artists should be judged by their actual works first and foremost, and not their profiles or reputation. There is no doubt that Iranian artists are extremely talented and are the leaders in their region; however, I see a lack of unity amongst them, which I think is missing in the Iranian art scene today. We are strong when we are together – not divided – and this is an important philosophy of ours. If I think the work is right, necessary support shall be provided to ensure that the world sees it.

Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar, 'Baradareh Man', 2014, from "The Real Me" series, Digital C Print on 270 gsm Lustre Paper. Image courtesy the artist.

Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar, ‘Baradareh Man’, 2014, from “The Real Me” series, Digital C-Print on 270 gsm Lustre Paper. Image courtesy the artist.

Can you tell us more about the first award that is to be presented in 2017 through the Fondation?

The Behnam Bakhtiar Award is the foundation’s expression of the solid commitment to its objectives. The award focuses on vital topics related to Iran, which demand or require attention today, giving a voice on a global scale to the artists who are being true revolutionaries or pioneers – awakening, informing, influencing, exploring solutions for a better future with their works. Helping to present and promote this ideology is a cause natural to the core of the foundation.

A primary focus of the Award is to provide a global platform for the winner, where his or her work can be seen and collected. The Fondation Behnam Bakhtiar will be offering the laureate a cash prize to create a new series of works in collaboration with the foundation, which will be working hand in hand with the artist throughout the entire course of the project, launching an artist campaign including an exhibition in the Cote d’Azur or the Principality of Monaco for the series in question. The Award winner will also be the focus of an independent art film funded by the foundation and distributed internationally via its partners.

Furthermore, the Fondation Behnam Bakhtiar commits to selecting three works from the winner’s portfolio, which will enter the reputable Behnam Bakhtiar Permanent Collection. In addition, there will be numerous publications, as well as the needed support to flourish, prosper and find his or her place in the contemporary art world. Towards the end of the project an art book that focuses on the artist will be published, cementing The Behnam Bakhtiar Award experience between the artist and the foundation.

Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar, 'Kashan', 2014, from "The Real Me" series, Digital C Print on 270 gsm Lustre Paper. Image courtesy the artist.

Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar, ‘Kashan’, 2014, from “The Real Me” series, Digital C-Print on 270 gsm Lustre Paper. Image courtesy the artist.

In recent years, the mainstream media in the West has not been kind to Iran. What do you feel is the “true nature of Iran and its people” and how do you depict it in your artwork?

For me, the true nature of Iran revolves around its heritage and people. Iran is a beautiful country with a rich history and culture. Its people are welcoming, kind hearted, helping and always bear a smile no matter what – not what majority of western media have been trying to portray us as. Iran has had an extremely complicated history and the people have always been stuck in the middle mostly in shockingly harsh and unfair situations, dealing with it all while holding their head up high. When standing in front of my work, you will have a new perspective presenting another side of Iran and its people that no one talks about. The real side of Iran, the side where everyone is living everyday.

Can you tell us more about your upcoming series of art films that will provide an “interactive way of communicating” with the audience?

This new body of art films are part of the Invincible series. Every work will be coming to life in these short films with poetic verses and melodies written and played by myself. I want to further the audience’s experience by hearing the words and background music while watching the piece come to life.

Lisa Pollman

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Related Topics: art and the community, Classic/Contemporary, identity art, interviews, Iranian artists, mixed media

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