The Iranian self-taught artist Davood Koochaki died in Tehran on June 20, 2020, of pancreatic cancer, at the age of 81, leaving behind one of the most distinctive bodies of work to have emerged internationally in the related art brut and outsider art fields in the past several decades.
photo ©: Morteza Zaheedi, Tehran, Iran
Koochaki’s unusual drawings made with pencil and coloured pencils on paper, often with smudges left visible, depict mysterious, partly human and partly animal-like creatures lumbering forward or seemingly caged within bright-white pictorial space. After first becoming known more than a decade ago, Koochaki’s work went on to attract enthusiastic collectors in Europe and the United States, securing its creator’s place in the art brut-outsider art canon as an emblematic visionary from a part of the world far beyond the Western European and North American regions in which this kind of art’s history traditionally has been rooted.
Born in 1939 in the province of Gilan in northern Iran, an agricultural region on the coast of the Caspian Sea, Koochaki came from a poor family of rice growers. As a little boy, he left school to help his parents work in the rice paddies, missing out on a basic education, although, years later, he taught himself to read and write. As a young teenager, he left his family and headed to Tehran, where he settled and eventually became an automobile mechanic. He married and had children, and opened his own auto-services garage. Around the age of 40, Koochaki began making art, but it was not until he was in his sixties and had retired from his mechanic’s work that he devoted his energy full-time to drawing.
In an exclusive interview, the art dealer Morteza Zaahedi, who, with his wife, Sarvenaz Farsian, operates Gallery Outside Inn in Tehran, the first-ever venue in Iran specialising in the work of self-taught artists, told Raw Vision, “Koochaki’s son-in-law, Ali Zakeri, a painter, was the first to discover the older artist’s talent. He introduced me to Koochaki nine years ago. At that time, I was writing articles for a weekly art publication.”
Prior to that time, before Zaahedi had opened his gallery and began representing Koochaki, Zakeri had organised some showings of the artist’s work at such other venues in Tehran as 7 Samar Art Gallery, Dey Gallery, the Saba Cultural and Art Institute, and the Iranian Artists’ Forum. Zaahedi recalled that, after viewing photos of Koochaki’s drawings on Zakeri’s computer, he eagerly accepted an invitation to meet the artist and view his work in person. Thereafter, Zaahedi became his official dealer and representative; later Zaahedi and Farsian opened their gallery.
Zaahedi’s postings on Facebook of photos of Koochaki’s creations, with their highly original imagery, attracted the attention of art dealers outside Iran. Separately, in 2010, Nico van der Endt, the founder of Hamer Gallery in Amsterdam, learned about Koochaki’s work from an Iranian filmmaker who had been following the activities of self-taught artists and street artists in Iran. Through her, he obtained a batch of Koochaki’s drawings, and in 2012, his gallery presented its first exhibition of the artist’s works. In time, Galerie Polysémie, in Marseille; Christian Berst Art Brut, in Paris; Cavin-Morris Gallery, in New York; and the private dealer Henry Boxer, in London, also showed Koochaki’s work.
The exposure Koochaki’s art gained outside Iran and the acclaim it won from foreign sources sparked interest in his work back in his homeland. Zaahedi said, “Buyers in Iran became more and more interested in Koochaki’s works. During the last three years of his life, he actually enjoyed the meaning of fame and financial success to some extent. Koochaki was a great man, a great artist, and I'm sure he will be appreciated more in the future.”
Today, Koochaki’s drawings can be found among the holdings of such museums as the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, and among those of such privately owned, publicly displayed collections as the Museum of Everything (London) and abcd/Art Brut Collection Bruno Decharme (Paris).
Pointing to some of his drawings, whose enigmatic subjects conceal and teasingly reveal elusive figures within their own looming forms, Koochaki once quipped, “I try to draw perfectly, but this is what comes out!” For all their mysterious subject matter, the artist’s unusual images also express an exuberant sense of joy in their own creation.
Davood Koochaki is survived by his wife, Zahra Hoseinzadeh, and their five adult children, and by his extended family.
by Edward M Gómez