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Fleeing Iran for Artistic Freedom

Aby Dadashi chooses Canada over a country that lashes its artists

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TORONTO, Canada — Just 24 hours after fleeing Iran for Canada, Aby Dadashi has a rising fever on his first night in the city. His two children are with him. He is panicking about how he will make a living, and so he takes solace by doing the one thing that brings him joy — painting.

Twelve hours and one painting later, Dadashi leaves his $20-a-night motel. He sets off on foot on a 10-mile trek toward downtown Toronto, clutching the results of his all-nighter: a painting of a horse.

In the early afternoon of that blisteringly hot July day in 1988, Dadashi stumbles across an Italian art gallery. He decides to try to sell the painting to the owner. "As soon as I walked in, I showed him my work. He didn't believe it was my work so he touched it ... then he saw it was wet and his fingerprint[s] were on the painting."

The gallery owner bought the painting for $100 and asked Dadashi for more. "I said every day I can bring one of them ... he was so happy."

Twenty-two years later, Dadashi sits proudly in one of his own galleries. Paintings, sculptures, chandeliers, chess and tea sets and other trinkets are scattered around the showroom. No one style of art dominates. There are Roman busts, Egyptian statuettes, Chinese vases, Persian rugs and paintings of everything from ballerinas to landscapes. In the corner, Dadashi has set up a makeshift studio where he can paint during the day while customers peruse the gallery.

But there was a time when Dadashi couldn't paint and exhibit his work so freely. There was a time when he was persecuted for painting what would seem tame to North Americans. "If you put this one in Tehran ... oh, my gosh," said Dadashi, pointing to a painting of a group of ballerinas. "They'd take hold of your family."

Six months before he fled his native Iran, Dadashi was sitting in his brother's Tehran art gallery when a woman wearing a chador entered with two escorts. She said nothing to Dadashi, but pointed to more than 10 paintings on the wall. "The next day, [government police] come. Twenty-four [paintings] they take down ... you can't do nothing."

Dadashi never saw the paintings again. He remembers the event vividly and believes the woman was the wife or daughter of a politician who chose the paintings for a particular reason. "They put them in their house ... believe it or not," he said.

Dadashi can laugh about it now; he's free to paint what he wants. He's immensely proud of his work, so it takes him a while to choose his favorite from the hundreds he has created over the years.

"I like to paint ballerinas ... I don't know why," he says, staring at the painting that rests on the floor beside the entrance.

At the back of the gallery, Dadashi points to a painting of a woman and her mother knotting a Persian rug. The characters in the portrait make several appearances in his gallery because the Dadashis have been supporting the Jeffry family for more than 40 years.

"The mother is teaching the daughter, but the daughter isn't happy because she wants to go to school," he says.

After going through many of the works upstairs, Dadashi scurries down a narrow staircase into the basement. There's a treasure trove of paintings and antiques and another makeshift studio where Dadashi sometimes comes to paint, depending on his mood. He walks to a back corner and points to a painting of a semi-nude woman. He quickly remarks on how this would never be allowed in Iran, and would most likely result in a jail sentence. But he justifies his actions.

"Sometimes you feel you have to paint this," he says, pointing at the woman's bare breasts. "It's a painting ... it's nothing."

Dadashi the artist very much values the creative freedom he now has. "Artists in Canada don't know how fortunate they are," he says.

Dadashi's life revolves around his art, which, in turn, revolves around his mood. If his body tells him he needs to sculpt, he sculpts. If it tells him to paint, he pulls out a canvas and a brush. His daily routine, to an average person, might seem overwhelming, but art for Dadashi is an escape.

"I wake up before the sun. I paint until 11 o'clock, and then I come in the store," he says. Dadashi paints in the store, too, upstairs and downstairs. But it is at home where he's most uninhibited, most free, and most at peace.

Even though he's come a long way from that sweaty July morning in 1988, there is one thing that Dadashi still doesn't have in Canada. Fame. He left that behind in Iran; his family's name is widely known and respected among art lovers there. But that hasn't prevented them from being extraordinarily punished for painting what they desire.

"One of my brothers, they put [him] in jail and [gave him] 75 slashes because he painted one woman. Nothing sexy, semi-nude or nude."

That, to Dadashi, is not a price he's willing to pay for fame and money. Freedom to paint, for him, is a better measure of wealth.

"Wherever you're free, you feel comfortable. How many years [do] we live? We have to enjoy living," Dadashi concludes.