Provocation by Abbas Zahedi



When it comes to the question of figureheads, I think I’m more of an iconoclast, I don’t necessarily believe in the logic of representation. 


I think what I understand by the premise of this debate is a discussion to do with how we develop a sense of agency in artistic practice and then extend that beyond the scope of the individuals involved… 


I would even go further to say that the underlying premise of any artistic practice is a call to agency and a sense of self determination, borne out of a shared sense of care and consideration. 


So I don’t tend to focus on the who, what and why of art history, but more so, the processes and practices that enable this sense of agency to be passed on to more and more people going forward;


Expanding the fold so to speak. 


And yet I find it deeply saddening and somewhat ironic that I can’t speak on certain issues unfolding in the current moment, because I still don’t have the kind of agency which I wish to pass on… 


there is no figurehead who can help me in this situation.


So, figureheads as such, have now become these kinds of anachronistic cultural bastions, a sort of lighthouse or beacon…. Erected to signal a sense of safety and familiarity for those who have the means to reify such figures as part of an overarching grand narrative or drive towards historical determinacy. 


In my case there was no lighthouse, 


I‘ve spent most of my life engaged in a series of search parties, 


peer to peer activities… 


Some of you know, I spent more than 7 years organising a weekly philosophy symposium in my local fish and chip shop here in West London. 


We would sit in a public space and have open discussions, anyone could walk in. 


I remember one night, Condoleezza Rice’s cousin came to the chip shop, and we had a full on discussion about US foreign policy in the wake of the illegal wars in Iraq, afghanistan and so on. 


We disagreed vehemently, but it was amicable still. 


And yet now I’m a figurehead in the arts and I can’t speak freely…


Even though there’s more ‘diversity’


But it seems that this diversifying process: to expand the number of figureheads has neutralised our ability to express genuine positions of otherness and difference.


Professor Sarat Maharaj describes this as “an intensifying crisis, around the management of difference” (Maharaj, 2004: 49). 


So there is a risk that even in art there can be a self referential drive that seeks to transform the foreign into the familiar through the use of figureheads, which emerge through grand narratives and biennales, intertwined with the control of economic flows, within commercial contexts and publications, you know things like Artforum: 


They reviewed my show last year at Anonymous gallery in NY… and the writer Kaleem Hawa took on the role of a critical figurehead. I had never heard of him, and so I looked up his bio on twitter, which just states: Palestinian writer and activist. 


Kaleem had a very interesting take on my show, in which he accepted my figurehead credentials as a working class artist, with social activist roots, but took issue that this did not translate into enough anger in the work… and they were also critical of why I accepted the Frieze Artist Award in 2022. 


So I spoke to my therapist, along with my weekly psychodynamic support group, all of whom are important figureheads to me 


About why I find it hard to be angry in a space where I experience a lot of social and professional vulnerability? 


Some of them said it’s because I’m a coward and others tried to empathise with my position.


I then explained to them that I still can’t get away from the dominant version of art history, which still operates along a vertical axis.


And then the the logic of representation and figureheads allows us to plot other points 

in terms of their deviation from whatever is considered to be normative of this central axis.  


This teleological, eurocentric, progressive grid frames the whole history of art 

much like  a computer game in which the conceptualists i.e. Mr Duchamp is the final boss.


After that it all becomes contemporary, and that’s apparently still where we’re at. 


One evidence I have to back this up is a scene from Adam Curtis’ BBC film 

chronicling the afghan war and related events called Bitter Lake


As you know, there was a war, it had just ended, people were still fighting, and the British Council was out there teaching young Afghans about Marcel Duchamp and the fountain. 


Presenting him as the final boss, the pinnacle of the civilised side, 

that young afghans need to imbibe in order to make themselves contemporary.


Much like what I was trying to do in Art school.


Which is kind of where I started playing computer games again… And recently I was browsing through some cover art from a fighting game called Tekken.


This game sets out a similar narrative to art history, in terms of lots of men and a few women, 

fighting it out to defeat the final boss, an old guy called Heihachi, 


You can think of him as the Duchamp of Tekken.


This image is from 1996, and every other Tekken sequel since then has pretty much the same story line,

Just with more people fighting to defeat Heihachi and make it to the next sequel.


Which always includes more characters 


in what is starting to look like a contemporary art world biennale. 


I mean, just look at the amount of characters we have today with the most recent version called Tekken 7.


And yeah it’s definitely more diverse. 


But all it really does is generate a greater lateral deviation from the central axis. 


It’s like making a higher resolution image with more and more pixels 

but it’s the same picture that gets so big, it just crashes our computers to the point that we can’t even look at it anymore. 


This kind of expansion, based on a logic of representation, still maintains the cartesian grid 

with Duchamp/Heihachi at the top and centre respectively.


And so, the only option we have in order to continue any reliance on figureheads is to switch terrains… 


Much like many ‘diverse’ artists have done to become contemporary figureheads AKA influencers;


And there is a long tradition of this in art as well 


Just take a look at Holbein the Younger’s ambassadors 

Standing in what looks like a sponsored advertisement for exotic ethnic products and colonial goods.


Nowadays you can switch out the ambassadors, they can be different people… they can even be institutions


And instead of a Persian rug, you can have an artist of Iranian descent on display, or talking about figureheads to… I don’t know who…?


But what I do know is that this is no longer contemporary art.


What we have today, I call: Art + 


because it’s a procedural system, borne out of this drive to manage an acceptable level of difference 


that functions through the formula of addition…


to add new figureheads whilst maintaining the underlying structures and modes of production.