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Interview with Rozita Sharafjahan about Manouchehr Motabar's Exhibition

Author : Mehrdad Mirzaie

Reading Time : 10 Minutes

Original text in Farsi by Mehrdad Mirzaie

Translated to English by Omid Armat

An exhibition of Manouchehr Motabar's artworks ran on December 3, 2021, at Azad Art Gallery. In this show, Motabar's artworks were categorized by various periods of his career path. His studio space was, to some extent, simulated inside the gallery and the artworks were installed on the walls. So we decided to talk to Rozita Sharafjahan about the artist and how the exhibition was formed.  

  • Thank you in advance for giving me the opportunity for this interview; would you please explain the formation process of this exhibition in detail; from its basic ideas and decisions until now? 

Sharafjahan: The most outstanding feature of this show is that the artworks are installed in a way that it seems as if the viewer is actually entering the artist's personal studio. This intimate experience of encountering artworks results from two factors: first, the cordial, attractive atmosphere of the gallery, and second, the artist's lived experience and the artworks he produced during different decades. All items are gathered one by one, joined together and created this atmosphere in which feelings flow. In other words, all these little details are forming the whole characteristics of this environment; for instance, in Motabar's studio, you can see some photos on the walls, which have repeatedly become the subject of his art; for example, an artwork inspired by a photo, or an artwork by Rembrandt or another artist. Although we did not intend to simulate the artist's gallery, the final result is actually rooted in that space.  

  • We see that the works are categorized in a way that each series is installed on one wall; would you please explain the selection and installation process? 

Rozita Sharafjahan and Manouchehr Motabar | Azad Art Gallery | December 2021 

Sharafjahan: During the last two years, before the pandemic, I stayed in contact with Mr. Motabar. I have been his student since 1977, and my relationship with him has considerably affected my life, even now after about forty years. His influential quality is because of both his character and his teaching [method], which has completely affected my life and artworks. I believe that most of the artists trained by European academic methods are permanently influenced by their masters, especially if they begin their path in an art school to be trained for four years by one teacher. Anyone working with Mr. Motabar can clearly see his ever-lasting effect on their works. And the most interesting point about this was when we were being trained under his supervision in the art school. We thought then that Mr. Motabar doesn't suggest anything specific. During that four-year period, which coincided with Iranian Revolution, we used to practice in the studio in the mornings, and we had theoretical courses in the afternoon. We were constantly practicing and Mr. Motabar advised us to experience freely and avoid stereotypes, and he also encouraged us to put aside our fears. For me and others of my generation that have been trained in such conditions, creating an artwork is still done in the same way as we learned. The freedom that children should experience when they enter school, is actually suppressed by threats imposed on them by society, their families, and especially the educational system. So they would be able to communicate with their inner self and use their creativity as an artist only if we relieve them of these threats. I have been indebted to Mr. Motabar for my whole life.  

Unfortunately, the pandemic caused all of his classes to suspend. However, this gave him enough time to review his previous works. The pandemic had also caused us to suffer undesirable mental conditions and gathering these works and arranging an exhibition was an opportunity for me to recover. I hope that it has been the same for Mr. Motabar.  

For this show, we reviewed Mr. Motabar's works, and we found numerous outstanding pieces; occurrences that have been ignored all these years. [I am specifically referring to the artworks of Mr. Motabar that, up until today,] are completely unique and no other similar work has been printed in any book. Nevertheless, this exhibition is focused on certain periods of his career path, especially the 1980s and 1990s. During the 1980s he produced artworks, but they were never exhibited, because galleries were closed then. So the works that were displayed during the 1990s were those that he had created in the previous decade. In addition to his artworks, he had done many studies that were never presented; because of different reasons: various limits, social conventions of that period, or the speed at which other works were produced. While we were gathering the works for the exhibition, some people came to Mr. Motabar's studio and visited the works there. Although such little activities existed, it would have been a great pity if the works were not vastly visited. If Mr. Motabar agrees, we will arrange and run this exhibition in one or more other cities; Shiraz probably, where he was born, or other cities. 

  • You mentioned somewhere that there are few texts about Mr. Motabar among the critical essays that have been written over the years about exhibitions or artworks. How would you, as his student, or as an artist, describe Manouchehr Motabar's position in Iranian contemporary art history? In other words, what do you think about Mr. Motabar and his position? I think if we look at the past, there are some dark points, some related to the historical context of that time, and some others due to the lack of potential and enthusiasm of the artistic community.  

Sharafjahan: Once art trading became prosperous in Iran – which I think started about two decades ago – the art community achieved a lot of new possibilities; huge variety of publications, more galleries, published catalogs, and books introducing artists. This was a considerable improvement compared to the conditions before the Revolution when most of these activities were so limited and nascent and just a few catalogs have remained of exhibitions. This trend continued after the Revolution, except for some twenty-year full shut-down; therefore, artists who had come of age during that period, usually faced these limits.

With the contribution of Assar Gallery, two books were published about Mr. Motabar. Several essays have been published about him in Herfeh Honarmand Magazine; however, there are still many things left unsaid about him. No comprehensive research or contextual study has been done yet. Normally, the more we get temporally distanced from a phenomenon, the more comprehensive our attitude becomes about it in its historical context. Every artist has a point at which their success and ability is at its highest; it is when they can become known for their influential character. In other words, this is when an artist not within the mainstream can express a unique entity and theme. Mr. Motabar is a determined person and he has continuously created artworks while avoiding fanfare. His influential character is clearly visible. We have never known an artist who is actually just a drawer. Mr. Motabar has formed a serious, exclusive attitude towards drawing. I have just remembered an artist whose works are similar to Mr. Motabar's; Ahmad Morshedloo

  • Who himself was Mr. Motabar's student.  

Sharafjahan: Yes, and of course many others; Amir Nourani, Masoumeh Mozaffari, and other artists who present paintings, but the basis of their artworks is formed by some sort of sketched studies, which were inspired by Mr. Motabar's works. I think Mr. Motabar deserves to be regarded as an influential artist. However, art trading is an important matter affecting the Iranian artistic community. Artists not interested in following art trading necessaries will simply remain unknown to some extent, but this does not mean that their works are worthless. Mr. Motabar is fully anti-commercial and independent; a morale which accompanies his other unique qualities in his art. Moreover, interest in Iran and world's literature, and theoretical and philosophical knowledge is among his considerable characteristics. Many artists regard such behavior as intellectual; a good characteristic that many lacks. There are very few artists who, like Mr. Motabar, care about other aspects of thought.  

  • Besides your experiences with Mr. Motabar and his teaching methods, I have seen many who have had similar experiences in (visual) art school. Although they have never been directly in touch with Mr. Motabar, they have profited from the same behavior of teaching. As you mentioned, there were teachers who were Mr. Motabar's students in the past and had learned and obtained his teaching methods.  

Sharafjahan: This is a piece of evidence that shows how effectively his teaching methods have been transferred to others in a structured way.  

It is worth noting that his methods cannot be simply understood. We, as students, couldn't understand how valuable they were. To learn drawing, we thought that we should use some formulas or pills that were not found in the freedom of mind and feelings. However, Mr. Motabar tried to make this freedom understandable for us. Putting the potential power of this freedom into action is difficult and takes time. We, too, have grown in the same conditions. As we were being taught by Mr. Motabar, the 1979 Revolution was proceeding. The Revolution caused ideological thoughts to become prevalent among all the people. So everything was against this type of teaching. The influential qualities of his teaching will be understood through time.  

On the other hand, the social atmosphere was then heavily occupied by Masculinism; even intellectual communities, art schools, and universities tended towards masculinist behaviors. For example, in order to work well, one tried to work like men or to show their force. Show of force was one of the principles, but Mr. Motabar neither behaved like that nor asked us to. Although freedom seems to be a very simple concept, it was among the most difficult ideas that he tried to teach us.  

Considering the dimensions of Mr. Motabar's works, one can ascertain their humanistic qualities; considering the tools he uses, they are created with charcoal, conté crayon and paper. All his works demonstrate humane feelings and there is no sign of boastful practice in them; not in the naked figure of a standing woman, not in a moving cart or a window.  

  • Mr. Motabar! These humane feelings are visible in the artworks you created back in the 1980s. The reason for the relation between your drawings and your poetry is not clear to me.  

Motabar: We all used to read books and poems. 

Sharafjahan: Not everyone Mr. Motabar! You used to read.  

Motabar: She is right. Being a teacher is not easy.  

Sharafjahan: But first you studied literature. 

Motabar: Right. I studied at the faculty of literature. Then I was accepted in the faculty of fine arts and remained there.  

  • When did you quit literature? 

Motabar: I was about to start my second year in literature when I left the faculty. Lotfali Souratgar was my teacher. He taught students both in England and here.  

Sharafjahan: I didn't know. 

Motabar: I think being a teacher is an inherently important job. One should be by nature a teacher, in order to be able to teach. I really enjoy spending time with these students. I lived with them. You cannot convey your experiences unless you feel like this.   

  • When these works were being selected to be displayed, you certainly removed some and chose some others. 

Sharafjahan: In fact, these works were found gradually. During the last two or three years, some of them were sold. I separated some really attractive, outstanding works and told the buyers that they are not on sale. The series presented here is gradually found among his other works. There are still many valuable works, but we didn't tear them off to include in this exhibition since they are inside a sketchbook. Then there are some other brilliant works that cannot be exhibited publicly. Some of them are framed and placed here, some are in a sketchbook, and some are stored on my computer.