Farideh Lashai: Untitled (Mosaddegh), 2008, oil and graphite on canvas, approx. 6 by 8⅞ feet; at Bait Al Serkal.

Farideh Lashai’s retrospective—spanning five decades and occupying all three stories of Bait Al Serkal, a nineteenth-century home-turned–exhibition space in downtown Sharjah run by the Sharjah Art Foundation—included paintings, animated projections on painted canvases or prints, sculptures, and an installation. Born in Rasht, Iran, Lashai (1944–2013) studied literature in Frankfurt and decorative arts in Vienna, after which she worked as a crystal designer. A selection of crystal vases, often adorned with cypress branches, from the early 1960s, and several School of Paris–inspired landscapes, florals, and portraits represented her first decade. 

Lashai’s decorous beginnings gave way to activism in the early 1970s. She was imprisoned for a short time for her leftist politics and involvement with the student movement in the years preceding the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Personal crisis and political unrest underscore much of her artistic production from the 1970s onward. A large untitled oil-and-graphite work on canvas, from 2008, was among the examples from the “Mosaddegh” series, named for Iran’s first democratically elected prime minister, who was unseated in a 1953 coup. Painted in muted shades of tan, brown, and gray, the backs of three anonymous figures, partially obliterated, become an allegory for the dissolution of Iranian democracy. 

Iran’s long war with Iraq—resulting in an estimated half million Iranian casualties—ended in 1988, the same year Lashai’s mother died. The artist was propelled to paint nothing but horses for all of 1989. The animals in the modestly scaled but forcefully rendered oil-on-paper works from the “Horses” series often have wild eyes and agape mouths as they charge through roiling landscapes. According to the catalogue, Lashai’s brother described the Iranian people during the war as “vulnerable rabbits,” symbolism Lashai later used in projected animations, among them Catching the Moon (2004), which features rabbits chasing their reflections and which was here projected onto the pools of water in two old stone wells in a narrow ground-floor room. 

The use of metaphor was most complex in Tyranny of Autumn, Not Every Tree Can Bear (2004), a large installation linked to the cypress tree, a symbol of the endurance of the Persian identity through hardship, and the classical “fourfold” gardens common throughout Iranian art and literature. In this work, four wire-mesh cylinders enclose bits of plexiglass suspended at varying heights. The bits are painted with miniature cypress leaves and inscribed with fragments of poetry by the fourteenth-century Persian lyric poet Hafez. 

Lashai’s last completed work, When I Count, There Are Only You . . . But When I Look, There Is Only a Shadow (2012–13), is based on Goya’s Disasters of War (1810–20) and consists of an animated projection on eighty photo-intaglio prints. Lashai removed the figures from Goya’s imagery, leaving only the landscape elements. In a darkened room, the prints were installed in a grid and a spotlight moved slowly across them. When illuminated, moving images of Goya’s figures appear on the prints. Here, and throughout her work, Lashai displays a kind of tender scrutiny, through which she converts pain into poetry.