Hossein Valamanesh 1949 – 2021

Published February 3, 2022
Hossein Valamanesh, 1949-2021

When Hossein Valamanesh arrived in Australia in 1973, Gough Whitlam was Prime Minister, Patrick White was Australian of the Year, and change was in the air. The first Biennale of Sydney was held at the Opera House, and John Kaldor brought out Gilbert & George as “the living sculptures”. James Mollison purchased Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, for US$2 million.

It was a moment when Australia was shedding its image as a provincial outpost of world art and adopting a more expansive view: in retrospect, a pretty good time for an Iranian artist to start a new life in this country. In a career that spanned almost five decades, Valamanesh, who has died of a sudden heart attack, would make a permanent imprint on the culture of his adopted homeland. He showed us that Australian art could ignore the nationalist clichés and embrace very different ideas and traditions.

Hossein Valamanesh, ‘Subdivision’ (1989)

Valamanesh was born in Tehran in 1949. His father was a provincial administrator, which meant Hossein would spend his childhood in remote and dusty places. Valamanesh senior was also a dedicated Marxist who expected his son to read Chairman Mao’s speeches and scorn religion. On returning to Tehran to go to school, Valamanesh developed a passionate interest in art and poetry, and by the age of 15 had transferred to a college that specialised in the visual arts. He would graduate from the Tehran School of Art in 1970 and immerse himself in the theatre.

Although he was no admirer of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, Valamanesh didn’t come to Australia as a political refugee. Instead, he followed an iranian girl who had gone to live in Perth, and was able to provide him with a letter of invitation. This is all one needed in those days before draconian border controls became a way of winning elections.

On arriving in Perth with only a basic grasp of English, his romantic plans came to nothing. Valamanesh would live for a while with a commune, then travel to Papunya in Central Australia, where the Aboriginal art movement was in its infancy. The journey through the Outback had a profound influence. In Warburton he was privileged to watch the Morning Star ceremonies which stretched from sunset to sunrise.

Hossein Valamanesh, ‘Longing, Belonging’ (2003)

“It was very moving,” he recalled, “this symbiosis of the people and the landscape. For a few days afterward you feel as though you have a kind of serene, heightened awareness of your surroundings. This experience is one of my fortunes, it stopped me feeling so out of place in this country. I began to appreciate the physicality, the emptiness of the Outback. You could walk through the bush, sit on top of a hill and just be by yourself.”

While in Central Australia Valamanesh heard good reports about the South Australian School of Art, and made Adelaide his next destination. He was accepted immediately, and would graduate in 1977. In his second year he had met Angela Burdon who was studying ceramics. They would live together for the next 48 years, marrying after the first two. Their son, Nassieem, now a filmmaker, would be born in 1978.

In Angela, Hossein found not only a soul-mate who helped him adjust to his new country, but a collaborator, with whom he would work on a succession of public art projects. According to Angela there was no conscious decision to collaborate, it was a natural corollary of their closeness (they had side-by-side studios at home), and the diverse tasks involved. Most of these pieces are still extant, includingJourney (1993) at Rookwood cemetary, Sydney; Irish Famine Memorial (1999) at Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney; 14 Pieces (2005), in front of the South Australian Museum in Adelaide; and the Gingko Gates (2011), at the Adelaide Botanic Garden.

Hossein & Angela Valmanesh, ‘The Australian Monument to the Great Irish Famine’ (1999) at Hyde Park Barracks Sydney, 2006.

These public projects form only one component of a vast body of work that incorporated sculpture, painting, installation, photography and film. Valamanesh’s constant concern was to create works of universal relevance, usually based on simple poetic images. Open-ended symbols such as his own shadow, ladders, bowls, fingerprints, maps and chairs would recur in many different guises. He had a fondness for natural materials such as sand, clay, wood, bamboo and stone, but was happy to use whatever a particular piece required. “I often try to make very ordinary objects,” he said, “but they still have this ceremonial feel.”

When Valamanesh did feel an urgent need to comment on contemporary events, following the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that saw the Shah overthrown by the Ayatollah Khomeini, he still dealt in universal symbols. He was  motivated by a sense of betrayal, as he saw that people who had fought for the revolution were now being imprisoned and executed by the new regime. Yet the torn shirts, empty chairs, and shoes filled with sand might have referred to any authoritarian state. The nooses and blood-stained knives were not intended solely as a comment on the new government in Iran.

Hossein Valamanesh, ‘The Untouchable’ (1984)

Valamanesh’s work has been collected by most of Australia’s major museums and galleries, although one of his most memorable pieces, The Untouchable (1984), remains with his estate. This remarkable floor installation consists of a circle of black hessian, five metres in diameter. From equivalent points on the circumference four long bamboo poles jut into the centre, reaching out to a central lamp with a single flame. Each pole is counterbalanced by a small bowl, filled with sand. It’s a work that gives a unique, concrete form to an interiorised, meditative state.

Although he wasn’t born into a religious family Valamanesh would make many works that refer, directly or indirectly, to the the great Sufi poets, Rumi and Hafeez. He has also drawn on Farid Ud-Din Attar’s 12th century fable, The Conference of the Birds, and made a kinetic piece, The lover circles his own heart(1993) that echoes the whirling dervishes of Sufism. This sculpture was acquired by Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

Hossein Valamanesh, ‘The Lover Circles His Own Heart’, (1993)

Despite these constant references to his Persian heritage, Valamanesh believed people were often too ready to emphasise the ‘exotic’ aspects of his work while ignoring the local elements. He once told me: “It’s a presumption that everything I do must have some relation to my cultural background as though I’m not observing what’s around me. It’s a big mistake.”

There have been surveys of Valamanesh’s work, at venues such as the Contemporary Art Centre, Adelaide (1990), the Art Gallery of South Australia and the MCA (2001-02). His most recent retrospective, Puisque tout passe (This will also pass), may be seen at the Institut des Cultures d’Islam in Paris until 13 February. This well-received show promised to open a new international audience for the artist. There are already plans afoot to organise an Australian tour.

Hossein Valamanesh, 1949-2021

In March, Hossein and Angela Valamanesh will be featured in this year’s Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, commencing on 4 March at the AGSA, an exhibition now destined to become a tribute to a gentle, unassuming artist who put a huge amount of care into everything he did. For Valamanesh it was extremely important that a work was well made and able to reveal layers of meaning to those who took the time to look. He liked the idea that a viewer might stand in front of a work and say: “Ah, somebody has actually done this. What care they’ve taken!”



Hossein Valamanesh, (2 March, 1949 – 15 Dec. 2021), is survived by his wife Angela, his son, Nassiem; his brothers, Ali and Esmaeil, and sister, Maliheh.


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 1 February, 2022