April 01 - May 19, 2011
There are no non-believers in Hell
galerie jerome de noirmont

exhibition release


The Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont has the great pleasure to unveil the work - featuring his latest creations - of the Iranian artist and video director Shoja Azari for the first time in France from April, 1st to May, 19th.
Shoja Azari was born in Shiraz (Iran) in 1958 and has been living in the United States since 1983. His work is emblematic of the political commitment of the contemporary Iranian artistic scene and its new generation of creative artists, many of whom are living in exile, who are attempting to shed some light on the changes seen in Iranian society and the aspirations of the country´s young people.

During the first half of the 20th century, Iranian art – especially the cinema – was the prerogative of the Shah and his court. No sooner had it broken free than it became a foil for State concerns and was thus subject to a fair amount of censorship. After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, this censorship grew, demanding that art come into line with the new Islamic standards. Khomeini’s regime introduced extremely authoritarian control over all aspects of life, imposing a moral code for artistic features in line with the new religious government’s own ideological goals.

Today artists from the Iranian diaspora such as Shoja Azari and Shirin Neshat - with whom he has been living and working since 1997 – appear like the genuine heirs to a vitality which is no longer in its early days. Also, at a time when the West is attempting to gain a better understanding of the Islamic mosaic, these artists are able to draw on all the richness of two cultures – that of their native country, Iran, and the modern Western culture they have discovered in exile – and thus offer an alternative, stereotype-free view of the Muslim world. An omnipresent cultural identity which Shoja Azari combines with a very modern artistic language in order to reveal the sense of unease caused by religious fanaticisms, wether in his adopted country or in his country of origin. An outsider’s view in which art and politics become inseparable: “My works are rooted in my personal cultural history, such as the traditional Persian miniature paintings, and living abroad and exposure to the history of abstract, minimal and conceptual art of the West.”
Drawing his inspiration from the political tension which racks the Middle East, he decries the excesses of religious radicalisation, and the resulting political and human clashes. True to his own heritage, he picks up on Iranian popular and religious iconography and combines it with the images of conflicts he has seen and experienced through the American media. This is a committed art which mixes images of painting and video, Persian tradition and Western modernity.

    Upstairs at the gallery, the artist’s latest video installation is projected onto two adjacent walls. The title, There are no non-believers in Hell (2010), which is also the one of the exhibition, echoes the sermon preached by an American fundamentalist who stirred up controversy by calling for the auto-da-fé of the Koran in September 2010. This position is indicative of a growing Islamophobia in the United States since the terrorist attacks on 9/11, which ring out in a highly disturbing way in this video installation. The preacher’s voice takes on another dimension here as we look at the images: the works of two great masters of Western painting – Rembrandt’s The Angel Stopping Abraham from Sacrificing Isaac to God and Caravaggio’s The Incredulity Of Saint Thomas – are in flames. By destroying these two paintings – symbols both of Western art and of doubt and faith – and combining them with a sermon by an American religious extremist, Shoja Azari is inverting the Western stereotype which sees religious radicalism and Islam as inextricably linked.
Two photographs, created from the same images, will be exhibited too.

In the second video projection shown here, The day of the Last Judgment (Coffee House Painting) (2009), Azari subverts Teheran “literary café paintings”. This has been a specific genre in Iran ever since the end of the 19th century and, because of their narrative nature, these paintings are seen as the forerunners of Iranian cinema. Their subjects, which are mainly religious, portray scenes from the histoire of Shi´ism or the Apocalypse. Here the artist takes one of the most famous classical religious paintings, the one of Mohammad Modabber (The Day of the Last Judgement, 1897) which he turns into a great, lively fresco, a current, living vision of Hell.

It appears like visual canvas showing the violence emblematic of the last forty years in the Middle East, projected in the midst of scenes of both paradise and perdition: the forces of Hezbollah on the march, American rockets being fired, clashes between Israeli-Palestinian tension and the assassination of a political opponent in Teheran; these moving images, whose small dimensions are reminiscent of Persian miniatures, contrast with the brutality they portray and the overall scale of the chaos illustrated by these videos. Over this panorama we hear the voices of Lynndie England, a suicide bomber, and Hassan Nasrallah emerging. Shoja Azari then becomes the indirect narrator of these everyday scenes which we are used to see in the media. As in the previous work, fire is ravaging the canvas, the video images come together and break up again as the flames lick away…
Working halfway between tradition and modernity, here the artist has produced a firmly committed work in which all of the visual, artistic, cultural and historic borders have been broken down.

Alongside these audiovisual works, Shoja Azari once again engages in a formal deconstruction of sacred and Shi´ite iconography in his Icons series (2010). Five video portraits pick up on the official portrayals of Islamic Imams, martyrs and saints. These icons, which are traditionally male and portray the religious heroes of the Shi’ite resistance to the Sunni domination over the course of the 1979 Iranian Revolution have been part of everyday life in Iran ever since, and can be seen everywhere, in shops, restaurants and homes.
Shoja Azari has no hesitation in subverting here the pious images of these great popular figures by replacing their faces by those of contemporary Iranian women. This turns the icon into something which is alive, human and feminine… A transgression of the sacred whose strangeness cannot be ignored. “I covered the beard, and I looked at the eyes and the eyebrows, and I realised they are actually females in disguise”. When he makes this series, Shoja Azari is allusing the fates of these female martyrs, the civilian victims of the Green Revolution, the very women who revered these icons.
With Icon #3, it is actually a portrayal of the Imam Reza, the eighth Shi´ite imam who died a martyr’s death in the 9th century, whose image is subverted. Covered in a green turban – green is the symbolic colour of Iran and it became the colour of the opposition in 2009 - he becomes a grief-stricken young woman with tears streaming down her face. So the religious icon becomes a popular icon, rooted in reality…

The manipulation of the sacred, the diverse ranges of iconographic references and the fusion of various different visual and sound media are all characteristic of Shoja Azari’s work.
The contrasts we find in these unstable scenes, which are at once commonplace and brutal, show us the various different “layers of reality” glimpsed by the artist: he is not interested in the realism of a linear narrative but rather in the density of a reality which he never expresses unilaterally but instead in the form of paths which cross and indeed are sometimes opposing.
Lying somewhere between tradition and modernity, the past and the present, Shoja Azari is an artist who works in the nebulous area between doubt and certainty as it always exists in every individual. He is like the wolf in sheep’s clothing, he literally plays with fire and excels in mixing up appearances, our illusions and the things we see as obvious.


2 video installations:
The Day of the Last Judgement, 2009. Video installation on canvas, 5 min 30 sec. Edition of 5 and 2 artist’s proofs.
There are no non-believers in hell, 2010. Two channels video/audio installation projected on canvases, 6 minutes 45 sec. Edition of 5 and 2 artist’s proofs.
5 video portraits:
Icons series, 2010. 5 videos, 3-5 minutes. Edition of 5 and 2 artist’s proofs.
Photographs: Edition of 6 and 2 artist’s proofs.