THE MEMORIAL

MEHDI SAHABI

Friday, November 15, 2019-Wednesday, October 9, 2019
  

Born in 1944, journalist, sculptor, painter, and translatorMehdi Sahabi was a "cultural intellectual," in the words of artscholar and writer Javad Mojabi, "one who other than his field ofspecialization had influenced the collective fate of a country, opening the wayfor the people to benefit from new ideas and thoughts." Having left Iranin 1967 to study film in Italy, Mehdi Sahabi eventually enrolled in RomeUniversity of Fine Arts to become a painter only to leave that unfinished aswell. In 1968 he traveled to France and met his wife, Evelyn, with whom he hadthree children. He returned to Iran in 1972 with his family and started workingas a journalist. "A good friend who was in charge of the foreign desk atKeyhan newspaper," he says of his appointment with journalism, “gave mesomething to translate and if I remember correctly, they hired me part time onthe very same day.... But I can say that my becoming a journalist was noaccident; it had been in my mind and it naturally led me in that direction... Iwent beyond translating reports and news to do other things, like film reviews,preparing reports, travelogues, and such things. This lasted for almost 6years." A little after the Iranian revolution of 1979, and disgruntledwith the course that events were taking, Sahabi and a group of Keyhan writersstarted publishing their own paper, Free Keyhan, which came out only for 10issues. After this experience, he distanced himself from journalism and focusedon translation, sculpture and painting. Evelyn and the children left forFrance.

Sahabi threw himself at translating diverse works of fictionby such writers as Yuri Nikolayevich Tynyanov, Alexander AlexandrovichFadeyevm, Ignazio Silone, and Simone de Beauvoir. In 1984 he brought to FarsiSalman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. In 1985 came Shame, for which he receivedan official prize in '87. In '89 Sahabi held his first solo exhibit at GolestanGallery in Tehran. "His Junkyard Cars," writes gallery owner andtranslator Lili Golestan, "were not made of metal; they were tender. Hehad made them look tender, poetic. I called them poetic trash and he wouldlaugh heartily.” Of this exhibit a critic wrote: "In paintings of Sahabipure form dominates and it overshadows all written or spoken language.... Theworld of these paintings has history and geography, past and future, eventhough on the surface nothing takes place and an illusory silence coverseverything; the showdown is between light and darkness and a sneaky tensionpasses from form to form, creating a sound that, if not today, will certainlybe heard tomorrow." In the same year, his first work of fiction, SuddenlyFlood, was published. From 1990s onward, he held exhibits of his sculptures andpaintings regularly. He also published the first volume of À la recherche dutemps perdu, an 8 volume opus that took 10 years for Sahabi to complete. Heacknowledged his debt to Proust in an interview: "[The author of À larecherche] insisted that art has nothing to do with the life of its creator....The truth is that there has always been something in the life of the artist forwhich s/he has tried to compensate in his/her art." In 1993 histranslations of Great Expectation, David Copperfield, and Robinson Crusoe werepublished. In 1998 he held an exhibit of his masks at Aria Gallery in Tehran.Painter Parviz Kalantari found the Figurines , as Sahabi called them,"playful, but invested with a bitter irony,” to which the sculptor reactedin their interview: “I very much like the 'playful' characterization, and I ameven thankful for it, because it is what I am precisely after and like to getacross for a basic reason: I take playfulness to be first synonymous with honesty(like we find in children) and then for purity and authenticity (which we againfind in children).” In 1999, Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art arranged for anexhibit of Sahabi's works along with several other Iranian artists in Russia.In 2000 he showed his new masks at Aria Art Gallery. He called them"sketches” in which "accidents" and "experimentations"were their constitutive elements. "Art viewer have become used to seeinggloom and doom in works of art," wrote Aliasqar Qarehbaghi in the brochureof this exhibit, “Sahabi is a painter who dares to paint with playfulness andwhose works dare to bring joy to their audiences.” In January 2002 he exhibitedhis latest masks and called them Personnel Photographs. He also published atranslation of Flaubert's Sentimental Education in the same year. In January2003 he showed the first set of his Birds at Aria Art Gallery. Another setnestled in the same gallery in 2006 and a translation of Madame Bovary waspublished. In an interview with Etemad Melli newspaper he explained: “I amalways working on an exhibit and a translation at the same time. Full time allday, I pair literature and painting.” He showed his Murals at Golestan ArtGallery in 2008. These were inspired by Achaemenid motifs in Persepolis. Histranslation of Stendhal's Le Rouge et le Noir appeared in bookstores in thesame year. Sahabi's life became the subject of a film by Alireza Mirassadollah.The documentary captured him at work and in his trips to France, where hisfamily resided. He died in Paris on 8 November 2009, in the same year that hepublished Balzak's Le Père Goriot and Celine's D'un château l'autre. Of thelatter   translation, writer, art critic, andtranslator Babak Ahmadi writes in this book: This final translation -- orresting place -- became the site of linguistic sorcery. [Sahabi] was able torender one of the most difficult works in world literature, which reflects theinner contradictions of its creator, a work at once rough-edged andsentimental, gone-wild and tender, galling and sweet, ugly and beautiful, tohis mother tongue, Farsi, reflecting the same conflicting characteristics --bookish and plebian, poetic and vulgar. He achieved what no one but he could.Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Castle to Castle is somewhere between memory andfiction, the last refuge of fascists, with them and against them, in showingabhorrence for all that is base and fraudulent, all that is "bourgeois”,all that is putrid, a show of affection for a woman and a dying dog -- anexhibition of love and hatred for life. Still, Ahmadi continues: Sahabi likedto be known through his paintings. Faced with the question "What are youdoing these days?" I had many times heard him say, "Painting, oldboy!" He once confided to me, "You know, I had always wanted todedicate myself to painting only, or to making some of these boxes.” The box hewas referring to was a painted wooden cube. In the middle he had placed apyramid whose base was attached to the base of the cube. On the others twosides the half-face of a figurine could be seen happy and laughing. He said tome: "This is you! The smile is like your wily smile.” He was playful,cunning, and whimsical. Being tall and stout, with that in-your-face mustache,glasses, bald head, tailored coat, and deep voice, he was quite a sight, of thekind that children would point to their mothers, “Look at that guy!” The imageof "that guy" would stay with them. He was a cheerful giant. Onenight he sang for us... he stood there in the middle of the room, put one handbehind his back, pulled his chest up, and sang on top of his lungs a forgottensongs from “the 50s radio," humorous and strange, cheesy pop, but he sangwith such dedication that everything became beautiful, everything.... And wedidn't know back then that Mehdi would die away from us and from a country thathe loved so. Lili Golestan adds in this book: He was filled with joie de vivre.He was optimistic and positive. He wasn't the type to nag. I had never heardhim complain about the inadequacies of his life -- which weren't few. He wasblessed with a big heart and with patience. He liked to be liked -- and he was.He liked to be influential -- and he was. He was humble and well-mannered. Hewould never boast of his erudition. He dedicated himself to what he wasdoing.... His presence was attractive and pleasant. If you criticized his work,he would stay calm but would at bottom be offended, of which he would saysomething to you every now and again. Sometimes the "now and again” wouldincrease in frequency, to the point to sorry. Mehdi Sahabi is one of thosewhose absence I could never have imagined because he was always present, alwaysthere. The literary and artic scene in Iran has seldom counted such salubriousmember among its ranks. He was mentally and behaviorally healthy. In our smallcircle of friends, his absence will always, always be felt. Sahabi's body wasbrought back to Tehran to be buried in the Artist's Section of the Behesht-eZahra Cemetery.