Melika Shafahi, Untitled, The Emperor’s New Clothes, 2006

The complexity of life in modern Iranian society and the dreams of the youth for a new future — these are the themes explored by emerging Iranian artists Hooman Derakhshandeh and Melika Shafahi in their first solo shows in Dubai. Tehran-based Derakhshandeh’s latest series of oil and acrylic paintings, titled “Mystic Presence”, looks at the challenges faced by women, not only in Iran, but around the world. And Shafahi, who is a photographic artist based in France, is showcasing two series of works, titled “Tehran Project” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, that express the frustration of young Iranians and their hope of building a better future.

In his earlier series, titled “Paradox”, Derakhshandeh had explored the perpetual conflict between the inner and outer worlds of a woman. “Mystic Presence” is a continuation of this exploration, but this time the emphasis is on the outside world. Every painting in this series of ten artworks features the same woman in the same pose. Draped in black, she appears as a mysterious presence in the background, while the focus is on various traffic signs painted in bold reds and blues over her shadowy figure. The woman’s beautiful face is serene and expressionless, but her eyes stare defiantly out of the canvas, challenging viewers to peep into her soul, to try to understand what goes on inside her mind and heart, and to see the world the way she sees it.

“My work has been inspired by my mother. I am very close to her and I feel that I know her very well. But when she steps out of the home she becomes a different person. This is because social norms and external pressures force her to put on a different face and behave in a certain way, regardless of her own wishes. Through my work, I have been trying to understand this duality that exists in a woman’s life between her inner self and the persona she presents to the outside world. I teach art and most of my students are women, and this has further fuelled my interest in researching how women evolve within the environments they live in,” the artist says.

In his earlier work Derakhshandeh had used ID cards, marriage certificates and other official documents as symbols of a woman’s identity and stereotypical roles in society. Similarly, in this series he has used traffic signs to depict the world around her. Signs for “No Entry”, “No Left Turn”, “No Overtaking” and “Dead End” are a cynical reference to the many restrictions imposed on women, particularly in Iran. Others such as a sign for the fruit market and a sign indicating “Women Not Allowed” point to the roles that women are confined to play in society.

“The woman in my paintings represents women around the world who deal with this duality in their private and public lives and conform to social conventions even if they do not want to. I have drawn the woman exactly the same way in every painting to depict the monotony of her daily routine and the lost hope that things will ever change. The common street signs are the do’s and don’ts she faces every day with equanimity. But her eyes reveal the conflicts and struggles going on inside and give us a glimpse of the mysterious person within. I have deliberately painted her in black and white and blended her figure into the background, while the signs are in bold, bright colours to depict the suppression of women by unjust rules and social conventions,” Derakhshandeh says.

Shafahi’s work is focused on her generation and comments on the duality that exists in the life of young people in Iran. Her photographic series, “Tehran Project”, talks about the constraints, social barriers and mandated behaviour that young Iranians are forced to live with. This is a theme that has been explored by many Iranian artists, and they have done it mostly by showing how fashionable and Western-oriented Iranian women are behind the veils and traditional norms imposed on them. Shafahi has done the same. Her photographs show young women dressed in designer clothing, relaxing at home with their friends. They enjoy simple activities such as blowing soap bubbles, eating a pizza, watching satellite TV or trying out new clothes. The dark lighting and the exaggerated make-up on their faces gives the images a surreal feel, highlighting the fact that viewers are getting a glimpse of a hidden, secret world. A dog on a tight leash, and the girls holding goldfish, which are a traditional Iranian symbol, are obvious references to the restrictions and traditions that make their life inside the privacy of their homes so different from their public life.

“Tehran is a city of contradictions. The images that one usually sees in the media are of women wearing headscarves and of protest rallies on the streets. My pictures present a side of the city that foreign media do not see. This is the other face of Iran. Away from the noise and bustle of the city, in the privacy and tranquillity of our homes, we are like any other young people in the world. But behind the eyes of Tehran’s citizens is a yearning for freedom, and I have tried to explore the complicated relationship between this inner desire and the outer limitations that they must live with,” Shafahi says.

The second series she is exhibiting is a contemporary reinterpretation of the well-known fable, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. The setting in these pictures is a tailoring shop in the basement of a fashion boutique. And the cast comprises models playing the roles of a female fashion designer and her male assistants. Shafahi’s staged photographs show them working together, first to assemble a life-size plastic model of a baby and then to create beautiful clothes for this symbolic representation of the future emperor. The hardworking woman in the pictures highlights the contribution of women in society, and the close collaboration between her and the men is a subtle comment on the need for everybody to work together to build a better society. The pictures are dark and gloomy, but spools of colourful threads and swatches of fabric in the background and the spotlight on the baby allude to the dreams of young Iranians for a brighter and happier future.

Jyoti Kalsi is an arts enthusiast based in Dubai.

The exhibition will run at RIRA Gallery, DIFC until October 11.