It has been quite a year for Sanam Khatibi. After an impressive sequence of exhibitions both at home and abroad, the Iranian-born artist will top it all off this autumn with a solo show at Rodolphe Janssen, which recently became her official representative.
The time is now?
“It has been a fruitful season,” laughs Sanam Khatibi. That’s an understatement. We can hardly keep up with the series of exhibitions devoted to the Iranian-born artist’s work. In the near future, there are projects planned in LA, Marseille, and Leipzig, and just in the past year, she has had solo shows at NICC and Super Dakota in Brussels and The Cabin in Los Angeles, and celebrated contributions to group exhibitions at Christine König Galerie in Vienna, Royal in Brussels, the Biennial of Painting at the Museum of Deinze, and Rodolphe Janssen.
She recently joined the select group of artists – including Gert and Uwe Tobias, Emily Mae Smith, Sam Moyer, Thomas Lerooy, Kendell Geers, Lucas Blalock, Douglas Eynon… – that are represented by the latter. “Rodolphe has followed my work for quite some time now and has always been very supportive of what I do,” says Sanam Khatibi.
“He has been visiting often and bringing people to the studio. After I came back from my residency in LA, we made that connection official.” One delightful side-effect of this move is her first solo show at her new gallery: “Rivers in Your Mouth”.
Should we follow rivers?
Blindly. Trust your instincts! After all, it isn’t difficult to understand the undeniable appeal of Sanam Khatibi’s work. In exotic virgin landscapes, seemingly existing outside time, immaculate, angelic, almost transparent, ghost-like women ride crocodiles, hunt and skin rabbits, play with snakes and octopi, or mate with lions.
Dismembered bodies, severed ears (a reference to a naughty boyfriend going by the nickname Van Gogh), and exquisite ceramic objects cover the sunbathed or – and this is a new feature in Sanam Khatibi’s universe – night-time earth. Pleasure and pain, domination and submission, power and fragility balance each other out in this garden of earthly delights.
A spot, inspired by old masters and mystical stories, the intimate and the unsettling, where nature triumphs over civilisation, where love will tear us apart and fear will make us inseparable. In case it is not yet clear: Sanam Khatibi’s paintings explore our animal side.
“No matter how much society tries to cover it up, no matter how polite and educated we act, our impulses remain primitive,” she told us last year, when we first visited her studio. “We all have a sadistic side. What frightens us most, often attracts us. Both fear and desire push you to the edge…like art, really. Art speaks to the guts: when it touches us, it is our primal side that gets stirred.”
But who is it hiding in the hollow in the ferns?
Just like her paintings, Sanam Khatibi’s life story is a mixture of poetry, elegance, and brutality. Born in Tehran in 1979, she was eight years old when she was forced to flee her homeland, which was at war with Iraq at the time. After peregrinations in the UK and Denmark, she and her family found their way to Brussels.
“Being bombed and thrown off your bed in the middle of the night, having to flee your country not knowing whether you’ll ever come back, those are memories that stick with you for life. I admire the generation who stayed behind and lived through all the difficulties, the war, and its aftermath. I especially admire the women, who are so incredibly strong."
"In fact, you could easily read a political side into my work. But I don’t uniquely identify with that Persian heritage. I am a mishmash of all sorts of things: I am both The Book of Kings, that my father used to read to me, and the Flemish tapestries my mother used to collect."
So how will that mishmash show itself at Rodolphe Janssen?
As a collision of ideas, traditions, media…the richness of diversity. Sanam Khatibi’s exhibitions are rich, sensory experiences, a combination of paintings, tapestries, sculptures, and objects from the art collection she inherited from her mother. “She was a big collector, with wonderful taste. I think I inherited that from her, this ability to decorate and put things together that at first glance have no connection at all.”
This becomes apparent in Sanam Khatibi’s studio in Elsene/Ixelles, a veritable cabinet of curiosities, spread across a big living room, an enclosed garden, and an outhouse. “I need to be surrounded by my objects, books, all the things I collect. I need that warmth. Even at a show, I don’t just show paintings. I like to touch on other things as well. I like creating an atmosphere. It enlarges and enhances the world and your experience.”
Though painting is what comes most naturally to her: “I remember when I was five or six and I made my first real drawing, that was a very visceral moment that has always stayed with me. I kept on drawing and when I actually started to paint, I knew that it was exactly what I wanted to do. It is the one medium that allows me to bring out all the stuff that I have inside. It’s a release for me.” No need to hold back, Sanam Khatibi will be gentle with you.
> Sanam Khatibi: Rivers in Your Mouth. 07/09 > 28/10, Rodolphe Janssen, Elsene