Ali Banisadr When the Simorgh Paints

At the Benaki Museum’s top floor gallery with its walls of a muted shade of aquamarine, Iranian born American artist Ali Banisadr pairs his paintings with some of the museum’s celebrated Chinese porcelains for a show entitled Ultramarinus – Beyond the Sea. The playful display that oscillates between East and West crystallized when Banisadr discovered in the museum’s permanent collection a sixteenth-century ceramic incense burner with a Persian inscription from Padnãma, the Book of Advice by the poet Farid-al-dīn Attãr (1145/46-1221). “I had actually made a painting with this blue in the past called Language of the Birds,” an allusion to the title of another work by Attãr that Bansidar loved. “It’s about this legendary bird named Simorgh, which is actually my Instagram name.” Banisadr first discovered the story as a young boy. “I don’t know. It somehow stayed with me.” The tale recounts the journey a flock of birds takes in order to find their ideal sovereign, the great Simorgh. “They want to find him because he has all the answers.” The journey is long and perilous and only thirty birds reach their destination, a lake where they see the great Simorgh in their own reflections. The divine leadership they were seeking was within them all along, as the name Simorgh reveals. “Simorgh in Persian means thirty birds. And so conceptually it [the vase] worked, and then visually I thought it’s very similar to my blue and white paintings, so why not include it in the show somehow. And then it became a larger thing, to include other vases.”

Iranian artist Ali Banisadr photographed at the Benaki Museum in Athens, Greece.

The incense burner is cleverly placed in the center of the gallery making everything conceptually orbit around it. Looking at it from different angles gives different interpretations. For instance, when viewed with Banisadr’s painting SOS (2020) in the background, the incense burner gives the false impression that it has been lit and is producing an orange-colored flame. “For me, SOS is channeling every anxiety we might be having right now: political, climate change, natural disasters, pandemic … Because I am sensing all these things and feeling all these things.” The way Banisadr documents these anxieties is with warm colors and thrusting organic forms that inspire an emotional response. “I always imagine myself standing back and viewing human activity as if I were an alien seeing the human folly, observing and making notes. I see myself, in that role, similar to let’s say Bosch or Bruegel or Goya. I like that place. I feel comfortable there.”

Tripod incense burner with reign inscription and a poetic quotation by Farid-al-dīn Attãr that translates as: ‘He who approaches the seller of perfumes / himself acquires part of the sweet fragrance given forth by those scents.’

One painting that offers a Hieronymus Bosch kind of panorama is Banisadr’s early painting The Gatekeepers (2009). “I feel like there is this element of atmosphere and landscape, water and nature and so on.” From a distance the panorama looks inviting with its soft palette giving a bird’s eye view of a land overflowing with abundance, but as we linger and gaze, the painting grows ever more layered revealing a cast of tiny peculiar characters in the most remarkable vignettes. “I have always been trying to guide the viewer towards those costumed hybrid figures, because this is where the action is for me. A place where you have these sorts of meetings and celebrations.”

The Gatekeepers (2009).
Detail from the The Gatekeepers (2009) showing the rich detail and the tiny figures.

Preoccupied with the idea of scale and how to make the figures more noticeable, he switched from an elevated to a street level perspective, so that rather than floating above the figures, in the newer paintings we are walking among them. “I kept thinking, ‘How do I bring them more to life?’ The figures take so much of my time. So, in a way, I thought, ‘I need to zoom in on them.’ And that’s what happened over the years.” With the figures pushed to the foreground, the canvas becomes a theatrical stage where the ambivalence of its protagonists instantly attracts. “We don’t know if they wear a costume or who they are really. Think of (Mikhail) Bakhtin’s Carnival and Carnivalesque. The idea of the world seen upside down. In the carnival, the lower-level people could sort of dress up and be high and the high could be low. So, it’s this sort of juxtaposition I am interested in.”

This exploration of ambivalent figures led Banisadr to conceive a wonderfully detailed group of birds that serve as protagonists in some of his paintings. For instance, in The Rise of the Blond, a painting created around Donald Trump’s election, a bird with blond hair and a long beak in a spread-wing posture leads a parade of other peculiar figures. “If I am taking in information about politics, I will for sure let that come out. However, I don’t try to make political work.” In The Builder the leading character is a boxy, feathered-hatted figure holding an orange-colored hammer. “It’s a working-class figure and you don’t know if he is sculpting or… making sounds. For me, it’s like a metaphor for the artist. You are using these primitive tools that have been used for thousands and thousands of years and you are trying to make sense out of what’s happening during your time.”

Detail from The Rise of the Blond (2016) showing a bird spreading its wings leading a parade of other peculiar figures.
Detail from The Builder (2019) showing a feathered hatted working-class figure holding a hammer.

What all the paintings have in common is a vocabulary of rhythm, vibration and musicality drawn from the artist’s synesthesia. Like Wassily Kandinsky, Banisadr is a synesthete who experiences the environment through multiple senses. “It’s like the colors, the shapes, the lines, the textures, like every little thing in the painting is like notes. And then, there is a sound of something metal, but I can also taste it in my mouth. Which is hard to explain. But it’s like all your senses are super heightened.” This unusual quality allows him to concentrate on one painting at a time. “When I start working on a new painting, the sounds are loud and not in tune with each other and then it ends up becoming about me taming the painting in a way, harmonizing the sounds and making the orchestra, finding a rhythm.”

Ali Banisadr in front of his painting Selection (2011).

When I start working on a new painting, the sounds are loud and not in tune with each other and then it ends up becoming about me taming the painting in a way, harmonizing the sounds and making the orchestra, finding a rhythm.

Ali Banisadr

No study precedes his visual compositions because, as he says, he wants to be surprised. “It is like jumping into the abyss. I don’t know what I am going to come back with when I work on a painting.” He does, however, feed his visual vocabulary by researching the things he is interested in. “Let’s say I become interested in the pandemic, for example. I want to research it. I want to read The Plague, to see from a literature perspective how somebody was able to construct this thing that was happening in a novel. But then I also want to see how painters, artists in the past, showed this idea of the plague. And then I am kind of ready to let these things come out. But it is not forced. It doesn’t have to be about those things. If they come out, they come out. If not, it’s OK.”

Detail from Thought Police (2019).
Detail from Thought Police (2019) reflected in reverse on the glass case displaying a vase from the Qing dynasty, Qianlong reign (1736-1795).

Unforcedly, Thought Police is reflected in reverse on a glass case containing a flower vase from the Qing dynasty (1736-1795) bringing together past and present, East and West, beauty and threat. The painting has a densely built lower part with wondrous and terrifying details like teeth, a serpent’s tongue and threatening bird beaks all to signify chaos, and an airier upper part that leaves room for hope and transformation. “I am thinking about social media and technology and algorithms and how all these things are affecting us and controlling us in a way. So, I am fascinated by that, because I am also, I am dealing with it and I want to know what is it doing to us. It’s a very new thing. George Orwell’s 1984 is always on my mind. More and more so now.” In a similar way the vase gives a sense of rising with the plant moving from the ground up. “The paintings don’t want to be contained. They just want to shift all the time. They are ambivalent. And so are the porcelains. They were made in China, but the color blue came from Iran. And then they were exported to Iran. And then later of course, this line traveled to Europe.”  As Banisadr might say of himself, they traversed the East and the West.”

All photos © Alexia Antsakli Vardinoyanni