There are two things that immediately strike you when viewing Sassan Benham-Bakhtiar’s paintings together in this new exhibition – their large size and the abundance of colour within them.
This young France-based Iranian artist has spent the past seven years on a spiritual journey through meditative and energy-balancing practices to try to achieve a better understanding of himself and others. He has translated these ideas by visually depicting that energy through the vibrancy of colour and through a variety of brush techniques that accentuate it.
His paintings are very physical, full of movement and thickly layered with a prevalence of cross-hatching throughout. There’s a three-dimensional quality and a vividness that come alive when you see these pictures for real and up close.
What’s more, balance is a key part of his works – balance in the arrangement of the colours and the way opposite hues come together as counterpoints to achieve the kind of harmony he seeks in his spiritual development. In other words, the artist is using his art in the carthartic search for a better understanding of who we are. Colours come to represent different emotions and aspirations.
Although born in Paris, Benham-Bakhtiar spent his formative years from the age of 10 in Tehran before moving to Dubai at 19 to study art at the American University there. In recent times, he has set up a foundation to champion emerging Iranian artists while he himself has achieved international acclaim with works fetching high prices.
Another dimension to these paintings is to offer a more positive image of Iran to the west by reflecting its long and rich cultural history as opposed to the repressive theocracy, nuclear proliferation and so on. He does so via the complex multi-layering that takes several months for him to complete and by the imprinting of ancient Persian pattern and tapestry motifs on the figurative elements of the pieces that serve as a kind of cultural memory.
It would seem logical for an Iranian living abroad to entertain a certain nostalgia for the homeland, yet Behnam-Bakhtiar seems to go in the opposite direction. He looks forward to the Iran of the future or at least his hope for that notion. In that way, he is not like so many western artists who criticise or satirise aspects of their own society.
That’s not to say that he ignores the current state of affairs in Iran. The horses featured in In the Company of Purity of Freedom symbolise freedom and strength. Behind them is a dark background in which that freedom is struggling to exert itself. The horses emblazoned with Persian symbols are moving towards a brighter future. This is the only picture that uses black in such an impactful way.
The picture also serves as a metaphor for what the artist himself says in the book accompanying the exhibition about personal and societal development. “I call on us to pause, to stop, to rethink and to focus on creating the right communities with values and priorities to push our societies towards a mindset that brings good instead of evil, hope instead of fear, health instead of illness, construction ahead of destruction, love instead of hate, honesty instead of lies, bravery instead of cowardice.”
Tehran is featured in two cityscapes. One is coloured in a solemn blue. The way it’s painted suggests the city is oppressed, crumbling yet the sky’s colours offer hope. In another, the darkness of the city contrasts with the light of the sky. More metaphors abound. In another picture, a young boy looks innocently at a tree while a hawk flies overhead.
Guardians of Life depicts three clone-like figures walking solemnly away from the tree of life, from power and strength, the painting carefully balanced between blues and reds, the Oneness and Wholeness of the title. It sums up the self-reflective and meditative thread that runs through this intriguing exhibition.
Oneness Wholeness is on show at the Saatchi Gallery until 27 May 2018.
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.