YZ Kami, Endless Prayers

YZ Kami, Endless Prayers
By Jackie Wullschlager

November 22 2008 02:00

Parasol Unit, London N1

The Iranian artist YZ Kami’s giant, unsettling oil portrait series In
Jerusalem , based on a New York Times photograph and depicting a
sheikh, cardinal, Armenian patriarch and Sephardic and Ashkenazi rabbis
in their ornate official garbs, was among the most haunting works at
last year’s Venice biennale. Political strife? Religious oppression?
Patriarchal domination? Hopes of unity? Although it suggested many
themes, none quite fitted these portraits, whose subjects gaze down or
look away, denying emotional contact just as Kami’s blurred brushwork
deliberately frustrates attempts to focus.

It is a pleasure to see them again in this broad, intelligent
retrospective, which establishes Kami as a distinctive 21st-century
conceptual portraitist. Here, amid crowds of everyday faces, all
singular but also painted as expressionless masks, ordinariness
emphasised by nondescript clothing, Kami’s overriding theme becomes
clear: the unknowability of the Other, the loneliness of the individual
in an identikit global society. The vast, alienating scale, and Kami’s
flat, fresco-like textures, enhance the sense of detachment and
cloistered muteness.

Kami studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and his second project here,
collages of Arabic texts evoking ornamental Islamic art and
occasionally the Christian cross, has a spare, cerebral grace that
complements the portraits. Both series are multicultural, democratic,
contemporary, yet Kami’s work also recalls Genet’s words on another
existentialist artist, Giacometti: that the resemblance of the
sculptor’s figures to one another represents "that precious point at
which human beings are confronted with the most irreducible fact: the
loneliness of being equivalent to all others". ,
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