Iranian Christian asylum-seeker’s art displayed at UK gallery

Iranian Christian asylum-seeker’s art displayed at UK gallery

(Photo: Twitter@firstsite)

A set of three handwoven rugs by an Iranian Christian asylum-seeker are so impressive and significant that they should be displayed in a national museum, according to the director of the art gallery currently exhibiting the works.

Mehdi Jalalaghdamian’s rugs, created during the six years he spent in Sweden after fleeing Iran, are symbolic both of his own journey and also of countless others, says Sally Shaw, director of the Firstsite museum in Colchester, southeast England, which has been displaying the works since last September.

The central work, which took Mehdi 18 months to make, is a collage of harrowing images of life as a refugee, including Trump’s border wall, migrants struggling to survive in the ocean, and asylum-seekers lining up outside a church.

(Photo: Twitter@HenryLong9)

The other two rugs show Christ on the cross, and the queen of Sweden, the latter of which Mehdi said he offered to the Swedish government as a gift to thank them for his years there.

Ms Shaw first encountered Mehdi in November 2021, soon after his arrival in the UK, when he was one of a number of asylum-seekers taken by a local charity, Refugee, Asylum-seeker & Migrant Action (RAMA), to see an exhibition at Firstsite.

And it was during this visit that Maria Wilby, director of RAMA, noticed Mehdi’s special interest in the art, and asked for an explanation.

“He said, ‘I’m an artist’, and showed her a picture of the rug, the big one,” Ms Shaw told Article18. “And she said, ‘Can you send me that picture? Because I think Sally would be interested in seeing it.’ And she sent me a text, and said, ‘Mehdi’s in your gallery; you need to meet him.’ And that was that.”

A year later, Mehdi’s works were themselves on display at Firstsite, and Ms Shaw’s hope is that the works will go on to gain even more prominence.

“They’re just extraordinary,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of art over the years, and I just think these are just the most incredible things I’ve seen in my entire career.

“Our whole gallery is about why creativity is important, and trying to get to the bottom of that and understand it, because it’s actually a really fundamental human pursuit. And the fact that Mehdi, in whatever circumstances he was in, in Sweden, having made whatever kind of journey he has made from Iran, the fact that he chose to actually make something creative at that point, to me is really, really interesting. 

“He could have done so many things with his time. And time is the one thing that he does have a lot of – it’s one of the few things that he has a lot of – and he chose to do this with it, and I think that’s the most extraordinary act of protest. It’s really incredible. In my view, this is the kind of thing that should be in a big national museum.”

In the meantime, Ms Shaw says that Firstsite will use the grant they received for winning Museum of the Year in 2021 to help support Mehdi “in whatever way we can”, starting by offering him a position as artist-in-residence.

(Photo: Twitter@firstsite)