“Sugarcoating a grotesque message” is how Detroit-based Shiva Ahmadi, in her strong Farsi accent, describes her aesthetic trickery. Populated by folkloric creatures, the artist’s pastel-hued fantasyscapes in watercolor on Aquabord — a textured hardboard panel coated with clay — reveal dark undertones that assert themselves in washes of blood-red ink and carefully rendered grenades.
Ahmadi’s recent work addresses ideas she has been toying with for eight years: the selfish motives, masked in moral ideology, that drive armed conflict; the pervasive nature of corruption; and the political dynamics of social injustice. Lotus, 2013, portrays, on a wildly patterned pistachio ground, an enthroned leader, turbaned and faceless, his body dissolving into velvety maroon abstraction. His ornate throne, inscribed with Allah, sits on a bed of lotus flowers similar to those found in 18th-century Tibeto-Chinese Buddha statuettes. An array of underlings — horses, birds, and monkeys — surrounding him make offerings of ticking time bombs. The turmoil and fantastical use of animals in the three-panel work echo both the Garden of Earthly Delights of Hieronymus Bosch and the ancient Persian epic Hamzanama.
After completing Lotus, Ahmadi came to feel that transmission of her message — unchecked political power backed by dogma inevitably ends in social destruction — was restricted by the static quality of painting, so she decided to convert it into animation. The resulting 10-minute film, Lotus, 2014, is on view through August 3 at the Asia Society in New York. “I don’t consider myself a digital artist,” she declares, “but for the sake of my concepts, animation is the perfect medium.”