Shiva Ahmadi's Tower

Shiva Ahmadi (b. 1975), Tower, 2017. Watercolor and ink. 30 x 22 inches (76.2 x 55.9 cm). Purchased with funds provided by Fady Jameel and Gail Monaghan, and on the Manley Family Fund, 2017.351.

By making the surface beautiful and shiny, I want to seduce the viewer to get close before revealing the ugly truth.  
—Shiva Ahmadi1

My attraction to Shiva Ahmadi’s Tower (2017) was immediate, but it is a challenging work in both its content and execution. In discussing it, I find it helpful to speak in terms of dualities: seduction and repulsion, translucency and opacity, chaos and control, background and foreground. Ahmadi has done this herself in quotations like the one above.

Seven monkeys are painted in translucent jewel tones. At first glance, these figures, which are based on Indian representations of the deity Hanuman from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, appear to be otherworldly apparitions. But they are marred by patches of opaque red ink that sit obstinately on the surface of the paper, conjuring a creeping pestilence. The figures—four sitting on top of tapered brick or stone towers, and three below—are entangled in delicate ribbons of watercolor that resemble calligraphy. Follow these ribbons and you see that each binds a figure to a round object, like a ball and chain. Within Ahmadi’s established iconography, the ornamental-looking balls signify objects of war—bombs and grenades—and the monkeys are the faceless subjects who enact the orders of despotic leaders. Lacking individual agency (monkey see, monkey do), they are ensnared in networks of corruption and violence.

The Mughal emperor Humāyūn with a scribe and two servants. Delhi, India, ca. 1830–1840. Pigment, ink, and gold on paper. Leaf: 390 x 257 mm; image: 215 x 131 mm. Purchased by J. Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913) in 1911, MS M.458.17

Like Shahzia Sikander, Shahpour Pouyan, and others, Ahmadi has drawn on traditions of Persian and Indian miniature paintings in her work. In one example from the Morgan’s collection—a nineteenth-century painting from India—the hierarchical composition echoes that of Tower. But in contrast to the precision of older models, Ahmadi’s application of paint is much looser. She created the dappled ground of Tower by laying rice, salt, and hair on the page to absorb the watercolor, relinquishing a measure of control to her materials. The ribbons, or chains, that bind the monkeys to their weapons resemble the skeins of watercolor that traverse the background, creating an unsettling ambiguity of figure and ground. The translucent ball-bombs can equally be read as anodyne ornament fading into or barely emerging from the background. Watercolor is ideally suited to such plays of translucency and opacity. Ahmadi has said, “I don’t think there is any other medium that shows instability better than water.”2

In recent months, as issues that have persistently been pushed back have burst forth into the front of our minds, this aspect of Tower—its play of receding and advancing forms—has taken on increased significance for me. Ahmadi, who was a child in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution, has long been aware of the possibility that the world might change in an instant.

Rachel Federman
Associate Curator
Modern and Contemporary Drawings

  1. Quoted in “Contradictions and Tensions: Shiva Ahmadi Interviewed by Naomi Falk,” BOMB, May 22, 2020.
  2. Ibid.
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