Art that’s contemporary, political and conservative

Terrorism, Democracy, Leisure exhibition by Montreal artist Afshin Matlabi raises unique questions

“Cuba,” a digital image created in 2002, is part of Terrorism, Democracy, Leisure, a new exhibit at Aceartinc. showcasing the work of Afshin Matlabi.

Alongside All Power to the People!, an exhibition of Black Panther poster art, Afshin Matlabi’s Terrorism, Democracy, Leisure is one of two politically-themed art shows currently being held at Aceartinc.

Matlabi’s show in the larger gallery involves drawings, digitally manipulated photographs and animated videos. Judging from the title, one might expect an anti-war statement, or a weighty exhibition critiquing western values.

A Montreal artist of Iranian descent, Matlabi contrasts images of war and terrorism with images of “get-aways” produced by the travel industry.

The digital photograph “Cuba” near the entrance depicts a tourist on a postcard-perfect beach. This is the idealized, middle-class holiday, a vision of escapism where the only thing to worry about is getting an even tan.

Matlabi spoke about the inspiration behind the exhibition in an artist talk at the gallery on Jan. 24:

“Two years after 9/11, I started to become obsessed with the missile and developed a fear of terrorism, yet every summer I would take my family to Cuba. How could we be so anxious about destruction, and yet have a week of leisure, heaven?” he asked.

In the video “WMD,” a missile dances to the tune of ancient, and very beautiful, Persian music. In the crayon and paper piece “Ballistic Missile’s Weekend Family Outing,” caricatured tourists dive alongside grey missiles into a vast expanse of swirling blue. Water, symbolic of refreshment, rebirth, and also salvation, is a common theme throughout the show. Nearby, the piece “Anxiety Apology” shows dozens of zombie-like men running over surreally coloured hills, towards a spouting fountain much too small to save them all.

“Afshin’s work outlines his political views, focusing on countries currently at war or under different ideological regimes. There are some interesting parallels between the two current shows, and both fit within our mandate to exhibit art within a political context,” said Liz Garlicki, gallery assistant at Aceartinc.

Many important questions are raised by the artwork in this show, such as what are the artist’s intentions? Matlabi wants to be a political artist, but what is his cause?

In his talk, Matlabi advocated going back to “family values, core values, and a faith-based system, and looking at the Bible and the Torah, which are more sophisticated than philosophy.”

Referring to universities as “apolitical institutions,” he also stated that he had voted conservative in the last election. This little tidbit of knowledge creates somewhat of a paradox, since political art is most often associated with resistance against ingrained traditions that have worked against marginalized members of society-exemplified by Emory Douglas’s work in the adjacent Black Panther show.

Conservatism has not typically been an arena in which core society values are challenged, and when a conservative artist creates political artwork, one wonders what kind of change is being sought. Is political art just another style or influence to Matlabi?

Terrorism, Democracy, Leisure provides a chance to reflect on the contradictions present in post-9/11 daily life. Perhaps more importantly, it raises unique questions surrounding artwork that aims to be simultaneously contemporary, political and conservative.

Terrorism, Democracy, Leisure is at Aceartinc. (290 McDermot Ave.) until Feb. 28.

Published in Volume 63, Number 20 of The Uniter (February 12, 2009)

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