When artist Ali Mobasser was a child he began collecting stamps. The act of building a collection of ephemera, carefully placing postal gems into a book, is a common hobby for children across the world. But for Ali, his Iranian stamp collection “acted as a security blanket during a turbulent period in my childhood when I was sent away by mother in Southern California to live with my father in London,” the artist begins to tell It’s Nice That.
Ali’s heritage is Iranian. His family left the country during the Islamic Revolution in 1979 due to his grandfather’s role in the Shah’s government. “He was a famous general who had been chief of national police and in 1979 he was deputy prime minister,” Ali explains. “He went into hiding after saying his final goodbye to his wife who was dying of cancer.” The artist’s family settled London where Ali moved too, raised by his grandfather, aunt, father and an ever-growing collection of stamps prised off of letters from his family’s former home. “I collected for a few more years until hitting my adolescence, by which time they ceased to be cool and found a place on my father’s bookshelf, collecting dust until their rediscovery 20 years on.”
Fast forward to now and Ali’s childhood stamp collection has become a formative visualisation of his artistic practice. “As an adult, displacement, identity and life in exile was becoming a big factor in my life and art, and through a number of different life alignments (the death of my aunt who raised me and the birth of my son), I felt the need to tell my family’s story, mainly for therapeutic reasons after my loss.”
The act of using art as a way to portray such a personal story is not a practice that came naturally to Ali. Initially, it was actually something he “shied away from in my art, choosing socially orientated concepts that were more illustrative than truly personal,” he explains. “I had grown up in London wanting to have a ‘normal’ narrative like everyone else and didn’t want to stick out with my weird refugee story. I spent my youth cultivating my Englishness, slowly building a creative and emotional dam that was getting ready to burst!”
Understandably, Ali did burst. In 2015 he opened up the book of stamps – and his family’s history too – photographing each of them into a project, Stamps of a Revolution, with an accompanying text about his particular attachment to them. “I find the re-appropriation of personal objects and stories into concepts quite effective as my personal form of communication to the viewer,” explains the artist. “The personal part of this stamp collection is that I collected these stamps as a child, from the post that arrived for me in the west, a process that helped bring me closer to a place I longed to know for myself one day.”
The idea of Ali visiting Iran was something that had always been something hushed away by his family. “Going back to Iran was not on the cards for us. Both my father and mother were quick to dissuade me when I would bring up the subject of visiting one day,” he says. “It was never a good time it seemed, but it was becoming an ever-growing itch that was going to have to be scratched sooner or later. Imagine having celebrated your culture all your life and being able to speak your mother tongue fluently yet not remembering your country. It was becoming an issue for me, especially after becoming a father.”
Luckily, Ali’s wish to visit Iran started to become a reality after visiting Photo London in 2016. By chance, the artist came across AG Galerie, based in Iran’s capital Tehran. “It’s not often you see a gallery from Iran exhibiting at such events so I began a conversation with the owner, Simindokht Dehghani,” Ali explains. Looking at Ali’s work on her laptop she saw Stamps of a Revolution and jumped at the chance to collaborate with him on a book and an exhibition in Tehran the following year. “I was totally thrown, and thrilled!”
Considering his family’s broken relationship with Iran, Ali’s father first sent “out a feeler to make sure the gallery were legitimate and became very proud of my achievement,” the artist explains. Tragically, however, Ali’s father passed away during this time and in turn, “the Mobasser elders who I had grown up with in London, the reason I came to London, were now all gone”. At this point the artist decided to head to Iran, “I had nothing to lose,” he says. “In January 2017, shortly after turning 40, I visited Iran for the first time in 38 years and in the summer I returned, this time with my wife and son for my first solo show, anywhere.”
The exhibition saw each of Ali’s collected stamps delicately housed in tiny frames. Built up together on a wall through time, “walking into that space for the first time, surrounded by all 107 framed stamps in chronological order was very moving,” says the artist. “ The story of my stamps had found its ending and I had returned them to their place of issue, just as they, in turn, had reunited me with my country.”
About the Author
Lucy joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In October 2016 she became a staff writer on the editorial team and in January 2019 was made It’s Nice That’s deputy editor. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about new and upcoming creative projects or editorial ideas for the site.