Reza Derakshani discusses his work and the responsibilities of artists in the region

BEIRUT: Reza Derakshani is a painter, musician and performance artist who is currently exhibiting his work in Beirut. Born in Iran in 1952, he was a child prodigy who mastered the six-string lute at the age of 12. 

He studied art in Tehran, and staged his first solo show at the Ghandriz Art Gallery when he was just 19. After the Islamic Revolution, he fled his country for Rome and later New York. He returned to Tehran 20 years later, but his homecoming turned out to be brief. These days, Derakshani divides his time between studios in Dubai and Austin, Texas.

Earlier this month, he opened his first solo show at Galerie Janine Rubeiz. A multi-talented vocalist and instrumentalist, Derakshani performed a concert in the gallery amid virtuosic paintings in gold paint, oil and tar. His music resonated with the melancholy quality of his compositions, which delve into themes of exile, alienation, loneliness and nostalgia. Here, Derakshani speaks to The Daily Star about his materials, inspirations and reflections on the rising international interest in contemporary art from the Middle East.

Q: Several of the paintings on view in your new show at Galerie Janine Rubeiz combine gold paint, oil and tar. How did you come to combine these materials and what does their proximity generate for you in terms of texture and meaning?

A: I have no boundaries in using materials to realize my work. Anything that works could be on the table. Based on experience, mixing unusual materials sometimes brings amazing results.

Metallic paints such as gold and silver have been used extensively in the traditional arts of the region, and I think it’s quite magical if used artistically and with the right dose. I use metallic paints mostly when I do works that have a connection to traditional Persian arts and culture. It just works well, and it’s magical because the shades shift constantly with the changes in light.

Occasionally I use gold or silver leaf. I have my own recipe for making paste out of fine gold and silver powder to get the right thickness and texture. It’s not easy to blend, though, and can easily turn commercial.

As for the tar, during a school trip in my college years in Iran, I found a white wall standing in the middle of nowhere. In the dirt, there were bundles of cloth soaked in oil. I grabbed the cloth and did a quick fresco on the wall and fell in love with the depth and darkness of the material.

Ever since, I have been using it in my work. I come from an oil rich country, after all, although the revenues don’t always end up where they’re supposed to. I found a better use for it. It’s a natural product with a darkness that comes from the depths of the earth.

Q: Do you paint every day?

A: I paint day and night unless I am traveling for openings or performances and don’t have access to my studio. Even in that case, the brain is painting and getting inspired. It’s a disease with no cure, but it’s a good one.

Q: Is your process quick, or do your paintings develop slowly over long periods of time?

A: It really depends. I usually work on a few pieces at the same time. My works are layered, but the final image has to happen instantly, otherwise it will lose freshness. My works are basically improvisational, but most of the time they come to life instantly on the surface. I demolish the works I don’t like. It’s not the kind of work where I prepare a sketch and then execute that same sketch on canvas.

Q: How do you begin painting and when do you know a work is finished?

A: There are no rules. It has to do with experience, creativity and sense. There are artists out there who know how to paint well, but they don’t have the sense to deconstruct and end a work where it should.

If you want to build a building, there are designs and calculations involved – budgets, time frames, etc. Most of the time, the work is delivered as it’s been planned. But that doesn’t work for art. You should feel it, and in a snap moment, you have it. That’s where you stop.

Q: How integrated are music and art in your mind and in your practice?

A: The interaction between the two is big. Definitely, an important aspect of my art comes from my music, not to mention the spontaneous feeling, color and rhythm. On the other hand, my art influenced my music to become more contemporary, textured and layered.

Q: As an artist who has exhibited all over the world, how do you feel about showing your work in Beirut?

A: I wasn’t here long but to me Beirut is a fascinating city with warm and artistically intellectual people who know how to get along with chaos, appreciate life and smile. Beirut reminded me very much of old Tehran, before the turmoil and the ridiculous restrictions of the Islamic revolution, which brought millions of people into exile. I am painting about them now, and I have beautiful friends in Beirut now.

Q: Where are you based these days?

A: I am based in Dubai and the U.S. I have studios in both places, but my main studio is in Austin, Texas. I lived in New York for many years, but I guess there was a call for me to make a change. I surrender to my feelings, and it always works for me. It’s always the same story. It’s quite sad when you don’t feel safe in your homeland. In order to be productive, you take refuge somewhere else. But I guess we are getting used to it, and a lot of Lebanese did that for decades.

Q: What are your impressions of the rising interest in contemporary art from the Middle East, the Arab world and Iran?

A: It has had a huge effect in boosting not only the art market but also an awareness of the existence of so much creativity and production. Let’s face it, art has become a booming business, although not every artist has the chance to enjoy the benefits. At least some artists do live and work the way they deserve to.

In the case of artists from Iran, who have been behind an iron wall with no institutional support, this is like an open window with light coming through. I definitely give credit to Dubai for what it’s done to make this happen. But it’s important to note that there are also flaws and illegal deals, which is not surprising. This has had negative effects on the positive things that are happening, and has damaged some of the younger artists.

But all together, there is no doubt that it has brought a lot of attention to the arts of the region from all over the world. It’s for us to know how to get the most out of it. Obviously, a lot of the attention from international institutions is based on politics and not necessarily the quality of the works, at least in the case of art from Iran. That could be damaging in the long term, but I hope things go in a direction that enhances the quality of art in the region. The responsibility lies with the artists who are planting the seeds. Reza Derakshani’s exhibition is on view at Galerie Janine Rubeiz in Raouche through May 7. For more information, please call 01-868 290 or visit

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 23, 2011, on page 16.




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