Sohrab Mahdavi, co- founder of the bilingual magazine TehranAvenue.com, presented this essay at the symposium Iran: Art and Discourse, held at Asia Society on October 26th and cohosted by the Center for Global Communication Studies.
I recently translated a rather long interview with Bahman Mohassess — some of whose paintings and sculptures can be seen in the Iran Modern exhibit. The interview went back to 1963, which happens to be my date of birth. It pained me to see how much of the anxieties of Iranian artists then are part of the existential universe of our artists today. Iranian artists have to assume and endlessly defend a collective identity in whose construction they have not had much say. “What is Iranian art” is asked with such frequency that we seldom question why should there be a “made in Iran” tag attached to everything that we do. That this question is still part of our conceptual cosmology in this supposedly globalized world of ours is indicative of a profound discord in the fabric of our lives as people from darker part of the world.
Two weeks ago (7 October 2013), the New York Times ran a story[i] on the unveiling of a massive 14 bronze sculpture set outside a women and children’s medical center in Qatar. The sculptures called The Miraculous Journey were by Damien Hirst, shown in tandem with a retrospective of his works. Early in the article I came across this matter-of-fact passage: “Even for a Persian Gulf country that is aggressively buying its way into modernity, this installation takes official acceptance of Western art to a new level.” I wasn’t sure what the writer meant by acceptance of Western Art but the next sentence was hard for me to chew: “Local women still adhere to centuries-old Islamic traditions, wearing the abaya… and niqab… images of women are routinely censored in books and magazines. Even the representation of the human form is unusual.” What’s more, in the next paragraph we learn that the commissioner of Mr. Hirst’s work and director of the Museum Authority of Qatar is Sheikha al Mayassa — a headscarfed woman. But the fact that editors of the Times did not see this as a glaring contradiction is telling.
Photo Credit: AFP /QMA & SCIENCE LTD http://www.aquila-style.com/focus-points/qatar-unveils-hirsts-miraculous-journey-statues/
Here, on the sidelines of Iran Modern, we can afford to be a little more playful and biting with our criticism. The subtext of the NY Times’ writer’s casual remark is plain and simple to any person coming from my part of the world: No matter how much money we flash, we ain’t Modern. In fact, no matter how deep we dig, how much talent we swish-swish-swish, how much money we clink-clink-clink, how loud we wah-wah-wah, the driver on the bus will tell us to move on back. We will have been forever denied equal citizenship in the Modern.
It is through my own evolutionary consciousness as an Iranian who fled the violence of revolution and war in the early eighties that I have come to the realization that the North Atlantic[ii] has incessantly, through an elaborate apparatus of persuasion, made sure we, the non-Atlantic, understand who owns the modern. It is not us. Our artists may be exceptionally talented like the mouse in the animated Ratatouille, cooking palatable dishes, but we ultimately belong — we are reminded at every turn — to a lesser colony.
People of darker nations are posited as traditional, meaning that they are driven by a set of prefabricated motives and motifs. Their art is an instinctual, fear-ridden reaction to their destiny-driven surroundings. But for our book gilders, poets, rug designers, tile makers, and architects of the past, art was of the fabric of the sacred. Art was essential to us, because it was a way to connect to the divine, to give form to anxieties that we all share as human beings, and to appreciate our existence on this earth. Being divine did not necessarily mean that art was aloof from our lives; it was part of its very fabric. Our craft was a rite to summon spirits, to heal wounds, to bring peace & insight, to blind & to incite, in short to move, to shake, and to calm. “Yet,” warns scholar M. Jacqui Alexander, “it is not only that (post) colonial secularism renders the sacred as tradition, but it is also that tradition understood as an extreme alterity, is always made to reside elsewhere and denied entry into the modern.”
We have been and we keep on believing our genetic incapacity to be counted as “one of ‘em”. As such, in the words of my older sister, Xicana writer and teacher, Cherie Moraga, “for us there is no postmodern & postcolonial — in the literal sense of those words — for we remain so colonized from within and without,… We continue to do the White Man’s bidding. Not all of us, no. But all of us have to struggle against a profound internalized colonialism.”
When I first came across this passage in Cherie’s A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness I was shaken. I was once again reminded of my own incessant search for an identity as a person coming from a darker nation. This search started at precisely the moment I felt inadequate as a human being, as Iranian, as a culture. My heart cringes at the level of self-loathing my sisters and brothers are saddled with. In the words of my compadre artist Jinoos Taghizadeh, we feel we are carrying a dead body inside us. We don’t know what to do with it. As members of the middle class, our culture, our pueblo, our politicos, our air, our flair, our cities, our deities, our past, our caste, our days and our ways, everything about us may at any turn elicit the strongest bouts of convulsion.
As a result, we aren’t sure who our audience is. We aren’t sure who to address. We have rejected as traditional those with whom we share the land. We may for a while carry the illusion that the North Atlantic will open its coasts to receive us, lend us its caring ears, reveal something about ourselves that we failed to grasp; all this provided that we try hard enough, act proper, have faith in, and follow the mandates of the Modern. But our optimism doesn’t last too long. In fact, we feel marooned on a small boat in the Atlantic with a tiger that we think is nothing but a blind bundle of instinctual twitches of raw nerves.
My middle class compañero and compañera artists are mortified by the label “traditional” because they think it points to something dead, frozen, and incapable of being resuscitated. It is ironic that to be counted as artists we nevertheless have to objectify elements from our own culture, dead as they may be, to uphold our identity. The dead of tradition is contrasted, of course, to the living modern. To be modern means to be current. Modern has no identity because it is a current and you can’t step into it twice. This means my brothers and sisters are put in a position of detesting their belonging to an outdated and dead culture. We must ultimately reject our own pueblo. At all cost, we try to avoid being called traditional at the same time that we deeply suspect we cannot not be what we are. For the past 200 years the allegorical battle between modernity and tradition has continued to consume our creative impulse.
Despite this massive confusion as to the nature of our identity, Iranian artists are trying hard to get across, to address their pueblo, to communicate with the tiger. This is a tendency that has assumed new proportions in Iran with the 2009 presidential election turmoil and the birth of the Green Movement.
It was at this juncture that my middle class compadres started to believe in their power to change things and to see the country as also theirs. The fact that they were beaten, imprisoned and raped only strengthened their commitment to activism by words and deeds. The post election was a time for middle class artists to confront their shared pains. We had to come face to face with the self-loathing that has come to characterize and define our socio-political landscape.
In Sacrificial Lamb or How to Slaughter 300 Cows in One Day, and only months into the initial post election protests, Siamak Filizadeh brings a pool filled with blood to the gallery with life-size photographs of slaughtered cows and variously dressed china cows.
Photograph: Jinoos Taghizadeh/Aaran Gallery http://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2009/mar/02/iran-islam
On the 30th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution in 2009, in Rock, Paper, Scissors, Jinoos Taghizadeh hangs copies of early revolutionary newspapers promising the release of all political prisoners while replacing their photographs with images that change before your eyes as you move away from them, in this way showing the capricious nature of changing reality. In the same exhibit, the artist hangs images of her childhood with a caption announcing the person in the photograph to have been lost with the revolutionary moment.
In Come Caress Me, Amir Mobed becomes a living target of pellets fired from an air gun that is consecutively held by numerous spectators.
Photo Credit: http://www.ibraaz.org/essays/72 Come caress me, 2010.
Performance documentation, Azad Gallery, Tehran. Courtesy of the artist.
Photographer Mehraneh Atashi is told by her interrogator in prison that she should only take pictures of flowers. She heeds the advice and more than 70 artists join her in honoring it. Though the multi-gallery exhibit planned for Gol never materialized due to security concerns, the accompanying book that was never published is a monument to the desire of Iranian artists to connect and enter into conversation with their community. This is in large part due to a scar left on their bodies that they can only call their own. They need to nurse and tender the wound.
In Self-Service Neda Razavipour invites gallery visitors to cut a piece of hand-woven rug, this ancient allegorical garden found in every Iranian house, to take it home in a paper bag on which a section of Plato’s Republic appears “…The story is, that Leontius, the son of Galion, coming up one day from the Piraeus, under the north wall on the outside, observed some dead bodies lying on the ground at the place of execution. He felt a desire to see them, and also a dread and abhorrence of them; for a time he struggled and covered his eyes, but at length the desire got the better of him; and forcing them open, he ran up to the dead bodies, saying, Look, ye wretches, take your fill of the fair sight….”
Self-Service is a set-up — a happening, as the artist calls it — for us to have a more intimate look at our role in maintaining a regime of atomized destruction. To not see our non-proprietary common heritage, our ancestral wisdom embodied in enduring works of art, our historic desire to be agents of our liberation and salubrity, is to take part in its destruction. The few, rich exhibits that I mentioned took place in the wake of the 2009 election turmoil and the profound humiliation that middle class Iranians felt. All of them, in varying degrees, are attempts to confront pain, bloodshed, injustice, and above all failure of a people to realize their objectives.
They can also be seen as a coming to terms with a queer identity that cannot fix its mode of expression in a monolithic monoculture. In fact, it is through queer literature and through great teachers like Cherie Moraga that I was personally able to trace a course out of the mental colonization (modern vs traditional, male vs female, Iranian vs Arab, Caucasian vs Other) that so strongly colors my perception and channels my ways of knowing. Queer shows me how to be free of conceptual shackles of identity. And this is also where powerful works of art by my artist compadres can throw light.
Bita Fayyazi’s current exhibit at Khak Gallery in Tehran — called Trunkated — is a beacon on how to rebuild our gone-to-pieces-bodies, how to embrace our queer identities, how to be trans-identified, how to accept our inadequacies, our truncated positioning. The search for identity can now be brought home to us in the form of an emptiness: the Heart Sutra emptiness of from which can nevertheless lead to infinite formal variations without being exhausted by any. Trunkated is an invitation to all of us who feel inadequate as human beings to regain and retain our sovereignty, because to come to terms with our inadequacies, our pains, our fragility as human beings is tremendously liberating and rewarding, and it is how we can see our interconnectivity.
[i] Carol Vogel, “Art, From Conception to Birth in Qatar: Damien Hirst’s Anatomical Sculptures Have Their Debut,” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/08/arts/design/damien-hirsts-anatomical-sculptures-have-their-debut.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 accessed 9 October 2013
[ii] I came across this coinage in Vijay Prashat’s daring and caring The Poorer Nations. Prashat sets the Atlantic Project against the Third World Project.