Artist & Picture

Detailed biography of the artist Mahmoud Torabi

People often ask me why I paint clothes and their drapery. In fact I ask myself the same question - without knowing its answer. The more I paint these motifs, the more I devote my attention to the process of understanding why I do it. During my self-inquiries, as I look back on all my works, I became aware that clothes are recurrent motifs in my paintings. They do not always appear for thematic reasons, but rather result from considerations that concern the painting's composition. This conclusion made me curious, thoughtful - and I began to look for an answer. Is this answer important? Does the artist have to know the answer to the question for which reasons he choses a particular motif? Why he uses a particular material or why he prefers a certain shape to another? I am inclined to answer in the affirmative, for art has to fulfil an explicable task in order to be defined in a special way. Only if the artist is aware of his art's objective, can he do his work consciously; and only conscious activities make sense.

For this reason I have not been satisfied with my work for a long time, being unable to explain my fascination with draperies. Nevertheless I observed, drew and painted them, and in the course of this process of painting the quality of my works was increased; the drawings became more delicate; the compositions fuller; the agitation and cheerfulness of the scenery more visible; and finally the clarity of the colours more evident. But even then I was not yet satisfied with my achievements, always having the impression, that there was something missing in my paintings. But what was missing?

What should I change? Where should I begin? Under the continued broodings over this problem, I suddenly found myself under the spell of my own childhood. My circle of friends noticed, that I was constantly referring to my childhood ­ something I was equally aware of. As if possessed, I was searching for lost memories. As we know well, strangers like to tell stories - describing their own culture (which is naturally unknown to the listeners), their towns and their customs: They describe their experiences that represent bridges between themselves and their native countries, in order to keep alive their memories. These stories have a creative core: an exciting story makes you feel relaxed, arouses the story-teller's hidden yearnings, draws him into the realm of his dreams and into the corners of his mind, where he has planted his memories ... where he is at home, and where he is rooted. These stories can take curious listeners on an unknown voyage. For them these stories make it possible to dive into the ocean of their fantasy, to traverse a world of dreams and live the experiences of the story-teller. With this, I am going to tell you briefly the story of my childhood, which has significant implications on my development as an artist. May this story equally have a creative core, which will allow people like you, who are interested in my catalogue, to find the answer to the aforementioned questions.

I grew up in a family of eight members and we lived in a small house in the very old city of Hamadan. After the birth of my sister I was the second child, and was, as the son, entrusted with important tasks. I was not older than five, when I began to perform hard work in the bazaar, where my father was the owner of a small clothes shop, run by himself and his employees. I was the errand-boy. In the morning I left home, before my father did, went to the bazaar, opened up the shop and went through the usual rituals of preparation. Certain menial tasks had to be fulfilled by me, before my father and his co-workers arrived. When I was six years old and went to school, this work did not stop. It had to be done before school started. In those days there were only whole-day schools in our town, where lessons lasted from eight in the morning until four in the afternoon. Between noon and two o'clock in the afternoon there was a break, during which we went home, ate and went back to school. As for me, I had to do my duty at the bazaar, where I had dinner and returned to school afterwards. When school was over and my classmates went home, where they could probably enjoy themselves, I returned to the bazaar, where I had to stay until the shop was closed. For me there were neither holidays nor feasts. The bazaar did not observe holidays: There was always trading to be done and I had to be present.

My father's customers were exclusively inhabitants from the surrounding villages. For the most part they were farmers and spoke Turkish, whereas the inhabitants of Hamadan spoke Persian. These circumstances made communication more difficult. I did not feel much sympathy for those people, as far as they came to buy the materials for their clothes ­ which of course implied more work for me. I had to take the materials from their shelves and display them for the customers. I would then fold and roll the materials, irrespective of if they had been purchased, so that they could be put back on the shelves, which had to be cleaned of dust almost every day. The new merchandise had to be purchased, sorted and put in the shelves - and it all had to be conducted very carefully. Whenever one material did not go with the others, everything had to be decorated again. This of course meant additional work. I took part in every step of this work to my utmost ability. I always smelled of clothes. I always felt this weighing on my arms, saw its colour before my eyes, had its dust on my body and clothes and even tasted it on my tongue.

And there were still other tasks I was responsible for: Cleaning, sweeping and fetching water for our daily use. Only at dusk, when all of this was finally done (as there was a lack of electricity, bazaar work was only for daytime), I seized the bread I had bought for my family's supper and ran home. Here, where my loving mother would wait for me, my brothers and sisters received me gratefully with their praise and kisses, helping me regain my strength.

The distance from our house to the bazaar was about three kilometres, and to get there, you had to go along the lane of the dyers, which, in contrast to other parts of the bazaar, did not have a roof. On both sides of this small lane you could see the dye workshops where the wool used in the production of Persian carpets was dyed, then carried into the street and finally hung on poles, which had been erected for this very purpose. Only when the wool was dry was it removed from those poles. Each dyer was just using one colour during several days, while the others were using another one. I had the impression that the dyers had reached a tacit agreement, over who would use a particular colour at a given time. At least two times a day I passed this colourful wet lane, and often I was punished afterwards for the drops of colour which had stained my clothes. Looking back, I am glad, that in those days there was no other way for me to go home, but through this lane.

My thirteenth year of life marked a turning point for me: Against my father's will I refused to work at the bazaar, causing a breach in our relationship. I began to focus strictly on school. School took more time and energy now that I had entered "high school". I passed my final exams in time and came to Germany two years later. After having overcome the usual difficulties you have to face in the beginning (such as learning the language, attaining your permissions, etc.) I began to study the science of agriculture in the German city of Gießen. After the completion of my studies, I became a qualified engineer. Afterwards I began to study political science (a Master degree) in Marburg. Then I achieved a doctorate in sociology at the University of Münster (Westfalen) and finally returned to Iran. Here I spent two years, where I became a victim of persecution under the new Iranian authorities and was forced to return to Germany in the early eighties. During my occupation as an assistant professor at the University of Münster, which lasted two semesters, I began to study history of art. These studies, and I will return to this topic later, became the second turning point of my life: I now decided to become an independent artist. From a physical and psychological perspective, child labour is (in a dialectical way) contradictory to a child's nature. It is harmful to a child's frail limbs and can have negative consequences on the child's growth. This work steals precious time from the children, which is required to discover their world, to live their dreams and to test their personality and interests playfully. Child labour drags the children out of their magic world and hurls them into another one: the world of the grown-ups. Life in this new orbit is asking too much of the child, as their fellow passengers do not share the same age. This journey offers no pleasure for children, lacking the natural ease and joy of childhood.

The bazaar was not my world either. It was the centre of economy. There, people were working hard and for a long time. Trading, speculation and disputes were on the agenda. The grown-ups played their own game and did not show any consideration for the children. Here, there was standing a child, on a completely different level. And as usual, if a child finds himself among a mass of grown-ups, it looks at nothing but long legs, hurrying by, that do not show any consideration for the little ones. In the bazaar, it is not children's laughter that reverberates, but the deafening screams of the traders. The bazaar's own language is the language of economy, which is strange and incomprehensible for a child. If nearly everybody else is talking in a language you do not understand, communication becomes a problem that cannot be overemphasized. It gives rise to strong aversions ­ above all to work. As far as I am concerned, these aversions were directed against everything associated with the bazaar. If this is so, then how was I finally able to overcome my aversions? My personal rebellion against work at the bazaar was certainly good for me, because it paved the way for school and studies. This was central to my career. It meant I could find myself once again ­ and find my friends. I enjoyed going to school, as much as later on I was fond of going to university. At university I was taken seriously. I was among people of my own age and found a meaning in what I did. Above all, my studies during the sixties and the seventies were enriching. Due to my participation in the student-movement I began to understand the mechanisms of society, and how to deal with them.

It was only afterwards that I understood, why I had to work at the bazaar and why this work was indispensable to society - and therefore justified. How else could my father have nourished his family? This realisation helped in our reconciliation, even if unfortunately my father had died in the meantime. My anger, which I had directed against him before, now directed itself against the cause of child labour. This affected the relationship with my family living abroad in Iran: It became more intense, more profound and warmer, but naturally involved more responsibilities. My philosophy of life became less restricted, I widened my personal horizon, became democratic and less narrow minded. Although I liked to live in Germany and amongst Germans, I returned to my home-country after the overthrow of the shah-regime. Except for the fact that I missed my family, my home-country and my roots I was also tempted by the hope that I could profit from my knowledge and my abilities there. With great curiosity I had a look at the bazaar. In front of my father's shop, which was now owned by somebody else, tears came to my eyes. I calmed down and went on. Some of the traders recognized me immediately, others after I had introduced myself. Here, my past was reeled off before my mind's eye like a movie, which I knew partly. I was not sad ­ I was speechless. The social conditions I had fought for repeatedly came to my mind now like a movie: They corresponded amazingly closely with those I could now see in reality. I understood how much the memories of our childhood settle in our brains and have a lifelong effect on us.

I longed to go to the street of the dyers. Like it was in those days the dyers were working in their shops - and it still was the same kind of work they did. It seemed to me, that the only thing which had changed was my vision. The colours seemed clear, rich and shining to me. When I looked up, I saw the sky framed by the buildings. I also saw a picture that was new to me in those days: A colourful sky. Here, it came to my mind, why the dyers worked with different colours in their (already described) kind of way: Did they have the intention to portray the harmony of the colourful sky?

Only once I had left the bazaar, satisfied but pretty exhausted, did I notice that again I had not been careful enough. But this time I was not punished afterwards... The material which is produced in the street of the dyers (dyed wool) is the basis of the carpet-industry, which itself provides the income of many villagers. Within their families those people manufacture their merchandise, which is all made from hand, and has, as a result of its high artistic quality, developed a huge reputation. Persian carpets are pieces of art, which we "trample all over" with our feet, and at the same time decorate and furnish our rooms. They display a myriad of colours that, being produced carefully and with a high degree of skill, form an object which makes us feel comfortable. The fine craftsmanship of those carpets requires even finer tools: children's fingers. To refresh my memory I visited some villages and some of the manufacturing families previously mentioned. Here I began to understand the extraordinary brightness of the clothes worn by our customers in those days. Looking at the cheerless landscape with its loam huts, one respectfully appreciates the arrangement of different colours, which are intuitively chosen and can only be like this. If these brightly clad people would not roam these parts, everyday life would be grey and morose. My reservations from childhood towards those people were transformed into a great deal of sympathy. Gratefully I took this sympathy with me, as a present.

My return to Germany two years later was by no means a voluntary act. If I could not settle down in my home-country, I wanted at least to try to do so in my second home-country. At the beginning of the eighties the social and economical conditions in Germany had changed visibly, as had my view of life. This led to me leaving my academic occupation, which had become boring. I registered at the University of Münster to study history of art. During these studies I earned my living as a taxi-driver. One evening, tired from work and watching television, I suddenly felt an urge (an urge which was completely new to me in those days) to paint the photo shown on the screen. The next day I bought myself the tools required for painting and began. This new and pleasant creative occupation led me to new horizons, and still fascinates me. Some years later I gave up my job as a taxi-driver and tried to live completely on the earnings of my art.

I am still alive, painting draperies. Clothes crease ­ even those of the farmers. But the shadows of the farmer's clothes are different, because those shadows are not just colourful ­ they are also dusty.

This is dedicated to all those who gave me the strength to paint.