Ever since they were children, the brothers have done everything as a duo, and they still work, live, eat, and chain-smoke together. Yet no one would have trouble telling the two apart. Ramin, 35, is jocular, stout, hairy, and always ready with a good Lady Gaga joke. Rokni is quiet and contemplative, more likely to quote Francis Bacon or an obscure Sufi poet.
The work of both men combines elements of historical high-mindedness and of-the-moment satire, albeit in very different ways. Ramin’s best-known series, “Men of Allah,” inspired by plays from Persia’s Qajar period, depicts swirling configurations of bearded men in heavy makeup and patterned robes; the faces, contorted in screams, are reconstructions of Ramin’s own, and the exposed body parts are scanned images of his arms and elbows. In other collages, the Shah’s wife, Farah Pahlavi—“always looking like Audrey Hepburn; you know, just from another planet”—appears as an empty-eyed fashion plate or a 70-year-old Cinderella. Ramin likens his role to that of the traditional Persian talkhak, a kind of court jester who had the right to speak the awful truth, even to the king. “In Iran everybody’s holy,” Ramin says, invoking Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. “Ahmadinejad is holy, the Prophet is holy, the Shah, the ex-Queen. You can’t say anything about anybody. The first thing our community has to do is bring down all the icons, get them down on earth so we can see what they’re really about.”
Rokni’s art, for its part, shows a clear debt to European painting; many of the works are large kinetic narratives about contemporary Iranian rituals—weddings, holidays, festivals—that also reference everything from classical Persian lore to Raymond Carver’s fiction. Several new canvases are done in the shape of a traditional Islamic arch, serving as keyholes through which a viewer can witness all manner of unholy happenings. In one, a group of mullahs, naked under their robes, becomes a raunchy circus troupe. “The mentalities of these men are very simple, like from the Middle Ages,” Rokni says. “They are not complicated at all. But now the situation of the world makes them important somehow.”
For their Sharjah project, the pair are working on pieces that further explore the meaning of sacrilege, including Rokni’s watercolor sketches on real Iranian banknotes that distort Ayatollah Khomeini’s face. “Poor Suzanne,” remarks Ramin, noting that the curator will inevitably face censorship pressures from Emirati officials. Cotter says she’ll deal with that when it comes, but she doesn’t foresee the brothers being silenced easily, and feels certain they’re not engaging in provocation for its own sake. “There’s a sense of compulsion they have,” she says, “an absolute necessity to express these things.”