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An interview with the artist Sassan Behnam-Bakhtiar
May 23, 2018
The French-Iranian artist, Sassan Behnam-Bakhtiar is one of the first artists to showcase Iran through eastern eyes and to challenge the negative constructs of the western gaze, Sassan Behnam-Bakhtiar’s practice aims to change the perceptions and cemented beliefs about Iran and Iranians that persist in the West. The exhibition draws on thousands of years of Iranian culture, weaving ancient Persian motifs, patterns and landscapes into large-scale mixed media paintings, to explore Iranian identity in the 21st century. Descended from the ancient nomadic Bakhtiari tribe, Sassan’s large scale paintings recall the Zagros Mountains in South West Iran that are still home to the tribe, amongst other subjects.
Through exploring his Persian heritage and his dedicated practice of Kundalini meditation, Sassan has used his art as cathartic release, leading him to explore ideas around existentialism, human compassion and wellbeing. Oneness Wholeness will be Sassan Behnam-Bakhtiar’s first UK exhibition since The Real Me, his debut in London in 2014.
Nina Moaddel, the Iranian-born curator of the exhibition, says that Sassan “is an artist who knows exactly what he wants; it’s been a great experience working with him.”
Candid Magazine: What was the inspiration behind Oneness Wholeness?
Sassan Behnam-Bakhtiar: Oneness Wholeness is something very personal to me. The inspiration behind it comes from an extremely harsh event that happened in my life seven years ago, which put me in a very dire situation where my health began to be affected in a negative way. That’s when I started changing my attitude towards the world, towards people, towards everything! That was when I started practicing Kundalini mediation. (Kundalini meditation is a form of meditation that centres around primal energy and the seven chakras, or energy points, of the body.)
It really changed my whole perception of life. We’re not made for these kinds of lifestyles. Everything that we’re doing in modern society, from our working schedules to our televisions to phones, it’s extremely unhealthy. When you meditate, you release a lot of chemicals in your body, like having sex!
CM: And the meditation influenced your art?
SBB: I should mention that I was always very sceptical of meditation, and when I started experiencing these feelings, that’s when I became inspired. It was a moment of, “Oh my god, I’ve been missing out on everything!” While practicing Kundalini meditation I was able to open my third eye, and I’m not going to lie to you, that was a very scary experience! But after that, my whole perspective changed, I felt different! You start focusing on being more loving, you create instead of destroying things, you focus on the positives not the negatives. For myself, I was a very anxious person before and it all disappeared through this practice.
I believe that we as human beings are running on a default state and we need to realise these things in order to evolve – I believe that the next evolution will be a spiritual one. I want to bring all of this out on a mass level to explain to people that if you live your life in a different manner you can find your oneness.
CM: How do you want your artwork to grow in the future?
SBB: My artwork, I want it to be seen. One of the most important reasons for creating my work is for my audience to connect with the paintings. Stand in front of it, scratch your head, try to figure out what’s going on. I want to trigger an adventure for my audience, to create a switch in them that by doing little things, like meditation, you can create a totally different life for yourself.
CM: Tell me more about your arts foundation, the Behnam-Bakhtiar Foundation.
SBB: Iran’s situation is a bit different, as we all know. I always wanted to provide a platform for Iranian artists to bring their work to the heart of Europe, to Monaco, which is a very special place to me, it’s my home. The purpose of the foundation is to create a real chance for Iranian artists to make a living from their work. We, at the foundation, are extremely selective. It’s all about choosing the right artists with the right attitudes because they become part of our family. In fact, many of them have flown in from all around the world to see me here at the Saatchi Gallery because we are a family.
CM: Did you have a defining moment when you knew that being an artist is what you wanted to do?
SBB: Yes! I started painting from the age of two or three, my father was an artist, my whole family was very involved in the arts. While I was studying at university I always took my elective courses in art and spent time working in my studio. In about 2009, it really became serious. I decided to make the statement I wanted to make.
In the beginning, people weren’t receptive of my rebel attitude! As you know, so much of Iranian art focuses on the negatives and I was one of the first artists to put my feet down and say, “Enough is enough, I can’t take this anymore! I’m going to try to change this”. And I think that I was able to change things, because now the whole movement has shifted – for example, this work, Oneness Wholeness, is not negative.
We, as Iranians, are not the things you see on TV, we have over 8,000 years of culture. Just like other countries, there’s a good side, there’s a bad side. I respect our artists, some of us will focus on the good things and others on the bad. And they should be talking about the negative things, but you need balance. I want the world to know who we are.
Words by Cara van Rhyn