When I went to visit the Musee de Picardie – a very grand and impressive Museum of the region, in the process of being renovated but still full of treasures – and take a look at this incredible permanent intervention by Sol Le Witt there, it blew me away. Sophie showed me around and then we went upstairs to meet Sabine.
Sabine Cazenave is the Museum Director (there aren’t many female Museum Directors anywhere in the world and I was very pleased to meet one) who had mentioned Chohreh Feyzdjou when we met in Brighton the first time, and now started to talk in more depth about this extraordinary artist who I did not know of. I looked at the photo of her in a catalogue and she instantly reminded me of me, when I had long crazy hair in my twenties. And of course the Iranian thing, and the wrapped works! Memory, loss, longing, obsessive methods. Abject though, very different end of the spectrum, but so powerful visually. The French state own all her work as she died suddenly, very young and it was left to them, and Sabine was charged with going through and organising her studio into a permanent collection that I think is mainly held in Bordeaux.
It’s curious how hearing about this woman and her devastatingly powerful work moved me and triggered old memories, seeing our parallels. An Iranian Jew (a complex thing to be in Iran) she came to Paris, aged 18 to study at the Beaux-Arts, and while she was there the Revolution broke out (1979). I moved to Paris aged 21 to escape, Thatcher’s Britain, my family and to pursue the 19th century Bohemian dream of the artist, alone in my garret but in a city of visual inspiration, a city that would value that dream and not always being ask me what my real job was. And to some extent it unfolded like that, and I got my real art education there – but on the streets and in an informal way, mentored for a time and given my first show by a Puerto Rican artist called Alfonso Arana .
Like my some of my own family in Iran, Chohreh was caught up in the promise of radical change offered by the rising clerical regime and returned to Iran, even marrying a Muslim for a short period, then quickly realising I think that there had simply been a transfer of power in her country, into something that proved an even darker shade of black. My mother I remember warned of this in 1978, as Khomeini was being cradled in France, and I recall the violent political arguments as one of my second cousins, visiting us in Southampton while studying at Manchester Uni, revealed he was going to join the Revolutionary Guards. I have never seen my mother so furious. He used to use my bedroom for his 5 daily prayers and I used to pretend to walk in on him by accident, just to try to study what he was doing. I had never seen anyone praying like that before.
Returning to Paris, Chohreh seemed to have a fast and steady rise in her career, and I am amazed that I never saw her work in the flesh, as it was on show when I was living in Paris still, and came to the UK too in a few groups shows later on. She opened a shop, selling her works, labelled “Product of Chohreh Feyzdjou’ in 1992, and I note she was in a group show with Sarah Lucas and wonder if that was an influence on Lucas and Emin’s The Shop in 1993…Except Chohreh’s work seemed to be an ironic comment on consumerism, which later seemed to be the driving force for their work with Saatchi etc. – but who knows how it would have gone if she had lived? I get the sense she was very ambitious, a force to reckon with. A candle that burnt itself out.
She was showing all over the world and promoted by top gallerists. I lived a low key life, drawing and painting most of the time with a few small shows in Paris and Toulouse, travelling a lot, selling some work sometimes, having spiritual adventures and teaching English to business people to cover my rent, where I learnt a lot about engaging up close with people who were very different from me and developing a connection, in order to teach them a language. This has proved deeply influential in my working practice, even today. And I was in love with Paris and the freedom it gave me to be myself, to be a citizen of the world, and I liked the fact that people seemed to be interested in both my Englishness and my Iranian-ness. A bonus. Like her, I also went on a journey of self –discovery to Iran in 1992 (only I am second –generation so it was my first time, not a return) travelling around the country with my mother, falling in love in secret with an Iranian man and later, on returning to Paris, trying to convert to Islam (which didn’t go so well).
I saw Choreh’s connection to Sufism – check her amazing walls of rolls of black dusted Persian poem – and remembered my own Sufi teacher, Javad, who I met and followed for a while in Paris – learning those complex group movements /dances and at times, whirling with the universe. He was the one to persuade me to convert to Islam (much to my mother’s horror) and I introduced my Mother to him while visiting Mashad, where he was based. She was very suspicious, but was wisely hands-off, seeing perhaps that my connection to him was a cultural not spiritual one, and temporary –if impactful.
It was through Javad and my mother both that I came to love Rumi and Hafez, which has influenced so much of my work.
Monument to The End of Money (Alinah Azadeh)
Cheque books, credit cards, wrapped in ripped indigo kimono, green wool, wire.
The quantity and often the form of Chohreh’s work was prolific and colossal. She packaged and rolled up her entire life, covered it in a dusting of black ash and then, suddenly at the age of 41 from a complex illness, life took her away, back to darkness she had covered it with. I have been reading about it in the catalogues Sabine gave me and it really is worth looking more closely, online. Something about her scrolls works really moves me.
I have used wrapped scrolls before both with my own personal artefacts – like this one – and with groups, as part of Portraits of the Unseen, a collaborative show at the National Portrait Gallery I did with 3 groups of young Muslims in 2010.
Chasing Mirrors: Portraits of the Unseen (National Portrait Gallery, 2010)
The shared desire to preserve, protect, catalogue, display. Our work is very different philosophically, but it’s always somethingI take note of when someone is introduced to me in such deliberate detail, there is something to weave in here.