Turning adversity to advantage: Artist Mohammad Barrangi draws on exile, disability and his Iranian heritage

Mohammad Barrangi is an acclaimed Iranian-born artist now living in Leeds. He has faced challenges throughout his life but his story is both remarkable and inspiring, as Chris Bond discovered.

Many artists face challenges in their life, none more so than Mohammad Barrangi. The Iranian-born artist and printmaker was born with a disabled left hand, but rather than let this limit him he has used it to his advantage – his work often explores his own disability along with influences from Persian miniature painting and personal stories told in intricate detail.

Still in his early 30s, Mohammad (or Mo as he prefers) is an award-winning artist of international repute whose work has featured in galleries around the world including in Paris, Los Angeles and Dubai. He was also invited to study at the Royal Drawing School in London and his artworks have garnered widespread praise, including from Prince Charles.

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Mo has lived in the UK since arriving here as an asylum seeker in 2017 and now calls Leeds his home, where he also has a small studio. Last year he was among the artists commissioned to design a space at the new Arts Hostel project in the city centre run by East Street Arts, and it’s here where we meet.

Artist Mohammad Barrangi with some of his intricate work.

His story, though, began much further afield. He was born in Rasht, a city in northern Iran, in 1988. “My friends would all go and play football but I couldn’t do that because my parents were worried I would get hurt, so they said I had better go to a drawing class,” he says.

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Mo was nine years old when he started drawing and he showed talent early on, and even though some people felt his disability would get in the way, he was encouraged by his mother and went to art school when he was 15, before going on to study graphic design at the University of Tehran.

As a teenager, he also discovered he had a gift for athletics and went on to represent the Iranian disabled national team numerous times in events around the world. He has won a slew of medals and he shows me some of them, one won at the Tunis Athletics International meeting in 2009, and another at the Asian Para-Games. He is a sprinter – he runs both the 100m and 200m – and his best time for the former, he proudly informs me, is 10.72 seconds, which is ridiculously fast by anyone’s standards.

Mo working at his studio at East Street Arts’ home, Patrick Studios in St Marys Lane, Leeds

He arrived in the UK five years ago and while his case was being assessed he moved to Wakefield. Here he became involved with the Art House, an independent arts organisation, and was part of the Studio of Sanctuary residency programme, an initiative that supports refugee artists and asylum seekers to continue their work and gain an understanding of cultural life in the UK.

It was while at the Art House one day that he spotted a magazine called Persian Matters and got in touch, explaining who he was and whether they might be interested in interviewing him.

They were and subsequently he came to the attention of the prestigious Royal Drawing School which offered him a place. He moved to the capital in 2019 before returning to Wakefield last year after finally completing his studies, which had been prolonged by the pandemic.

Mo’s English is improving all the time and he talks fondly about Yorkshire. “I love it here. Yorkshire has many famous artists and it is good for art. London is nice but there are more chances for artists in Yorkshire,” he says. “It is like my city in Iran. I come from the north of Iran and it rains a lot there as well,” he jokes.

He feels he has grown as a person since coming to the UK and believes his art has, too. “After being at the Royal Drawing School my work has changed. Before then I didn’t use colour but now I do, and I love it.”

The work itself is fascinating and draws on his own personal experiences of exile, disability and his Iranian heritage. It often contains images of birds, reptiles and mythical creatures and he takes elements from classical Western paintings with Eastern stories or imagery, as well as using calligraphy and collage to create something new.

Mo has developed a particular form of printmaking in a two-stage process that involves drawing and printing onto handmade paper. It starts from a simple dip-pen drawing, or calligraphy, which is then digitised and reprinted in a different scale.

After he finished at the Royal Drawing School, he was invited to an event where he and some fellow students met the Prince of Wales. “All the students after they finish have a group exhibition at Christie’s and me and three others were invited to talk to him. He said, ‘you’re Mohammad Barrangi, I saw your video at the British Museum.’ It was amazing that he heard my name.”

The work the prince was talking about was an installation featuring a composition of the Biblical story of Jonah and the Whale with Mo’s mother climbing out of the whale’s mouth. Growing up, he was very close to his mother who would take him for physiotherapy sessions and he often depicts inspiring women, like her, as heroic figures in his work. As he puts it – “all women are my heroes.”

After returning to Wakefield, he was commissioned by arts organisation Unlimited to create a new city centre mural, near the cathedral, which revolves around themes of travelling and migration and depicts five female faces.

If women feature prominently in his work so, too, does disability and he sometimes paints figures with one arm because the artist himself has “just one arm”. He has turned adversity to his advantage. “I sometimes use my left leg like it is my left arm,” he says. “I’m really happy, honestly, because it’s been good for my work. I work with my hand and my leg. I’ve never imagined having two hands.”

Though he has carved out a new life here in Yorkshire, he still has family and friends in Iran. “For five years I’ve not seen my family,” he says. “I still talk with my mum and I hope this year I will be able to visit her.”

In the meantime, he has his running and his artwork to keep him occupied, with an exhibition in London and one due at the Art House soon, and then later this year others in Belgium, France and the US.

“I am happy because my story has helped with my art, because I think any artist needs a story and a challenge. And I have always faced a challenge,” he says. “My work is about my life. It is about immigration, about feeling alone, about man and woman. There is sadness but also humour… It is about life.”

mobarrangi.com or www.instagram.com/mohammad.barrangi/?hl=en

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