Shahpour Pouyan is inspired by the discovery of a diverse DNA in his latest Dubai exhibition

The central display in Shahpour Pouyan’s latest exhibition is essentially a self-portrait, or, as the artist prefers to describe it, “a post-modern statement of myself”.

Fuelled by a feeling that his ancestry held some secrets, the Iranian-born Pouyan took his DNA results four years ago and the results were astonishing. Traces from 33 modern countries were found, extending from Iran, Iraq, Turkey, the Gulf and the Caucasus to Bhutan, Syria and even Ireland and Norway. On display are ceramic domes representing significant architectural monuments from each of these countries. The pieces succinctly demonstrate the richness and variety possible in one human, both in terms of genetic makeup and skill as an artist in producing these works by hand, while simultaneously challenging the concept of divisions by nationality.

The ceramics are exquisitely produced objects, each a completely different shape, tone and finish. Each has a 10-inch diameter, so has no aspect-ratio to the original building, although they all vary in height. There is also no hierarchy of architectural forms here; a rendering of Hagia Sophia sits equal to a form suggestive of an upturned Viking longboat. Nor is there any suggested chronology or linear narration; rather it’s a celebration of the diversity of human achievements across civilizations. In direct opposition is the austere steel cuboid frame upon which the domes are placed, intentionally reminiscent of modernist architecture by Le Corbusier or Donald Judd’s minimalist sculptures, of which Pouyan is intensely critical.

On three shelves at the edges of the gallery space stands a collection of photographs taken from the Internet, again derived from the countries cited in Pouyan’s DNA results. Another critique on modernist approaches, a 19th century ethnographic photograph categorises humans into specific racial types based on facial features alone. Pouyan has subtly modified the nose on one figure in each image, hand-painting in acrylic his own distinctive profile. In each, he takes on the role of the aggressor, because, as he explains, he represents the victor throughout history, having survived, in the Darwinian sense. Other fascinating choices include the Wilton Diptych from London’s National Gallery, which is a demonstration of divine kingship in shimmering gold leaf, alongside a photograph of Khaled al-Asaad, an 82-year-old antiquities scholar who was beheaded by ISIS in 2015 for protecting valuable artefacts in Palmyra.

Seen together, the work is a heady synthesis of the past and today, a study in identity politics, and the rise and fall of human civilization. Ultimately, it represents an immense achievement.

Featured Image: Shahpour Pouyan, Untitled, 2017, glazed stoneware ceramic, variable dimensions, courtesy Lawrie Shabibi and the artist.

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, Letters From The Past #43, page 40.