Heroic Warrior

Khosrow Hassanzadeh

Exhibition Dates: May - June, 2014

Khosrow Hassanzadeh’s creative works are especially fascinating at first sight because of his powerful appropriation of vintage photographs of wrestlers. Like Chinese or Indian martial art, the Iranian wrestling or PAHLAVAN (heroic sport), a traditional martial art for warriors’ training, is imbued with spiritual and philosophical dimension inspired by Sufism. The tribute to PAHLAVAN wrestlers allows Khosrow to collect old photographs of famous wrestling champions from the pre-1979 era, especially during the 1920’s - 1930’s, and to “re-contextualize” them under the title YA ALI MADAD, which he would use over and over again in a dizzying multiplication of Persian calligraphy. This repetition or multiplication “sounds like” a form of MANTRA, but it is actually a prayer of the PAHLAVAN wrestlers before a fight, the meaning of YA ALI MADAD is “MAY ALLAH THE EXALTED HELP YOU”.
Heroic Wrestlers were not totally unfamiliar to me as I first discovered them through Marc Riboud’s 1955 photographs of Iran, during his Go-East journey, when he got a glimpse of this male only sanctuary. And what a man’s world! All these powerful men rocking odd weights (meels) that looked like some over-sized juggling clubs or bowling pins! One of Marc Riboud’s pictures was a reflection through a framed mirror, showing a group of bare-chested big men working out with wooden club in each hand, and in the background, some fully clothed spectators looking on sitting at a table with coffee or tea and pastry. Another picture shows the wrestlers crawling on the floor of a circular pit, forming a wonderful clock-like composition with precisely twelve men in movement. 
These are not some hard-training athletes, nor some religious zealots inside the doomed-house of strength: these are Iranian’s sacred Heroic Wrestlers. Pahlevani “combines martial arts, calisthenics, strength training and music” (From Wikipedia). In Khosrow’s own words: "Wrestlers used to be an integral part of our culture. They were the caretakers of society; they were powerful men, strong men who were society's protectors and providers. They helped people in need - whether helping to organize wedding ceremonies and memorials, or organizing relief during earthquakes. This culture has now been lost." One of those national heroes was Pahlavan Takhti (1930-1968), the most venerated Olympic champion who was famous and popular for his efforts in organizing relief after an earthquake. 
Khosrow Hassanzadeh, well-known for his 2004 “Terrorist” series in which he portrayed himself, his mother and sisters as “terrorists”, and for other sensitive topics such as Chador (2001) and Prostitutes (2002), was born in 1963 in Teheran under the regime of the Shah. He has witnessed the Ayatollah’s Revolution at the age of 16, himself joining the revolution to fight the war on drugs near Afghanistan. During the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, he also enlisted as a volunteer soldier, before attending university to study painting and Persian literature.
The series YA ALI MADAD or PAHLAVAN represents a major change in Khosrow’s artistic evolution, mainly focusing on the PAHLAVAN wrestlers, in which we are able to distinguish solos, duets, and group representations. The group representation is based on ritual photographs with two champions standing or on one-knee in the center, surrounded by a Judge, a Mullah, a Dervish, and a General. The calligraphy of YA ALI MADAD forms some sort of graffiti with swirling arabesque either in the background or as a photo frame, the silver or gold color enhancing the tableau to a spiritual force tantamount to Greek icons or Tibetan Thangkas, both reputed for their spiritual and transcending properties. The duets come from Khosrow’s PAHLAVAN series representing often in monochrome a ritual pre-fight pose of two wrestlers holding hands, and holding each other’s waistbands. The most striking one being that mosaic duet which is an appropriation of an iconic 1890 picture of two wrestling champions by photographer Antoin Sevruguin (1830-1933). Then there is this group of wrestlers training in the pit that reminds me of Gericault and Picasso’s complex compositions in “Le Radeau de la Meduse” or “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” In the solos series, the triptych in ochre, blue and red colors glorifying the famous fighter Pahlavan Bolourfroush in a typical muscle flexing pose, further gives it an enhanced status of Greek icon. Through this series, one cannot help but feel the tangible heroism, generosity, humanity and uplifting spirituality, emanating from those ancient warriors. They could have all been Khosrow’s self-portraits bearing his own romanticism and nostalgia for a long gone era.
Khosrow Hassanzadeh’s savant juxtaposition of color over black and white, of modern over traditional, of Oriental calligraphy over Western Pop Art foundation, his fusion of mysticism with kitschy physicality, his longing for past glory and veiled criticism for the present day make him a unique contemporary artist in his genre. And in the political, social and cultural context in which he has been carrying on with his creative works, he truly stands out as a heroic warrior. 
Ya Ali Madad Khosrow!

Jean Loh

Photography curator