Ballot of Witches: Feast of Fire
“Ballot of Witches: Feast of Fire” is an installation by Anita Esfandiari, Shahrzad Jahan and Minoo Yalsohrabi at Electric Room. Working like a meeting, a convention, an assembly, and a conversation, the project has been in the making for several months by the trio. Each working in a different city —Anita in Frankfurt, Shahrzad in Tehran, and Minoo in Tabriz— the three artists convened in Spring in Tehran to plan for the show in Winter. The project initially took inspiration from “The Feast of Sada" (ca. 1525), a painting attributed to Sultan Muhammad as part of the 16th-century project illustrating the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp, but it soon moved into new territories.
The painting “The Feast of Sada” makes references to the ancient celebration of Sada, a ceremony to honor fire and its power against darkness and cold. The advent of the festivity is often accredited to Hushang, a mythological king. According to the mythological history of the Shahnama, the reign of Hushang was an age in which scientific discoveries were made and the world came to appreciate many new technologies and techniques that improved human life. An excessive list of new breakthroughs including the introduction of iron and the principles of iron-working, metal-working and smithery, the development of irrigation, agriculture, the domestication of certain animals and livestock farming, clothes-making from fur are all attributed to him. The painting specifically refers to his discovery of flint and its use in making a fire: “One day Hushang spied a hideous apparition. When he threw a rock at it, the monster vanished. The rock struck a boulder and sparks flashed up*.” Taking this coincidence as an opportunity, “that very night he gathered his courtiers and their animals, lectured them about the potentials of fire*.”
In “Ballot of Witches: Feast of Fire”, the three artists have created a fantasy three-dimensional reenactment of the painting attributed to Sultan Muhammad. In their approach, they take literary techniques such as irony, satire and allegory, and blend them into their visual narrative. In this path, they transform their material and alter its connotations. In the source image, the fire signifies the center. As so, the initial idea was to make a metaphorical fire and gather around it, so as to compose the installation based on a ‘center’. However, as they progressed into their journey, their mere gathering defied the need for a center. Their focus also swung away from the characters in the painting, including Hushang and his courtly company, to the objects and the setting, including the surrounding rocks, mountains, heavens, plants and flowers. In their process, the margins and the marginalia sufficiently filled in for the warmth of the fire.
Additionally, the physical distance between the three artists and the difficulty of setting up a ‘feast’ by collaboratively working on additional pieces for the installation, made their individual artistic agency more prominent while their coordination remained intact. This trait is simultaneously reminiscent and radically dissimilar to the traditions of ‘miniature’ painting and the royal schools that Sultan Muhammad belonged to. Moreover, the approach embraces the serendipity of discovery and shares it as a collective emergence rather than an individual achievement.
While the installation and the pieces’ compositions set off from the configurations found in “The Feast of Sada”, the trio’s vision transcends into a distorted fantasy image. Following a journey of decentralization, discovery, and recentralization, in “Ballot of Witches: Feast of Fire” three suspended paintings, each by one of the artists, take center-stage and the setup is configured around them. Each painting opens a different perspective into the unique journey of the artists, following their inspirations and conversations. The paintings are not meant as a converging line of inquiry or narrative, but are rather hints into the dialogs among and inside the artists. As so, while all three paintings share many formal aspects, each follows the stylistic, intellectual and narrative interests of its painter.
In addition to the three paintings, each artist takes aim at augmenting their account and dialogs through a number of other pieces in the installation. Anita’s journey presents the company of two anthropomorphized paintings that mischievously sit around the space, while Shahrzad and Minoo each hide their boxed paintings in a corner. Much like the painting that inspired them, the installation and its pieces also create dialog with the elements in the setting they depict/are presented in. As so, Electric Room, its architecture and setup, stylistic and functional elements, work like a composition hosting the composition created and reenacted by the artists. Much like how Hushang sets up a feast in the panting, gathering around people and animals, heavenly beings, his innovations and contributions, and inviting onlookers, “Ballot of Witches: Feast of Fire” creates a lively yet uncanny configuration within the space.
* Welch, Stuart Cary. “A King’s Book of Kings: The Shah-Nameh of Shah Tahmasp”. Thames and Hudson in association with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, London: 1972.