What do we really know about the Islamic Republic of Iran other than the politics? It is quite fashionable practice to deride Iran as an incendiary, oppressive, and religiously fervent country, but like with so many things, such opinions – although justifiable in some circumstances – are formed with little knowledge of the country itself. Having recently watched the moving animated film Persepolis; my own assumptions have been torn apart. Although you won’t catch me in a ‘I heart Iran’ t-shirt, I now have a better understanding and appreciation of a country whose history is epic to say the least, typified, I guess, by periods of rapid transformation, namely between secular and religious government.
This theme – of Iran’s rich cultural and religious history – is the subject of contemporary artist Khosrow Hassanzedah’s new exhibition Takhti: A modern Iranian hero, in which the eponymous character forms a central part of the narrative.
Ghulamreza Takhti – who was a renowned Iranian ‘world wrestler’ (Jahan Pahlavan) and Olympic medallist, comes to symbolize a period that has passed in Iran, of which Hassanzadeh mourns: ‘ It is time that I miss, a time destroyed by war, economics and politics.’
Composed within the confines of a glass case, a black and white silhouette of Takhti is surrounded by vivid objects which reference religious items – specifically that connected to Shi’ism – sporting paraphernalia unique to Iranian wrestling, and a medley of other things which embody aspects of Iran’s culture, all encircled by bright and gaudy Christmas-like lights which give the piece an energetic feel.
This glowing and colourful structure mirrors the custom of hejleh, a tradition in Iran where temporary shrines are erected to commemorate the dead. It is particularly poignant when considering that this practice is especially affecting and ubiquitous during conflict: those who perish are revered as martyrs. Having fought in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-89) himself, Hassanzadeh knows full well the power such effigies have on the mood of the country, and his decision to compose this piece of art in this way, shows not only a want to open up a discussion of the central role of martyrdom in Iranian Shi’ism, but to simply show how important a figure Takhti was.
One magnificent story shows why he has had such a lasting legacy. During the 1962 earthquake of Buyin Zahra near Qazvin, Takhti and his friends loaded up a truck with food and blankets, collected money, and went about distributing these much-needed things among the poor. It was beyond his call of duty but he wanted to help. This was the kind of man he was – kind, selfless, and full of integrity. He was so much more than just a sporting hero.
And this is why even today his death is still commemorated at a cemetery where he is buried, some 30 plus years after he died tragically young at the age of 37. Officially listed as a suicide, there is mystery and debate over the exact causes, but regardless, his personality and importance to popular culture endures. He is indeed a national hero of Iran.
Takhti: A modern Iranian hero is on show at the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle Upon-Tyne from now until 21 August 2010
Published in Narc Magazine