When visitors enter the second-floor gallery space of the Andy Warhol Museum on Pittsburgh's North Side, they’re met with cartoon cowboys in red bandanas, saloon brawls and underwater painters that shimmer right off the wall. But there's more than meets the eye in Go West, the first solo show in the U.S. for popular Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, museum-goer Jennifer Jones inched closer for a better look. “It’s hard, because you’re not allowed to touch it, and you just automatically want to feel the different materials. So that was my big challenge, don’t touch it,” she said.
The images, on display through Jan. 14, are created from thousands of hand embroidered beads, crystals, sequins and found objects.
Visiting Curator Shiva Balaghi said the artist is a bit of a hoarder. Moshiri puts a lot of emphasis on the surface, pointing out that we don’t always know what’s underneath all that glitter.
“The way we see the world is sometimes a blend of the surface of something, and the substance of something,” said Balaghi.
The show includes sculptures, video and paintings, but the subject matter is also diverse. It opens with nostalgic scenes from pop culture, like old Westerns, and cowboy and Indian motifs. Moshiri spent time in the U.S. attending college, but when he was growing up in Shiraz, Iran, his father owned movie theaters.
“The West is very much a part of the American imagination, and through global distribution of Hollywood, it became a part of his imagination as a small boy growing up in southern Iran,” said Balaghi.
She said Americans and Iranians have a sort of shared visual vocabulary developed in their youth.
“So at a time when we have these divisions, these red lines between Iran and the United States, here’s a body of work that’s mutually recognizable,” Balaghi said.
Despite the Western images, the techniques used are largely traditional Iranian handicraft, which is having a resurgence, such as beadwork, Persian rug making and silversmithing.
“With modernization and mechanization,” said Balaghi, “those jobs and those crafts were endangered. But then the tourist economy kind of gave them a whole other avenue.”
To create his designs, Moshiri works closely with the seamstresses and embroiderers where he now lives and works in Shiraz.
“He’s created this entire workshop economy where these women who are from very traditional families doing traditional handicraft have a livelihood of their own,” said Balaghi.
Moshiri may be best known for his paintings of pots. The large-scale pieces look almost three-dimensional and illuminated, and they reference ancient Persian pottery. Bulaghi said Iranians are nostalgic for the glorious past of ancient civilization, although these types of pots could be found in average homes.
She points to a nearby trio: “On these three, the wordings that he has on the pots are advertisements for everyday ingredients in Iran. There’s one advertising saffron.”
Like Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup prints, Moshiri's pots question basic consumerism and the meaning placed on objects. But don’t call him the Iranian Andy Warhol.
“It’s very reductionist and meaningless,” said Balaghi.
Still, both artists used a variety of mediums, appropriated images and examine the power of symbols. While this museum is all about Warhol’s life and legacy, according to its chief curator Jose Diaz, it’s also important to look at the next generation of artists, including those outside the U.S.
“You’re seeing a lot of artists from the Middle East becoming a part of museum permanent collections that are not limited to being in the African collection or the Islamic collection,” said Diaz. “They’re artists who are truly contemporary.”
This exhibition has been in the works for more than a year and a half, and Diaz said the political climate has changed in that time. That’s why he knew programming to supplement this art would be important. He said it’s about creating a global dialogue.
“Farhad Moshiri is an artist who is well known and collected in Europe and Middle East, but for us it can bring up provocative issues,” he said. “It opens up race, issues of preconceived notions; it’s a great way for this art to introduce more sensitive topics.”
It’s about more than complimentary aesthetics, Balaghi said. The exhibit breaks down barriers and transports visitors back to their childhoods into the world of Iran they may be more familiar with than they thought.