The introductory text to Afshin Matlabi’s Terrorism, Democracy, Leisure at aceartinc., taken out of a Sandals Resort catalogue, reads: “It is a dream as old as time. Every moment is rich with a thousand delights.” This clichéd statement is followed by the digital photograph “Cuba,” and the video “Four Cuban Impressions.” The sunny utopia pictured in these works is the destination Matlabi visits annually with his family, in part, he says, to relieve accumulated anxiety accompanying the threat of global terrorism. The work consists of digital photos and videos, as well as several works on paper, all of which are informed by the artist’s humour-inflected drawing sensibility. Matlabi, a Montreal artist of Iranian descent, intends to expose hypocrisies in western, liberal democratic life. However, he has not been entirely successful in communicating a clear message.
Image credit: "Cuba," Afshin Matlabi, 2002, digital photograph.
Missiles are featured in many of Matlabi’s works. In “WMD,” a missile dances to the tune of ancient, and very beautiful Persian music. In the crayon and paper pieces “Ballistic Missile’s Weekend Family Outing,” plump tourists dive alongside grey missiles into vast expanses of swirling blue. Water, symbolic of refreshment, rebirth, and also salvation, is a common theme throughout the show. Nearby, the piece “Anxiety Apology” shows dozens of zombie-like figures running over surreally coloured hills, towards a spouting fountain much too small to save them all.
Matlabi cites his influences to include Magic Realism, Persian miniatures, faith-based art, and political art. He abhors the art for art’s sake approach, believing strongly in art’s didactic potential. In an artist talk the day after the opening, some critical questions were raised about the connection of Matlabi’s artistic influences and political beliefs to his work. For example, Persian miniature paintings are much more detailed and decorative than Matlabi’s drawings. It is also hard to see the influence of Shirin Neshat, a reference brought up by the artist. His attempts to parody advertising would have been aided by a more slick, polished aesthetic in some of the works. Matlabi named Théodore Géricault’s “Raft of Medusa” (1819) as an inspiration, an iconic painting that condemned the then-recent failure of the restored French monarchy to save one of France's shipwrecked navy ships. In contrast with Géricault’s accusatory work that focuses in on one isolated event, the focus of Matlabi’s works is far less clear. Is it the concept of democracy, the individual, the government, the media, or all of these interrelated units that Matlabi is contesting?
Matlabi’s own political beliefs add another layer of opacity. After he talked about reconsidering “family values, core values, a faith-based system, and religious texts, which are more sophisticated than philosophy,” he stated “voting dictates the value of your artistic creativity,” adding that he had voted Conservative in the last election. Does this change the political message associated with the show? Matlabi sees democracy as flawed, but what kind of change is he after? To me, the artist’s words were more confusing than enlightening, both aesthetically and politically. Considered next to each other, one might piece together a critique of the inhabitants of western liberal democracies: unquestioning, flabby followers whose political systems inherently result in war, and who relieve their anxiety by escaping to warm, sandy beaches to regenerate. However, the works were more difficult to comprehend after hearing Matlabi speak, and I am left with questions surrounding the connection, and in this case disconnection, between aesthetics and politics, intention and expression.
- N.B. Winnipeg