‘Is it art or pain?’ Iran’s Parastou Forouhar on family, death and the failed revolution

Every autumn, the Iranian artist Parastou Forouhar returns to Tehran from Germany to hold a memorial service for her murdered parents.

Dariush Forouhar, a secular politician, and his wife, Parvaneh, were two of Iran’s most high-profile political activists when they were stabbed to death in their home on 22 November 1998. The killers placed her father’s body in a chair facing towards the Qibla, the direction of Mecca.

Forouhar, 55, remembers receiving a call from a BBC reporter asking when she had last spoken to her parents.

“I called a close friend of my parents in Paris and he was crying,” Forouhar says. “I thought, it mustn’t be just an arrest. We were used to [arrests]. I said, is Dad killed? He said, it’s not just your dad.”

Every year since, Parastou has gathered with close relatives to light a candle and pay tribute to her parents’ secular democratic values. The public are routinely blocked from attending by security officials.

“They won’t let people in for the ceremony [but] it gets media coverage and it becomes an act of protest,” says Forouhar, whose work was recently exhibited at Pi Artworks in London.

Forouhar says regularly revisiting the suffering she has endured for nearly 20 years has helped to heal the wounds of her past.

“When I work, I also have pain, you want to move on but also reproduce the pain at the same time,” she says. “Sometimes I can’t distinguish; is it art or pain? It’s really like finding healing in repetition. For me, the way to deal with pain is to reproduce it in art.”

Forouhar wants to encourage viewers to “give up their distances, ambivalent positions, and rethink their presumptions”
 Forouhar wants to encourage viewers to ‘give up their distances, ambivalent positions, and rethink their presumptions’. Photograph: Andrea Guermani

The murder of Forouhar’s parents shone a spotlight on the killings and disappearances of other Iranian dissident intellectuals in the 1990s and created an atmosphere of fear that helped put the brakes on the reformist agenda of President Mohammad Khatami.

In a rare admission in 1999, Iran’s ministry of intelligence took responsibility for the killings, saying it had “committed these criminal activities … under the influence of undercover rogue agents”. Saeed Hajjarian, a reformist politician and journalist involved in revealing the “chain murders”, survived an attempted murder the following year but was left severely disabled.

Forouhar studied art at Tehran University after the 1979 Islamic revolution and says it was the failure of the revolution that made her the artist she is today.

“We thought, we’ll build a better life, we thought it was possible, but then we realised those who hijacked the revolution are suppressing the segment of the society that did not approve of revolutionary policies,” she said. “The streets turned unsafe and the arrests and the executions followed.”

She left for Germany in 1991, graduating with a master’s from Offenbach am Main and holding her first exhibition at her university in 1994. Forouhar established a portfolio of works that she defines as being between “abstraction and the formation of metaphors”, drawing on what she learned in Tehran, when students expressed dissent through highly coded and alternative methods.

Parastou Forouhar.
 Parastou Forouhar. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist

“I use ornaments as a structure in my work – I like the structure of repetition, of harmony and congruity,” she says. “Ornaments have similarities with totalitarian regimes. They want to make everything harmonic, and anything that doesn’t confirm has to be eliminated.”

Butterflies feature prominently, but they are composed of human bodies in agonising pain.

“In Persian poetry, butterflies are often described as being in the height of aesthetics, but often also shown as dying. It has a paradox inside it. And it’s also the name of my mother (Parvaneh means butterfly in Farsi). Every time I produce one, it’s as if I’m producing an image of my mother.”

Her works are about “simultaneity of beauty and harm” and “the ambivalence of their co-existence”. She has previously said she wants to encourage viewers to “give up their distances, ambivalent positions, and rethink their presumptions – to recognise and respond to these contradictions and contrasting emotions”.

Work by Parastou Forouhar.
 Work by Parastou Forouhar. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist.

Her recent work, Written Room, which features in a group exhibition in Paris this month, shows giant Farsi calligraphy covering the surfaces of gallery spaces. Her other fascination has been with the influx of refugees to Europe in recent years, and recent work showsmigrants drowning at sea on paper she made herself.

“This is a turning point for Europe, to see how it will react – its response to refugees drowning will define its future identity.”

Forouhar also has an installation in progress, called Documentation. It first went on show in 1999 in Frankfurt and features a room full of documents pinned to the wall or stored in boxes. It includes every piece of correspondence she has had with human rights organisations, Iran’s judiciary, Germany’s parliament, and other officials, regarding her parents’ murder. A photocopier sits in the middle and viewers are invited to make copies of the documents and take them home. Every year, she updates the work with new correspondence.

Parastou Forouhar’s artwork.
 Butterflies feature heavily in Forouhar’s art. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist

Though the moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani was re-elected as Iran’s president in a landslide victory in May, Forouhar does not believe his terms in office will bring a new dawn.

“His election marks the total retreat of the whole society from the demands it had during the Green movement [of 2009],” she says. “It’s a reconciliation between the government and the people, and the people gave in, as if the people have become accomplice. This is all an illusion.”

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