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"Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood"
Reproduction of page 71 from Marjane Satrapi’s first graphic novel, "Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood" (2003). Reprinted with permission from Pantheon, New York.
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"How Often at Night"
William Kurelek, "How Often at Night," 1972, mixed media on masonite panel. Collection of the Mendel Art Gallery. Gift of the artist 1972.
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"Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood"
Reproduction of page 8 from Marjane Satrapi’s first graphic novel, "Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood" (2003). Reprinted with permission from Pantheon, New York.
“INNOCENT YEARS" Stories and Pictures by William Kurelek, Ian W. Abdulla and Marjane Satrapi
The Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon
By Patricia Dawn Robertson
What we resist often defines us. As a youth, each artist in this show is stalked by a different set of adversarial life conditions. Associate curator Jen Budney has identified the common ground between them and developed a fine show illustrating their plurality while respecting their differences.
“Innocent” Years: Stories and Pictures by William Kurelek, Ian W. Abdulla and Marjane Satrapiengages the viewer with three distinct and engaging interpretations on the same universal theme: youthful loss of innocence.
While most Canadian art lovers know the late William Kurelek’s Prairie paintings, they may be less familiar with the graphic novels of Iranian-born artist Marjane Satrapi or the folk art of Australian Ian W. Abdulla. The strength of this show is its cosmopolitan approach to the fascinating subject of adversity in childhood and adolescence.
Manitoba Party (1964) by Kurelek strikes an upbeat chord as a community gathers together under a big tent to savour traditional foods and socialize. In real life, Kurelek was quite conflicted about his rural upbringing. He vacillated between portraying romantic depictions of homestead life versus the harsher realities of the Ukrainian immigrant experience. Kurelek found farm life stifling yet he returned to that same rich subject matter throughout his career.
In Green Sunday (1962), we find a young Ukrainian woman being serenaded by her suitor in a lush depiction of courtship. Her colourful traditional costume stands out against the simple surroundings of the farm homestead. Kurelek has captured the essence of rural courtship and the simple pleasures a young couple can muster in modest circumstances.
What lurks behind these romantic scenes is the real story: Depression-era winters when the Kurelek family dined solely on greased potatoes. As Kurelek confesses in the NFB short included in the show, “The cows ate better than we did.”
The tension in these paintings between the real and the nostalgic is more pronounced once the onlooker reads the accompanying biography about Kurelek’s depression, nervous breakdowns and on-going conflicts with his farmer father.
There is less subterfuge in the contemporary works of graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi who wrote and illustrated Persepolis. The curator selected bold panels drawn from the graphic novel and the animated film of Persepolis. Satrapi’s work details an oppressive and harsh regime in her childhood home of Tehran. The stark black and white images are perfectly suited to the searing subject matter. Satrapi does not gild the lily.
As the educated daughter of a privileged family, Satrapi is uniquely qualified to depict the drastic social conditions for young women in her home country. Now based in Paris, the artist’s work continues to draw attention, controversy and admiration as she valiantly tells her own unvarnished account of life in Iran during the dramatic fall of the Shah, the early regime of Ruholla Khomeini and the first part of the controversial Iran-Iraq war.
Satrapi humanizes the headlines as onlookers see street life through her gimlet eyes. The power in this autobiographical narrative, and in the accompanying animated film, is in the artist’s authenticity. She refuses to sugar-coat Islamic fundamentalism or put a positive spin on purdah.
Indigenous Australian folk artist Ian W. Abdulla has a lighter touch in his colourful autobiographical paintings. His subversive subject matter depicts his childhood as an oppressed and impoverished minority.
The dramatic tension evident in this series is cleverly offset by the use of a playful palette and an elementary layout. But the real narrative punch is packed in the scrolled headlines inscribed on every painting: “Stealing Tomatoes from the White People at Night” (1990) and “One Night at Gerard Mission We Had a Talent Quest” (1990).
This eloquent exhibit is a must-see if you want to better understand how oppression, colonization and immigration have permanently shaped three artists’ aesthetic, personal and political lives.