A portrait of the artist as an exile

In his latest exhibition, Crossed, Vancouver-based artist Ahmad Tabrizi shares a unique form of portraiture and visual poetry, where the complexities of language, expression and identity overlap with the experiences and memories of a political refugee.

One of the pieces in Crossed.

One of the pieces in Crossed.

The work is about political memory and experiences, but it is not just political,” says Tabrizi, “It is about the experiences of life.”

According to Makiko Hara, the independent curator of Crossed, Tabrizi’s work reveals many layers of the collective experiences of exiles and refugees living in contemporary society. Furthermore, she feels it encourages the viewer to feel the sense of pain, frustration, confusion and displacement experienced by someone who has struggled as an exile.

Tabrizi fled Iran in 1984 because of his involvement in the student movement leading up to the Iranian Revolution and found refuge in Vancouver in 1987. Before his departure from Iran, Tabrizi studied comparative literature in Tehran and intended to pursue a PhD and a teaching career.

Framing the artist

With an installation of 38 framed photographs, Crossed presents a series of Tabrizi’s elaborate, and original, self-portraits, consisting of tilted Farsi script, an English word (written in red) in place of a mouth and two cut-out eyeholes that reveal a different expression of the artist’s eyes in each photograph.

Additionally, each portrait is outlined with a circle of dressmaking pins, making the portrait appear like a prickly and ironic cartoon happy face. For Tabrizi, who has worked as a costume designer since the late 1990s, the dressmaking pin is a meaningful object.

“We’ve all been pricked at one point or another. It is a universal symbol of pain,” he says.

In this exhibition, Tabrizi adds another dimension to his photographs by arranging them in the formation of a crossword puzzle. English words on the surface of each photograph connect along a vertical or horizontal line to create fragmented phrases which read like lines of poetry: “foreign fruit… taste… like… exile” and “beholder… displacement… taste… another… failure.

Tabrizi creates an atypical kind of self-portrait, something he describes as an “oddball portrait of displacement,” providing the viewer with a complex and layered visual arrangement.

Power to inspire and provoke

Hara states that the power of Tabrizi’s visual poetry is what is most striking about the exhibition.

“It unveils an untranslatable narrative written in-between the mother tongue and foreign language,” she says.

While Hara hopes the exhibition inspires the viewer to imagine the artist’s life, Tabrizi wants his work to raise questions for the viewer. At the same time, he is modest about the influence of his art, and quite skeptical about the impact of not only his own work, but also the creative work of all artists.

“Creating art is my mediocre attempt at communication. The effect of art is pretty mediocre. The very best art is quite mediocre. There is no revolution to join in, so this is my attempt at having an effect, if any,” says Tabrizi.

In addition to the installation of photographs, Crossed will feature a video which includes overlapping recordings of the artist reciting a poem in English, and another voice singing a poem in classical Farsi.


Crossed is exhibiting at grunt gallery from Jan. 15 until Feb. 21. Opening reception Jan. 15, 7-10p.m. Visit www.grunt.ca for more details.