Siamak Filizadeh
Born to Be Pawns

14 December 2023 — 14 April 2024
  • Siamak Filizadeh. Born to be Pawns

Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art presents an exhibition by the Iranian artist Siamak Filizadeh whose truly theatrical artworks feature all currently relevant narratives unfolding simultaneously

  • Visions of fictional metropolises that attentive viewers will spend hours examining
  • Large-scale works as rich in detail as classical Persian miniatures
  • A striking version of the recent history of a fictional country
  • © All rights reserved by Siamak Filizadeh
  • © All rights reserved by Siamak Filizadeh
  • © All rights reserved by Siamak Filizadeh

The Iranian artist Siamak Filizadeh is known worldwide: the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) along with the other storied institutions have a great number of his artworks in their permanent collections.

Like classical Persian miniatures, Siamak’s artworks are rich in detail, so one can spend hours investigating his sprawling fictional megapolises whose sophisticated pattern is composed of a great number of subjects, objects and multiple layers of meaning in the background. The more time you spend examining his artworks, the more you discover and the more remains undiscovered.

Siamak’s art escapes a simple classification. His most recent series There Is No Such Thing as a Big Story does nevertheless have a number of overlapping narratives, featuring established characters that the artist has shown in other previous works. These comprehensive stories reflect his version of history of a fictional country facing unprecedented cultural upheavals, social chaos, military uprisings, human incursions of natural resources and religious entanglements. The protagonists are conspicuous – the oil devourer, the Commander, the clown, the obese sultan and the Prophet. These characters and their intricate spheres of influence are imposed upon the great masses of people who surround them, effectively rendering them pawns on the great chessboard of life.

These ‘pawns’ are entangled in a plethora of narratives throughout Siamak’s series and undeterred by their numbers, they are highly individualised. Despite them wearing a similar type of uniform – beige long-sleeved military-style romper – each facial expression, gesticulation, hair style and posture ensures that they do not blend into one great mass. Siamak aims to show that each individual’s personal history, state of mind and agency cannot simply be diluted or ignored by the suzerain. In fact, no matter how much power is exercised over the pawns, be it by Kings (The Commander) or Knights (the resurrected solider in Raising of Lazarus), they have strength in aggregate and if they were to pool their resources, it seems that they could overcome the great power that oppresses them. We know this because those who are capable to preserve their personality despite the permanent external attempt to erase it, retain their spirit unbroken. 

In a typical game of chess, pawns are considered as inevitable foot soldiers – the ultimate vanguard in a quintessential play, as usually the pawns are moved first. Siamak adapted the famous Lord Kitchener army recruitment poster of 1914 in his You Are a Solider, implying that even without conscription a pawn can be expected to be drafted into play. As they are the largest number in any chess set, they are also usually sacrificed the fastest and with the least care. The focus of the game is to protect the King at any cost, surrendering whichever pieces need be. In his Enter the King, the scene is set exactly in this way, with the pawns gathering themselves and placing down the few garments that they have in order to accommodate the King, who is just out of view. The eye is drawn to the female figure in the foreground who is opening up her chest in an irenic manner. The man holding a white piece of paper in the background literally symbolises the carte blanche that the King has over his subjects.

Although seemingly the weakest chess piece of the set, the pawn does have certain capabilities that others do not possess, such as it can capture other pieces in a method that’s different from how it normally moves (hence it can move diagonally). Furthermore, a pawn can be promoted into any other chess piece (except for the king) when it reaches the farthest rank from its original square (eighth rank for White and first rank for Black), hence it can be replaced for a queen, rook, bishop or knight. Siamak’s Equality seems to allude to just that. The pawns begin their climbing through the ranks within the confines of literal weeds. The bottom of this weed-like construction is almost impenetrable black, but as the eye moves towards the top of the edifice, glimpses of pawns sitting around dining room tables and enjoying their mealtimes together can be seen. The further up we travel, the more elaborate the meal, setting, furniture, and the more relaxed the ambiance. The pawns are nevertheless constantly aware of where exactly they are within the overall hierarchy by glancing up above and down below.

The only move a pawn is not able to do, however, is move backwards, unlike every other piece on the chess board. Seemingly the choice is either to be forced to advance or to be captured and thus removed from the game. Customarily, once a piece has been captured it is placed next to the board so that each player can be aware of their position. For Siamak, this is exactly the case, as in Black Friday his seized pawns are proudly on display, in a similar manner to a medieval execution, which was a public affair. In fact as then, as in this work, the garrotted men are a form of entertainment, strung up and elevated with balloons. Just below them various circus performers are distracting the public from bearing witness to the barbarity just above their view, but the higher up the ranks you go, the less successful their diversion becomes. These sacrificial lambs have served their purpose, merely to remind everyone in the audience that they were also born to be pawns.

about the artist

Siamak was born in 1970 in Tehran. He received his high school diploma in Art in 1990 and graduated from the Tehran Azad University with a BA degree in Graphic Design in 1995. From 1988, Siamak started his career as a graphic designer, working in different fields of design, advertising, branding, and visual arts. He has worked as art director and graphic designer for a number of large institutions and international festivals and received numerous poster and book design prizes. After his successful exhibition of 2008, Rostam II – The Return, Filizadeh concentrated his efforts on his artistic practice. His works are in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum (LACMA, Los Angeles, California, US), Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC, US), as well as in various private collections worldwide. He lives and works in Tehran.

current exhibitions
all exhibitions