He has been compared to René Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico for his painterly brilliance, evocative subject matter and use of colour; Le Corbusier, for his gentle architectural lines; and now Banksy for his street art. Born and raised near the agricultural fields in the suburbs of Tehran, Iranian painter Mehdi Ghadyanloo has become a household name in his native homeland. His works, which include trompe l’oeil-style murals, sculptures and works on canvas, reveal a glimpse of everyday life in modern-day Iran. At times dark and allusive of a failed utopia, Ghadyanloo’s paintings set the tone that change is possible through hope, and include themes of joy and happiness during gloomy times for the country.
The artist’s canvases, all created over the last 12 years, reveal simplified architectural forms within the barren landscapes of his home country. In them are what seem to be forlorn, powerless figures trapped inside, yearning to flee, but not knowing where to go. Still, the scene in hauntingly beautiful, reminiscent of De Chirico’s empty piazzas, signifying that perhaps hope is just around the corner. “My father was a farmer and my mother weaved carpets,” says Ghadyanloo. “Growing up, I had an appreciation for the beautiful colours and patterns I was exposed to when watching my mother create her stunning carpets,” he recalls. “When I was 18-years-old, I realised I was in love with art and therefore changed my field of studies from public science to painting.”
Untitled from the Spaces of Hope collection (2018)
After obtaining his Bachelor’s degree from Tehran’s University College of Fine Arts, as well as a Master’s in Film Studies from Teachers College, Ghadyanloo went on to create more than 100 large-scale murals on buildings in the Iranian capital between 2004 and 2011. Largely working in the realm of public art, Ghadyanloo creates a dialogue with his audience through his works. “I like to create spaces and atmospheres to start a dialogue between the artwork and the audience,” he explains. “I believe that what happens to us in life has an impact on our subconscious. This in turn is reflected in my artwork.” As one of Iran’s leading public artists, Ghadyanloo’s art provides an autobiographical perspective that includes memories of his youth, the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), and living in the Islamic Republic.
His paintings, such as Future and Mirage of Redemption, often include flattened and simple spatial environments, perplexing architecture, subtle tones and deep shadows, convey a sense of in-betweenness and movement in a fast-paced life, as well as anxiety and anticipation. The helix-like staircase and the motif of the ladder, found in several of his works, suggest temporal progress, a spiritual rise, as well as a place of entrapment.
In 2006, he answered an open call from the Municipality of Tehran’s Beautification Bureau and was commissioned to paint over 100 murals in central Tehran. In 2016, he went on to become the first Iranian artist to be commissioned in both Iran and the US since the Iranian Revolution (1979) to create Spaces of Hope. The mural was, until recently, showcased at the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway in Boston, Massachusetts, which displays temporary works of public art.
“I was in love with the shape of the wall where I was commissioned to paint,” he says. “It has a very similar shape to the dome of Islamic and Iranian architecture. It was at first challenging to paint something on the wall because as an Iranian artist painting in the US, the creative community there was waiting to see what the end-product would be from someone coming from the Islamic Republic of Iran. I decided to paint something universal, something that captures contemporary issues not relating solely to the US or Iran.”
A detail of 'An Introduction To Stay' (2017)
At the time he was painting the mural, the European migrant crisis and changes in the US immigration policies were under way, among other issues. “Spaces of Hope essentially became a work that could resonate with people around the world. The balloon found in the mural is a symbol of hope during difficult times,” he says. His poignant work has been rendered all the more powerful now by Donald Trump’s recent travel ban.
In January 2018, Ghadyanloo was one of 40 artists and cultural leaders who were invited to participate in the 48th Annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “Six years ago, I painted something very similar to the conference’s 'Shared Future' theme but with one cube hanging over someone. I was feeling pressure from different directions and I felt that this [societal] pressure is increasing in the contemporary world. Later, when I was asked to speak at the World Economic Forum, I decided to paint 'Shared Future'.” Seated in the middle with his painting, Shared Future, depicted behind the panellists, Ghadyanloo is seen discussing the creation of a shared future in a fractured world. The painting, which portrays people holding hands and walking towards the future while heavy cubes hang over their heads, reinstates his overarching theme of hope during times of woe.
Ghadyanloo’s growing global presence is admirable. His next projects include painting a mural at the OK Centre for Contemporary Art in Austria as part of curation for their next big show at the museum; an independent exhibition that will take place in Basel; a mural on the Detroit Opera House; and a mural and installation for next year’s World Economic Forum. Through such works, the artist brings the world of Tehran to the outside. Here, painting is akin to therapy—it is a way to discover the self, amidst trauma. It also is, as so many of Ghadyanloo’s works are, a journey towards unity and empathy—even if it means with the powers that be.