In his most recent exhibition, the Iranian American artist, Ali Banisadr, chose a title that has many layers: ‘Return to Mother,’ which is a translation of the old Sumerian word, ‘Ama-gi’.
The artist speaks to me over Zoom from his studio in Brooklyn. He talks about the exhibition, and what inspires him and his ‘neighbors’ at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. He calls the Met his ‘second home’: “That's where I go whenever I have problems in my work."
I ask about his paintings in the Met collection. He says the museum has two works by him. “They have a big painting of mine and recently they also bought some prints of my work.” How does it feel, I ask him, to have his own work next to the works of old masters? “It makes sense because that is where I go to get help from these friends, so it is nice to be amongst them.”
I like the expression “get help” and I ask him what kind of help he seeks from the other works at the Met. “Sometimes I go over there with an agenda, because of whatever I am dealing with at the time. I go there to look at a specific work, to kind of get ideas or figure out how to solve a problem in my painting, and then there are times when I go there just to get lost and wander around and go from one wing to another, and those are fun visits too, so it is always useful to go over there.”
What inspires him? In his paintings, one recognizes a lot of ancient and modern references and symbols, a blend of history, legends, and other art. He says that he draws his inspiration from different people and works, depending on the work he’s occupied with at the time.
“It might be anything in fact; for example, I am busy these days with Cezanne, an artist I did not care much about before, but now I am fascinated by him. What really made me appreciate Cezanne was a show at the Metropolitan about his paintings. You could actually see how he built a painting and trace his train of thought.
This made me appreciate him more, and I started going back to his paintings to observe how much time he took to build them (he was slow in this regard). This aspect also prompted me to associate him with other artists, such as Picasso, Matisse, and various influences, such as the Cubist movement or the influence of Persian miniatures – in other words, both old and modern influences.”
He goes back to talking about the factors that affect his work: “It is not direct... In my paintings, the viewer can see many different references and influences, whether ancient or modern, all of which merge into one entity.”
Here I ask him, “Do you plan your paintings, or do you let your ideas take their course?” In answer to my question, he explains to me how he works in the studio. “I have what I call different stations in my studio, and in one station I have like this big table and it’s basically where I study stuff and make a lot of notes and diagrams of the things that are sort of fueling my imagination and interest at the time, and when I get in front of a blank canvas, then I feel like all that stuff transfers into a visual world in my head, and then the painting ends up resulting from all of this.”
However, he adds that he does not plan his paintings. “I do not tell myself I will put this element here or there, I just start drawing, because I feed my imagination with everything I've seen and read, it all finds its way into the painting and that's the exciting part of it, because I don't know what will happen. Every time I see my work, I feel and see different aspects. This is what happens: I feed on what interests me at the moment and depending on what is going on in the world and what I think of as well and what art galleries I visited, all these elements talk to each other and float around me... I like to imagine them wandering around me and capturing them."
We move on to talk about his most recent exhibition. It took a word from the Sumerian language for its title, which translates as ‘return to mother.’
I ask him: “What do you mean by the title? What are you talking about here?” He says, “In the painting that bears the same title as the exhibition – and it is the largest painting I have painted in my life – I did loads of research into the concept of ‘freedom’, such as the Statue of Liberty, the symbols and meanings behind it, and why. However, I found that the first word in human history to refer to freedom was the Sumerian ‘Ama-gi’, which also translates as ‘return to mother.’
This expression made a lot of sense to me. It was exciting to have a painting or a full show, and for the main theme of the exhibition to be freedom and its origins, and for that to coincide with what is happening in Iran today.”
Banisadr talks about the main painting in his exhibition, which was hosted by the Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery in Paris, and points to a circle at the top of the painting, which represents the sun.
“The sun,” he says, “represents warmth and motherhood.” He then goes over variations on the sun's symbol in ancient religions. The sun here is the basis of life, and perhaps this explains the presence of something resembling a wheel below it. “It is the wheel of life that is linked to the sun. We see here the shape of a snake spinning the wheel of life or the wheel of stories.”
I point to a person in the painting who looks like the Statue of Liberty while wearing what looks like a Native American headdress. This leads us to a discussion about another painting, entitled ‘The Great Replacement’, which expresses what the imperialist and colonial movements did in marginalizing the indigenous people in their countries.
He says: “The concept has become a burning issue these days in Britain, for example, and in America about the theory of replacement, where some Americans and Europeans express their fears that Muslims or people with dark skin will occupy their place in their lands. In my painting, I reflected on the whole idea to depict how colonialism, through a person on horseback carrying a cross, drives Native Americans out of their lands. That is why it is laughable, this idea that some people in Europe are now afraid of immigrants and see them as tools to change the demographic structure of their countries.”
He talks about the people inhabiting his paintings, identifying their personalities and the hidden meanings the figures carry. However, when we see the characters, we find them without clear features or dimensions. I put it to him that the people in his paintings look like ghosts; we cannot define their features, to which he replies, “One of the reasons is that I am interested in the way we see things in our imagination, or dreams, or in delirium. I feel like I want to stay true to this state, this point where things are in the middle of transformation, and work in the same way that our imagination or dreams do. But I also feel it’s important that those non-specific things, like philosophical ideas, are not carved in stone. I want my work to be outside of time. I want someone to see my work after a hundred years and feel a connection with it. I feel that great art does that.”