'We are forgetting the magic of life': A Conversation with Mamali Shafahi

October 12, 2022
'We are forgetting the magic of life': A Conversation with Mamali Shafahi

For our new Story, preceding his first solo show in the UK at VITRINE Fitzrovia ‘Deep Throats: How Deep is Your Love?’, Mamali Shafahi spoke with VITRINE about the work in the show, his ongoing collaboration with his father, Persian fables, and the future promise of technology.

Your show at VITRINE presents a new series of flocked epoxy sculptures that recall ancient pictorial and storytelling traditions to highlight the impact of technology on younger generations’ ancestral memory.The show continues your ‘Daddy Sperm’ project which, initiated in 2012, explores the generosity of transmitting and creating life between generations, bridging the past and future. Can you describe how you continued the legacy of Daddy Sperm within this new show?

 Daddy Sperm is interested in the relationship between me as a child and my parents. When I started the project, I was amazed by how magical it is that a liquid becomes a human being. Human beings create so many things – science, art, sport, new technologies. We are forgetting this magic of life. I decided to care more about this subject. Initially, I asked my mom to send me some drops of my dad’s sperm as a precious liquid to put in the installation. I wanted people to experience this duality of feeling that there could be another Mamali as a liquid and how crazy this is.

 In ‘Deep Throats: How Deep is your Love?’, I continue the Daddy Sperm idea with the gorilla and ape figures. There are the four ‘Deep Throats’ sculptures depicting gorillas covered in chains and full of anger. In ‘How deep is your mouth?’, the snake’s head near the entrance, there are two gorilla babies inside its mouth. I chose gorillas and apes because these animals are very similar to humans. In my research, as I searched through videos of them, I found that we’re even more similar, especially when angry or happy. I like this contrast between joy and anger and am very focused on these two emotions. The baby gorillas are having fun in the snake’s mouth, completely ignorant of the snake’s anger. And then the gorillas are brazen and proud. 

 Your father’s drawings form the basis of your ‘Heirloom Velvet’ series that is exhibited in the basement gallery. How did this reciprocal art-making process impact your relationship with your father?

‘Heirloom Velvet’ was a way for me to create a new relationship with my parents. There was a big gap between me and my parents as I was living in Europe while my parents stayed in Iran and there is also a big gap in terms of age. Early on in Daddy Sperm, I asked my dad to draw the same subject as me. I wanted to ask whether there was a genetic link mine and my dad’s drawings; he did this for a weekend and then just kept going. He had never touched a pencil before. My dad became a painter through that. Before, he was a wrestler and had to stop after the revolution in 1979, then he became addicted to gambling during the war. He lost his whole life. We had a tough childhood because of that. Art helped him be reborn – to become a new person. That really was a saviour for him.

It’s now almost 10 years since my dad became an artist.In the beginning, I just let him be free because I didn’t want to stress him. I accepted my dad as an artist – an artistic product of myself. He has his own career with his own imagination, and I have mine. We are both growing at the same time in a balanced way. In 2018, we started sharing our work together. I decided, now it’s time to mix them up and see what happens. From this,‘Heirloom Velvet’ emerged. Since then, I sometimes ask my dad to draw for me.It becomes this circle of creation. Just like how I said at the beginning how a drop of liquid becomes a human being. Now he does something, and I get inspired by that. And he does the same. I really enjoy that. It creates ambiguity as to who is the maker, who started the circle.

 How does the process of translation from Reza’s drawings into your sculptures work for ‘Heirloom Velvet’?

It’s very handmade. It’s a playful way of making things. I don’t use a 3D printer or digitalization. I cut the foam boards to make the depth. Then I use epoxy clay which is like the clay we played with as kids. The difference with epoxy clay is that when it dries, it becomes very rigid. It becomes a resin epoxy. It is very joyful I would say. It's really like the way kids play.

 Do you find that something is lost or gained in that process?

Some of my friends say that, because there’s so much happening in my dad’s drawings, they understand them much better in 3D. But it certainly doesn’t reduce the value of my dad’s painting. His painting is a completely different universe – it’s two-dimensional, kind of outsider artwork.The way he uses paint is very natural and kind of organic. But as you said, it’s kind of a translation process from one generation to the other.

 Your sculptures recall imagery from ancient pictorial storytelling traditions. For instance, the heads of the gorillas and the creature in the window with snakes for arms and multiple reptile heads evoke animal fables such as Aesop, OneThousand and One Nights, or Kalila and Dimna. Why are these fables important in your work?

In Persian fables, as in many ancient cultures, the main characters are animals. I am very influenced by these fables, for example Kalila and Dimna, in which animals replace humans to tell stories. In my work, animals are the vehicles through which I talk about contemporary issues, or the merging between the contemporary and the past. The only difference with my work compared to the fables, is that it is more abstract and less moral. Fables used to be much more moral. If you go to Greek tragedy, there’s always a moral underpinning to the tory. For me, fables are a more open kind of storytelling. They create a situation where you as an ordinary citizen just get what it is.

 By drawing on ancient storytelling traditions, how do you explore the relationship between past, present and future?

You know, I’m 40 years old. When I grew up there was this fascination with the future. We were promised a good future through technology. When I was a kid, the whole image of the future was very positive and promising. There was no interest, at least in my surroundings, in the past even though Iran has such a strong history and tradition. We didn’t want to have anything from the past at that time. History and Persian mythology were kind of against avant-garde and futuristic ideas. They were two different types of dialogue.

But for me it's important to merge them. We forget that we will also be part of the past in the future. I started making sculptures dedicated to the past with a futuristic look. That became my mission – how can I make this kind of mythology look more attractive visually for the next generation? To connect them again with their past and its mythology. In my work, there are elements that people across generations can easily connect with. When I had my show in Tehran called ‘Judgement Night: Daddy Kills People’ at Parallel Circuit, there were small kids playing around my work while 70 and 80-year-olds also enjoyed it. I want to extend something about pop culture with history, the past, and fables.

 The sculptures in 'Deep Throats' are made with flocking. The flocking does a lot of work to create that ambiguity between those fables and the future, removing them from their moralistic underpinnings and opening them up to interpretation.What is it like working with this material?

 I decided to put flocking – which is like velvet powder – as the last layer on the epoxy reliefs for two different reasons. I really like the nostalgic and memorial aspect of velvet. I’m kind of obsessed with velvet. As a fabric, it’s full of memory and nostalgia. There are so many references. Even in cinema, such as ‘Blue Velvet’ by David Lynch. Then there’s the question of self-value.I really like the question of value with flocking. Flocking sounds like velvet but it’s a fake velvet. It’s a cheap version of velvet used on pens or bags.Especially in Middle Eastern culture, we use it a lot inside car designs. It has a kitsch element within it – a pop culture but also ‘bad-taste’ aspect.

 As a technique, it started in the 80s to make T-Shirts. I remember all these typographic designs with flock. Basically, it’s diffusing flock which is velvet powder. A pigment onto the object. Usually, they use it for flat surfaces. It’s difficult to control when it goes onto my work. You have to use a small electromagnetic machine that connects the object you want to flock to electricity. That’s how the flock is absorbed onto the object, so it sticks like a blanket.  

 There’s a very futuristic element to the process too.

 Yeah, exactly. I was obsessed with this technology when I saw it. I am very happy to create this in a way that as you say is very futuristic. Also, with the insects and animals in the show at VITRINE, the flock reminds you of their feel and hair. The colours look like the microscopic slide of an insect with tons of colour on its body.

 'DeepThroats: How Deep is your Love?' is a very immersive exhibition. Why do you enclose the space around the window? Why do you create grid-like forms and UV lighting?

I like how VITRINE Bermondsey and Basel are windows, open to the public 24 hours. I decided to create a vitrine in VITRINE’s new space in Fitzrovia. In this vitrine, there is ‘How deep are your eyes?’ and the turning sculpture ‘Heirloom Velvet’. Kind of amusement park aesthetics. A bit like Disney Land.

The technology draws on my teenage time too. I used to see myself as a kind of post-internet generation artist. Now I keep technology as a hybrid aspect of my work in conversation with the past. I started working with grids almost ten years ago. As well as bringing the audience into an immersive, virtual world, the grids also wrap the historical and fable subjects within this technological aspect. The grid becomes the whole background to these elements.

UV light for me has this futuristic aspect. A possibility for seeing things in a different way. During the day they have daylight. But then at night the UV light makes it become blue. Often, I use changing light in my work because ambiguity is important. I demonstrate that something can be completely changed by light. Within each show I’m always trying to develop different aspects of UV light. I told you about the self-value of the object. I also decided to use technology as a virtual element to my work rather than as a solid object that added more trash to the world.

 Can you talk me through the title for the show ‘Deep Throats: How Deep is your Love’? There are many references going on within it.

The title refers to the gorillas whose mouths are open in an exaggerated way. It’s as if someone opened their mouths with their hand. It can be a violent and aggressive act, but also a sexual act. The title ‘Deep Throats’ comes from my show in Tehran where I had 7 360-degree gorilla columns. In Tehran, I like using provocative titles that are unspecific so nobody will bother me or my work. People are too shy to say what it really is. Then there’s also humour because ‘How Deep is your Love’ is a Bee Gees song. The title plays with deep in both a sexual way and a romantic way. It has lots of iconic connotations init related to pop culture, icons, memories and culture.


This conversation took place between Sofia Lyall and Mamali Shafahi for VITRINE in October 2022.

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