Esmaeil Ghanbari


When I was a child, families used to send their children to queue for bread. It gave them the chance of playing their part in the ritual of wasting time in return for the family’s bread—the true definition of work in an oil-based economy. The waste mostly happened in the five-loaves-of-bread-queues and the ten-or-more-loaves-of-bread-queues, since one loaf for one individual was not worth wasting time for, and individuals were not that many. Everything revolved around families: single breads were thus passed out without queuing. The time spent on exchanging banknotes for bread was facilitated by two procedures: one was to watch the nimble mechanical movements of the worker preparing the dough next to a mechanical oven. The worker was so skinny that made you think he receives no share of the bread he makes. His dark skin stretching out of the white undershirt made the observer wonder whether he was not a fugitive of the war zones which enjoyed a similar warm weather. This would be followed by another thought: ‘Be grateful that you are alive, queuing for bread on this side of the shop window.’ If you stopped gazing at the worker, as asked by the elders, then the other option would be to gaze at the banknote that you held in your hand. These particular ten-Toman-banknotes were popular with children, for they used to find all sorts of animals in the beard of the figure printed on them.
Ismail Ghanbari’s banknotes are crumpled the same way ordinary banknotes are. His way of portraying them makes the original illustrators ashamed. It is as if Ismail Ghanbari takes revenge on behalf of all those who have spent hours and hours gazing at these meaningless and ugly images: he gives these visual products what they deserve and shows them what it means to turn art ‘popular’. He makes use of the fact that banknotes are the only visual documents which, due to their financial value, are able to keep their authenticity distinct from their artistic value and that their price is irrelevant to their visual beauty, unless when they cease to be legal tender and are sold by antique dealers for their pure historical and aesthetic value. Ismail Ghanbari does not wait that long; he invalidates them and represents them without the support of the ‘authenticity’ bestowed upon them by the Central Bank. By representing them, he detaches their aesthetic and formal layers and treats them roughly. These works go down the path of commodification in an opposite direction.
I never found the fox among those patterns. Years later, the same game of finding similarities between two images found its way to milk boxes, however, this time it was done intentionally to amuse the customers. Any delay in exchanging money for goods had disappeared and the time thus saved could be spent after breakfast on problem-solving. Before that, the joy of watching would turn the moment of delay into a spectacle. It was a brief chance for seeing banknotes for what they were which sadly vanished after the war.