Institute of Arab and Islamic Art, NYC hosts works of art legend Behjat Sadr - GulfToday

Institute of Arab and Islamic Art, NYC hosts works of art legend Behjat Sadr


An untitled composition by Behjat Sadr.

Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer

The Institute of Arab and Islamic Art (IAIA), NYC, is presenting the first institutional solo exhibition of Behjat Sadr (1924 — 2009) in the United States from May 15. The exhibition unveils Sadr’s diverse practice, which spanned painting, photography, photomontage and kinetics.Born in Arak, Iran, Sadr broke through the male-dominated pre-Revolutionary Iranian art world, establishing herself as one of the foremost artists of the 20th century with her biomorphic gestural abstractions that defied the status quo. The current exhibition explores her engagement with painting, often made with a palette knife, by unearthing the deep relationships between body, memory and medium and surface and form.

Sadr was formally trained at the University of Tehran, Iran, before being awarded a grant to study at the Rome Academy in Italy (1955) and at the Fine Arts School of Naples (1958). Shortly after completing her studies in Fine Arts at the University of Tehran — where she would later go on to teach — she received a grant to study at the Rome Academy in 1955. She rose to prominence there.


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During her years in Rome, her friendship deepened with the Persian poet Forough Farrokhzad, who had been her student in Tehran. In Rome, she also met her second husband, Persian composer Morteza Hannaneh, whom she married in 1975 and with whom she had her only child, Kakuti (Mitra) Hannaneh.

In 1957, Sadr decided to return to the University of Tehran as a professor, despite opportunities to continue her painting in Rome and Paris. She continued teaching in Tehran for almost 20 years. Awarded the Royal Grand Prize at the Tehran Biennial 1962, she participated in international art fairs such as the Venice Biennial and Sao Paulo Biennial, and in many personal and group exhibitions.

An oil on canvas work.

In cultivating a different visual language which stemmed from the narratives of Western modern art and Persian visual culture, she experimented with new modes of expression. With her abstractions evolving into organic forms and after placing her varied surfaces on the floor, she was able to engage her body as a vehicle for painting.

Sometimes her gestural paintings appear thick and impermeable; in others, organic forms, such as tree trunks and logs, coolly float across the surface. The thick black pigments, reminiscent of oil, serve as a reference to the deeply politicised Iranian situation. The use of textured, wandering lines, meanwhile speak of how nature is being constantly redefined.

By the 1980s, she left Iran to exile in Paris. She was ill, and her battle with cancer constrained her work. The resulting collages, composed of photos she had taken of Iran’s landscapes with those showing a glimpse into her new city life, are framed tightly. Throughout, her signature brushstrokes, ever present in her oeuvre, are visible. The late works best exemplify Sadr’s commitment to the experimentation of medium and the excavation of memory. They also reveal the fecund landscape of her mind.

By tracing her continuing engagement with abstraction over the course of five decades, the show unveils the psychosis of living in a period of instability, exile, modernity and tradition in the communities she inhabited. Sadr was diagnosed with breast cancer in the 1980s, but continued to paint. She died of a heart attack at the age of 85, while swimming in Corsica. Several times in her writings, she had spoken of her wish to die in the sea.

An oil on canvas creation by Behjat Sadr.

Her works have been exhibited in many institutions internationally, including Galleria La Bussola, Rome (1958); Venice Biennale (1956, 1962); Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (1963); Grey Foundation, Saint Paul, Minnesota (1971); Grey Art Gallery, New York (2010); Asia Society, New York (2013- 2014) and The Mosaic Rooms, London, UK. This year, her work was included in the exhibition Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940-1970 at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.

IAIA is an independent, non-profit centre that promotes and advances the artistic and cultural dialogue between New York City and the Arab and Islamic worlds.Through outreach programmes, a multidisciplinary exhibition space, a knowledge-building facility, residency programme and an emphasis on collaborations with cultural organisations around the globe, it strives to provide a welcoming environment to learn about and engage with perhaps little understood and mostly over-simplified cultures.

“The continued misconceptions of the Arab and Islamic worlds,” IAIA says, “have limited and damaged cultural interactions and exchanges with the United States. The lack of facilities, resources and opportunities dedicated to Arab and Muslim artists in New York City has continued to alienate these individuals from a broader global conversation.

“IAIA will establish itself as a beacon to challenge social misconceptions and artistic stereotypes. IAIA will foster a dialogue between civilisations while dissipating notions of borders by bringing to the fore a thorough appreciation of the region’s own Modern and Contemporary Art. Founded on the value of nurturing art, IAIA will be dedicated to both the preservation and revival of Arab and Islamic art.”

Besides these goals, it also aims to share resources, forge partnerships and collaborate with established institutions and foundations across the Arab and Islamic worlds as well as New York, bringing together ideas and creating opportunities. Presenting works by artists from the Arab and Islamic worlds, including video art, traditional medias, performances, archival exhibitions, installations and commissioned works and hosting curated, well-researched exhibitions on a quarterly basis, are also among its initiatives.



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