The Pressure Cooker: Shiva Ahmadi’s Animation of the Syrian War

However much Ahmadi may try to renounce medium, she returns to it with this poignant exhibit at Haines Gallery.

A still image from Shiva Ahmadi’s Ascend video. Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery.

After artist Shiva Ahmadi made her first animation, Lotus, in 2014, she swore she’d never repeat that laborious process. Instead, she’d focus completely on the painting, watercolors, and sculpture that had previously made her name in the art world.

Alan Kurdi and the plight of Syrian refugees changed everything.

Kurdi was the 3-year-old Syrian boy who died facedown on a Turkish beach after he and his family tried reaching Europe in September 2015. Kurdi’s death — which reverberated around the world after a photo showed his shocking demise — begat an outpouring of aid to help Syrian refugees. It also spurred Ahmadi to make Ascend, a searing, 6-minute animation that includes Kurdi as a minor character in a much bigger drama about humanity, evil, and the societal pressures that push innocent people like Kurdi into harm’s way. 

Ahmadi debated how much Ascend should concentrate on Kurdi. In the end, she says, “I didn’t focus too much on Alan because that would make it too sentimental and too sad.” Standing in her new Haines Gallery exhibit that features Ascend and other recent work, she adds, “I wanted to create ambiguity.”

As with the 8-minute-long Lotus, Ahmadi worked with Houston animator Sharad Kant Patel to make Ascend. As with her earlier work, Ascend never mentions the names of nations or organizations. Not Syria. Not ISIS. And not Iran, Ahmadi’s native country and one that’s actively involved in Syria’s ongoing war.

She doesn’t even mention Kurdi’s name. In fact, the animation’s many characters never say a word. But Kurdi’s name is implicit, as his first name means “to ascend” in Arabic. Also implicit is Ahmadi’s critique of fanatical groups that foment war and benefit from its spoils.

Like a Hayao Miyazaki film, Ascend begins quietly but magically, with a giant green tree whose leaves rustle in the wind and blow in every direction. Bubbles float in the air. Then monkeys appear around a lake next to the tree, and the creatures toy with the bubbles — hitting them, popping them, and pushing them in different directions.

Nima Mohandesan’s music then ratchets up into a series of haunting chants — almost quasi-religious but with a snapping beat and other instrumentation that gives Ascend a dramatic, cinematic edge. Flying over the creatures are a winged adult figure and a winged child figure who’s carrying a boy. That’s Kurdi, clad in the red shirt and blue shorts that he wore when he died.

At this juncture in Ascend, Kurdi looks alive. But missiles drop from the sky. And the main monkey figure, who’s wearing a black-and-white scarf, receives a bubble that morphs into a bomb. He gives it to the other monkeys — and soon the bomb and other bombs are everywhere. The winged child figure disappears from the sky, and for seven seconds we see a wide frame of Kurdi face down in the lake’s water. Then the monkeys’ life goes on, with more bombs than ever floating around with the bubbles. Appearing again, the green tree has faded color, though its leaves are still rustling and making noise.

“Every time I say, ‘I’m not going to make another animation,’ but I am actually going to make another one” after Ascend, Ahmadi says. “I’m working on the script. The paintings are pushing me in a way toward animation because there’s a lot of movement involved, from the moment I start putting down the background.”

Ascend is in keeping with Lotus and Ahmadi’s other work: It’s exquisite to look at, with mesmerizing colors and saturations that overlay a deadly serious narrative. The characters have an anonymity that is almost disconcerting, as none of them have eyes, mouths, ears, or anything that distinguishes their identity. And on the angels’ and monkeys’ bodies, Ahmadi’s and Patel’s bleeding water colors could pass for blood, scars, or intestines. In Ahmadi’s art, turmoil, war, and beauty almost always cling together in a troika of dissonant coexistence.

There’s another dissonant example at Haines: the sculptured pressure cookers that Ahmadi engraved with an acid-based intaglio process to create unique patterns across the outside and even holes in the metal. In recent years, terrorists around the world have detonated similar pressure cookers to kill scores of innocent people. At Haines, Ahmadi’s pressure cookers feature floral-style, repeated Arabic lines that translate as “God is great” — a phrase that Muslim terrorists frequently employ in martyr operations but which peace-abiding Muslims recite every day, too.

Ahmadi bought some of the appliances online, but her mother brought over the distinct Afghan-style pressure cookers when she visited her daughter in the U.S. The elder Ahmadi bought five of them at a Tehran marketplace, and when she showed the oval-shaped pressure cookers to U.S. customs officers, they flipped out, perhaps suspecting that this older Iranian woman had packed them in her suitcase with dubious motives. Ahmadi’s mom assuaged the airport officers by showing them her daughter’s award-winning work — and pointing out her status as a tenured associate professor of art at UC Davis. New York’s Metropolitan Museum and Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art are among the many institutions that own Ahmadi’s art.

“Immigration and customs wanted to know what they were, and why there were five of them — and my mom said, ‘Google my daughter; she does artwork with them,’ ” Ahmadi, says, laughing as she tells the story. “They’re quite beautiful. I grew up with them. My mom used to make food in those. My grandmother used to make food in those.”

Ahmadi, who has previously sculpted oil barrels with intricate motifs, is an American success story — an immigrant from Iran who navigated her way through years of citizenship uncertainty in the United States. In 1998, she left Iran to get her M.A. in drawing at Detroit’s Wayne State University, then got two more consecutive master’s degrees — an MFA in drawing in 2003, also from Wayne State, then an MFA in painting from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. If Ahmadi hadn’t gotten into those other programs, she would have been forced to return to Iran under terms of her student visa. Instead, after years of studying and part-time teaching, she has found a permanent home in Northern California — and a permanent home at a growing body of American museums and galleries, including the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Her Haines exhibition, “Shiva Ahmadi: Burning Song,” is her first solo one at the longtime San Francisco gallery. Iran galleries want to show her work as well — but it’s too dangerous.

“Once, I tried to show one of my animations in a show,” Ahmadi says, “and they said after a while, ‘We’d rather not show it because it’s very political and we’re afraid they’re going to close down the show.’ ”

The stability Ahmadi now has is the kind that Kurdi’s family could only fantasize about as they journeyed on a boat in the Mediterranean Sea. Ahmadi easily relates to instability. As a girl, she was raised in Tehran at a time when the Iran-Iraq War was going strong and Baghdad’s government unleashed scores of missiles on her city. This sense of potential foreboding may have left Ahmadi’s personal life but it remains in her artwork, even if it’s not obvious at the first enticing glance. 

“Shiva Ahmadi: Burning Song” through Oct. 27 at Haines Gallery, 49 Geary St. Free; 415-397-8114 or hainesgallery.com.

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