Hossein Valamanesh: Puisque tout passe

We are deeply saddened by the passing of Hossein Valamanesh, an artist who inspired so many. For Artist Profile 57, Beau Lai wrote from Paris on Valamanesh's exhibition with the Institut des Cultures d'Islam, "Puisque tout passe" (This will also pass). The first European solo exhibition of his work, this show instigated for Lai a contemplation of the "intimacy and consideration" which Valamanesh gave to viewers, of the sanctitude that his work offers to those displaced from home, and of the need for him to be further exhibited and known beyond Australia.

Within Puisque tout passe (This Will Also Pass), Hossein Valamanesh’s first European solo exhibition at the Institut des Cultures d’Islam (ICI), is a documentary that provides insight into Valamanesh’s fifty-year practice. It almost runs chronologically, detailing significant life experiences that have profoundly influenced his works. The artist himself gently narrates over the rolling footage. He describes how he finds churches and mosques as almost paradoxical spaces for him to enter. How can a person that doesn’t necessarily consider themselves religious feel a wave of spirituality when entering these physical structures? I find the gallery space to present itself as a similar paradoxical space. What makes an artwork, an assembly or application of physical materials to form imagery, placed within a physical location, provoke an emotive response from the viewer?

This exhibition holds within itself layers of paradoxical meanings. The layers present themselves so fluidly and in such an unassuming manner that it feels hard to delineate and define these contradictions, but nevertheless I will attempt. 

The first and most identifiable paradox is the strong presence of a push and pull between permanence and ephemerality. It is evident in the first work that welcomes visitors and begins the exhibition, a text that translates from Farsi to This will also pass, the title of the exhibition and the work itself, 2012. The text is formed from what appears to be tree branches, but is actually cast bronze. Valamanesh uses imagery of organic material and abstracts it to form text that projects a message of impermanence. This is then contrasted with the use of a material of immense durability, which in turn highlights notions of the ephemeral whilst questioning it at the same time. This play between using materials of permanence to prompt images and messaging of impermanence continues throughout the exhibition.

It is stated within the exhibition texts and documentary that Valamanesh is heavily influenced by the Persian poet Rumi, the teachings of Sufism, and his time learning from Mirlirrtjarra artists on Ngaanyatjarra Country and Luritja and Pintupi artists from the Papunya area in 1974. These influences are easily identifiable and led me to consider the paradoxical nature of simply existing in itself. Our experiences and feelings come and go in a similar way to the coming and going of a single lifespan, but when looking at our individual existences within a greater lens there’s comfort in realising that the feelings we experience are never unique, yet universal. Our stories are a repetition of a greater cycle, a part of a greater whole. 

Valamanesh gives so much intimacy and consideration to his viewers. From my understanding, Sufism is a sector of Islam that promotes introspection. It is evident that Valamanesh’s works are heavily introspective and through sharing his introspections with us I found reflections of myself to connect to. The consideration can be simply identified through the ease of physically moving through the exhibition. The exhibition takes place over multiple levels and two locations, which creates the feeling of being led through a carefully guided maze. 

The greatest highlight of the exhibition for me was the section of the show that extended into and subverted the ICI’s Hammam space. As able-bodied viewers descend the stairs from the ground floor into the Hammam, they walk underneath the sculptural work, Seven Steps, 2009. This feels like a message to viewers that we are entering an underbelly. Within the Hammam space, which has been unable to operate for its actual purpose as a bath house during Covid and fortuitously repurposed for Valamanesh, sit Valamanesh’s classics such as The Lover Circles his own Heart, 1993, and Passing Time, 2011. I couldn’t think of a more intimate and remarkable space to encompass these works, seeming as though they were always meant to exhibit in this space. The cool blue tones of the tiles that cover the walls and floors, coupled with the soft curving lines forming separated rooms and benches that encompassed the works, create a feeling of sacredness. Entering the Hammam felt like what I imagined entering a spiritual space feels like to Valamanesh.

The ideas surrounding permanence and ephemerality within Valamanesh’s works led me to extend these contemplations to the physicality of the ICI itself. The existence and formation of the institution is no small feat within France – a country that, like so many historically rooted in colony and empire, heavily encourages and upholds dialogue rooted in Islamophobia and intolerance. The Institut is located in the Goutte D’or neighbourhood, behind the Barbès–Rochechouart metro station, an area routinely considered dangerous and violent by those that live comfortably far enough away – and “coincidentally,” also has a dense population of Black and Muslim communities. This area of Paris has a history of being a place for many immigrants and refugees from primarily North African countries colonised by the French to come to settle upon arrival. It is an example of the historic and current racial segregation that plainly exists within this city yet is rarely acknowledged. 

The ICI was established just over ten years ago by the Mairie de Paris, which I like to think of as Paris’s City Council. It has been established with a mission to showcase the immense diversity of Islamic culture and to challenge uninformed misconceptions. In conversation with the ICI’s Managing Director, Stéphanie Chazalon, and Curator, Bérénice Saliou, it seems that executing this mission has not been an easy task. Within the five years that these women have been in leadership positions at the ICI, they have had to push for visibility and recognition from the Parisian contemporary arts industry whilst maintaining strong ties and engagement with local communities.

This brings me to the second paradox that exists in relation to the exhibition, which feels almost dirty to acknowledge: the paradox of respectability. Within the ICI, the push for respectability is essential to its mission. Chazalon talked of it as if it’s almost a “social experiment.” Art centres with objectives like this are nothing new. In Australia I can think of countless examples of art spaces that fight for recognition and respect for marginalised communities by the greater public. In essence this objective is a beautiful one too, but what bothers me is the fact that this push has to occur in the first place.

This idea of respectability also applies to the context of Valamanesh’s exhibition being his first solo exhibition in Europe. He isn’t generally well known in the Parisian arts scene and because of this, I expect this exhibition will have less visitation than previous ones. Saliou explained that their decision to invite Valamanesh to exhibit was tied to the fact that the ICI had finally reached a level of establishment that they now have the ability to platform and promote artists that they felt deserved further recognition. She mentioned feedback that she had received at opening night from a highly respected arts professional thanking the ICI for introducing them to this artist they had never heard of or had previous exposure to. 

To be honest, this bothered me. Why is this the way that the art world works? Why does the finest contemporary art space I have visited in Paris have to push for recognition within the industry? Why does thanks have to be passed on for the discovery of an artist who has been practicing expansively and incredibly for over fifty years? Why does visibility have to be asked for when it has already been earned tenfold?  

The exhibition felt like wading into a deep and wide lake. Each work a gentle lap of water softly washing over my toes and building up to my knees the further I treaded through. I feel I only managed to comprehend the surface of this lake, the way the light would strike the water and create mesmerising shifts in colour and depth.

This leads me to the final paradox, one of place and displacement. I see this paradox evidently in Valamanesh’s works that long for home. I see it as an Australian immigrant who has always longed for home but never really understood that home can be multiple places at once. I see this feeling of displacement when I come to the exhibition, almost exactly two years since I left home on Darug country with a full-bodied ache to return. I see clashes between place and displacement almost violently in the context in which the exhibition exists; and I marvel at the sanctitude that Valamanesh offers in contrast. The sanctitude I felt from immersing myself within his life’s work. I struggle to process that art can be so giving, especially when existing within almost demeaning circumstances.  

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 57, 2021.
Images courtesy the artist, GAGPROJECTS, Adelaide, and Institut des Cultures d’Islam, Paris.

Puisque tout passe (This Will Also Pass)
23 September 2021 – 19 February 2022
Institut des Cultures d’Islam, Paris

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