One winter morning in 2004, when Rokni Haerizadeh was a graduate student at art school in Tehran, he went for a walk on campus and came across a disturbing sight. Haerizadeh, then 26, had already been marked as a troublemaker at the school due to his uncommon talent, his spiky hair, and his penchant for questioning his teachers—a combination not welcome at a university where female figure models were fully covered in hijabs. The artist had just spent months working on a gigantic outdoor mural inspired by subversive 15th-century miniaturist Mohammad Siyah Ghalam. Haerizadeh had completed the piece without incident, but on this morning he turned a corner to see a blank wall where his mural had been. Overnight the authorities had erased the whole thing, covering it with a thick coat of white paint.
It’s hard to imagine a more literal example of artistic censorship, even in Iran, where the ruling mullahs aren’t known for their subtlety. Today the religious establishment is doing its best to whitewash the artworks of Rokni and his older brother, Ramin, but its efforts are backfiring. The two men are creating some of the most complex and provocative art in the Middle East, much of it blisteringly critical of the Iranian regime. Rokni’s large-scale oil paintings and Ramin’s photo-based collages are increasingly prized by such major collectors as Charles Saatchi and François Pinault and museum heavyweights like Suzanne Cotter, curator of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Project, who has signed up the brothers for an ambitious exhibition at next spring’s Sharjah Biennial. “Here are two artists—brothers—each producing work that combines remarkable visual seduction with a rare ability to comment on the present day in all of its complexity,” says Cotter. “They are not only very gifted artists, but I think time will show them also to be very important artists.”
As their art gains favor worldwide, Rokni and Ramin are preoccupied with such banal but urgent concerns as trying to find a place to live and work legally. Until 2009 they’d managed to stay in their native Tehran. But that spring, after a trip to Paris for their first show at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, they got a call from a friend warning them not to return home. Since they’d participated in a high-profile group show at Saatchi’s London gallery a few months earlier, they had been targeted by the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance; their work had also just been seized during a raid at the home of a prominent Tehran collector. Aware that they faced imprisonment or worse, the brothers applied for temporary residency in the United Arab Emirates, where they now remain, in a kind of geographic and existential limbo.
“For me, Dubai feels like a safe place,” says Ramin at the pair’s cavernous studio in Dubai’s warehouse district, where they spend their days making art as the sound system blasts Stravinsky and Patti Smith. “At least nobody interrupts you while you’re working. In Iran they can come inside your studio anytime.”