Mohammad Barrangi’s beguiling new exhibition, currently on display at Leeds’ Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, draws the viewer in with images of transportation and transformation, charming them with still deeper richness the further into its story they venture.  

Unfolding the tale of Lily, who leaves her mother in Anzali in Iran to make her passage to the south of England, One Night, One Dream, Life In The Lighthouse parallels Barrangi’s own biography. A former Paralympic sprinter, born without the use of his left arm, he sought asylum on these shores seven years ago, finding a first welcoming berth in Wakefield. There he joined a residency programme in the town’s Art House, before going on to study at the Royal Drawing School in Shoreditch.  

Mohammad Barrangi, ‘The Smell of a Woman’s Shirt’, mixed media on paper ©The artist, 2023

One Night itself was born out of a further residency at the University of Leeds’ Special Collections, its titular lighthouse rising from the designs of Leeds-born John Smeaton, credited with coining the term ‘civil engineering’, whose tercentenary it is this year. Almost like a Jungian archetype, Barrangi’s lighthouse stands simultaneously for many things; a port in a storm, a homing beacon for the homeless, the fire that goes before the traveller in the darkness.  

Such multiplicity, perhaps, is one of the keys to unlocking Barrangi’s technique; the loosening of conscious association that comes with the descent into sleep and its subsequent ascent into dreaming, an unmooring of constituent parts that permits a relayering on return to the waking world. Dreaming, after all, is itself an internal migration, a journey from the everyday into another realm, one in which the unfamiliar interleaves with the familiar like a palimpsest of the real and the imaginary. Within the rapid  blinking of the dreamer’s eye, a figure with missing hands is no more remarkable and exactly as fabulous as Barrangi’s totemic zebra-unicorn.  

Viewed in the light of day, the parts that make up the exhibition’s whole function like the souvenirs which the one-time staple of lunchtime children’s television, Mr Benn, would bring back from his adventures, as physical proofs plucked into tangibility from the ephemerality of the dreamworld. In keeping with a dream’s porous borders, Barrangi’s works cleave to no single tradition. The mounting of Haft Peykar, for instance, sets its iridescent turquoise against a wall of saffron yellow, echoing the rich palettes of both Indian and Persian art.  

19th century hand-embroidered and stitched silk jacket © University of Leeds International Textile Collection

Its centrepiece is the Minbar, the pulpit from a mosque, which is both a near-morphological double of the lighthouse and its symbolic equivalent. Its gated doors ajar, its steps invite the viewer upward. Surrounded by a ball pool moat, a creative solution to a veto on water in the gallery space, it’s a place in which Barrangi’s heroine might herself find rest. As though to gently emphasise this, the separate works in One Night seem to sing to one another with a lullaby cadence, whether through recurrent motifs, such as the image of the mermaid Lily, which surfaces in more than one work, or the looped repetition of her mother’s song, originating from Barrangi’s own home town, Rasht. The cumulative effect has all the comforting reassurance of a bedtime story; that crossings will be safe, that night will pass into day. Certainly, in its empathy and inclusivity, it offers a more hopeful fable than the cruel narrative of the current government’s theatre of performative cruelty, itself a cover story to distract from the slow genocide of austerity. 

Though no longer a Paralympian, Barrangi continues to run, finding in the discipline the space to think, to dream; forging upward and forward, beyond the fiction of borders, reminding us in the process that we are all migrants. 

By Desmond Bullen

Main image: Mohammad Barrangi, ‘The Smell of a Woman’s Shirt’, mixed media on paper © The artist, 2023


Mohammad Barrangi: One Night, One Dream, Life In The Lighthouse is at The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery in Leeds until July 20, 2024. For more information, click here.